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Sensory Challenges

Posted by Francis Whitehead on February 19, 2024

Text in centre reads Sensory Challenges, with symbols of an eye, a nose, a mouth, an ear and a pointing hand

It’s without a doubt that our senses, taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch, guide us throughout our life and are a fundamental part of living. For example, think of the taste of a lovely, warm bowl of soup on a rainy day, or the smell of freshly washed linen on a summer’s day. The sounds of birdsong in the morning, or the feel of your favourite blanket.

Did you know alongside the commonly recognised 5 senses, it is said that we actually have 8 senses? These additional senses are:

  • The vestibular system, which is in relation to our balance and orientation in a space. It is the leading system informing us about movement and position of head relative to gravity.
  • The proprioceptive system, which senses the position, location, orientation, and movement of the bodies muscles and joints.
  • The interoceptive system, which refers to internal sensations related to the physiological/physical condition of the body. Hunger, thirst and “butterflies” are examples of interoception.

But of course, with any kind of sensory input, it can be easy to become overwhelmed when you live with dementia, autism, and any other sensory processing disorder.


For example, in terms of autism, somebody on the spectrum can be hyper-sensitive, meaning they don’t need much sensory input and too much at the same time can be overstimulating. They also might find sensory input more intense and become avoidant of certain sensations, e.g., bright lights, certain textures, specific foods, etc.

Somebody on the spectrum can also by hypo-sensitive, meaning they may not acknowledge certain sounds, or sights, and may take more sensory input for it to register.

Think what you might be able to sense in daily life: the noise of a car engine, sunlight reflecting off a window, the smell of other people’s lunches in the cafeteria. These may be unnoticeable to most people, but for someone on the spectrum it can be too much information to process.

In order to cope with an overwhelming amount of sensory input, or to gain sensory input whenever required to keep their brains stimulated, someone with autism may do something called “stimming” to self-soothe. Most forms of stimming are repetitive movements or noises, usually to gain control over their environment and what information they are processing. This can include:

  • Hand and finger mannerisms, like finger-flicking and hand-flapping
  • Rocking the body back and forth while sitting or standing
  • Opening and closing doors or flicking switches
  • Listening to the same song or making the same noise repeatedly
  • Fidgeting

Fidgeting is an important one, as it’s tactile stimulation that’s required. Zips and buttons on clothes, loose skin or fabric, anything that’s on hand. Tactile and fidget toys can come in handy here.


For those living with Dementia, daily life in the outside world can also be a disorientating and confusing place to navigate.

Findings from Alzheimer Scotland show that because Dementia directly affects the brain and the way it processes information, it can create issues with sensory input. For example, with sight, anything that’s black in colour like a floor mat can be misinterpreted as a hole.

Sounds can seem overbearingly loud, and smells like burning can often appear out of nowhere (olfactory hallucinations).

In terms of touch and feel, there were also findings that people with dementia could not differentiate between hot and cold.

The Benefits of Sensory Exploration

In relation to sensory processing issues in those with dementia, there were academic findings that found multi-sensory stimulation with the use of sensory aids in controlled environments improved functional performance and mood in older people with dementia.

Sensory exploration is important for those with dementia as according to the findings, “Without carefully constructed environments and interactions that focus on their remaining skills they are likely to experience isolation, confusion, and sensory deprivation. Many of these problems can result in disorientated, confused behaviour”.

Just an hour or two devoted to sensory exploration a week has amazing benefits to a brain with dementia. For example, a stimulus reminiscence book featuring images from the 30’s to the 60’s can spark memories and activate conversation and discussion with those with dementia, giving them the opportunity to be fulfilled socially and stimulate memories.

Those with dementia may need something tactile to use to alleviate their anxiety, usually by playing with loose buttons on clothing. A Fiddle Muff is a fun, visually appealing sensory aid with dozens of tactile attachments to use.

Sensory Aids

For those with Autism and ADHD, stimming and fidgeting is fundamental for helping gain focus and attention on other sensory input, and also relieves anxiety.

A Sensory Starter Kit contains many different types of tactile sensory aids, including koosh balls and tangles to keep hands occupied.

And in younger children, a Rainmaker or Rainstick can be a worthwhile sensory aid, complete with satisfying trickling spheres and a relaxing sound akin to falling rain.

For those prone to overstimulation, Ear Muffs are invaluable as they block excess exterior noise and can help those with autism or sensory processing disorders focus on other tasks.

Get in Touch

We at Ability Superstore hope you keep these sensory aids mentioned above in mind if you know anyone in your life who could benefit from them. If you have any questions about the products mentioned above, please don't hesitate to ask. We will be more than happy to help!