Headstart for Life

How does your child’s sensory processing affect his social skills?

Posted on Monday, November 6, 2017 by 2 minutes

Thanks again for staying tuned to the HeadStart for Life blog, Beyond Therapy! I hope you enjoyed reading my previous article about role play and also had fun with those games. This time I would like to give you some activity ideas from a social skills development angle that are based from the perspective of sensory processing.

Sensory processing

On a day-to-day basis, we use sensations (vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to survive, to learn and to function smoothly. Apart from these vital senses, a fundamental sensory systems have been suggested by an occupational therapist, Dr A. Jean Ayres, that includes tactile (sense of the surface of our skin in response to the object in the environment), vestibular (our head and body position in relation to the surface of the earth, namely balance and movement), and proprioceptive (receives the information through our muscle and joints about where our body parts are). The neurological process of organising all the sensations for our use in everyday life is called sensory processing.

Photo credit: https://www.dealwithautism.com/sensory-integration-disorder-symptoms/

This is how sensory processing works: First, our brains receive sensory information from our bodies and surroundings. For instance, when we climb the stairs, the sensory information is “we are moving forward and upward”. After interpreting these messages, our brains are able to organise a purposeful response. Thus, we flex and extend our legs and alternate our feet (proprioceptive), maintain our balance (vestibular), slide our hand along the banister (tactile), and watch where we are going (visual). All these sensory information are synchronised by the brain and result in a smooth function in everyday life. We are most likely “just climb the stairs” without being aware that our brains and bodies are actually diligently making these adjustments.

Photo credit: http://www.therapies4kids.com/autism

From sensory processing to social skills

Having the ability to respond in an adaptive way to everyday sensations suggests that we can learn and function smoothly. We can learn to play with others, learn to communicate and interact with each other as these reciprocal and interactive connections are where we feel love and attachment. However, if one has a problem receiving the sensory information, adjusting the intensity or amount of the sensory information, he or she might appear to have difficulty in socialising. Imagine a child who does not like the sensations of touching and being touched, a simple social contact like a hug will potentially be a stressful situation for the child. Sharing space with others will be a challenge and these difficulties will definitely inhibit a child from interacting with others. Therefore, I believe that sometimes social skills can be an end-product of the sensory processing and the problem of sensory processing can lie underneath the ability of social skills.

Photo credit: https://eatingoffplastic.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/highly-sensitive-person-vs-sensory-processing-disorder/

Activity ideas

To improve sensory processing and social skills, I would like to share with you two activity ideas with the three fundamental sensory systems working together.

1. Touch Pantry

Photo credit: http://blogs.davita.com/kidney-diet-tips/beans-and-peas-in-your-kidney-diet/

Gentle reminder: this activity will be a little messy, but it is absolutely very FUN! But not to worry that much, because it is a dry mess and seeing your child really enjoy the whole activity will be worth the trouble to sweep up!

You will need some containers (eg. coffee can), dry food such as beans, rice, oatmeal, pasta, popcorn, nuts, foam letters and numbers, soft and small toys (eg. Koosh balls), foal jigsaw puzzle pieces, and tarp.

You can start setting up the game by spreading the tarp on the kitchen floor. Playing the game on the tarp will be easy for cleaning later. Fill cans about half full with one of the dry food, then bury little toys and foam letters in the food and your children are ready to play! You can ask them to sift their fingers through the food or stir it with a spoon, then look for the toys and letters. Alternatively, you can ask them to try to feel the toys and letters and identify the items (No peeking, please!). To make it really fun, they can even walk barefoot in the material and pick up objects with his toes!


2. Hot Dog Roll

Photo credit: https://www.amazon.com/Fun-World-5938-Kids-Costume/dp/B001CUPAUW

Is it too messy to play with the dry food? How about making a “hot dog” roll! You will need a sleeping bag, foam mat, sponge, and large paintbrush. Once you got all the materials ready, spread the sleeping bag on the floor or bed, then have your child lie tummy down. The child’s head should be off the mat.

Tell your child that you are going to make a hot dog and he is the sausage! Give him consistent, firm pressure, all over his body. Then, rub his or her arms, legs with the sponge (That can be the imaginary ketchup, mustard, or chopped onion!). Next, roll him gently in the sleeping bag toward another end. When he is done, pretend to eat this “giant” hot dog!

Have fun!

When the child can engage better with you given the sensation and movement in the game, you are not only working on his sensory processing, but you have secretly facilitated his social skills! I hope you try these activities out and have fun with your children!



Kranowitz, C.S. (2006). The out-of-sync child has fun. New York, Perigee.

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Freya

Freya has been working with children with special needs for four years and has a strong interest in Social Skills Training. In her time with children, she believes that “Understanding the child’s ability is the key”. She is grateful for the opportunities to grow and learn together with all the children she has met and also to be their companion.

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