Routines help us set a rhythm for our lives and we can tailor them to our sensory profiles.
Routines help us set a rhythm for everything going on in our lives and play a significant role in what we do and how we feel. The same can be said about our unique sensory processing systems.
Throughout our days, our brains register, filter, organize and assign meaning to all the information that comes through our eight senses. Collectively, our senses connect us to our outer and inner worlds and are vital to our health and human growth. Sensory opportunities can boost and support a person's strengths or restrict their functioning and impact their well-being negatively.
For many neurodivergent people — particularly, but not exclusively, for those who are Autistic and ADHD — our sensory differences reside in our processing system. During sensory processing, information can overwhelm our system if too much or too little of it comes through, resulting in a different perception than that of neurotypical people.
Brains register, manage and interpret sensory information based on certain thresholds that inform the specific ways people respond to sensory experiences in their everyday lives. These patterns create your sensory profile and are related to the speed at which the brain notices sensory input and how people tend to react to it in order to try and make themselves satisfied and comfortable in response. Identifying our sensory processing patterns in everyday life activities allows us to evaluate ourselves, discover how these can affect our actions and well-being in different settings and what we can do to regulate our nervous systems.
When it comes to regulating our responses to sensory input, we have some control over it, both actively and passively. People who practice active self-regulation take steps to limit the amount and type of sensory information they are exposed to, such as leaving a noisy room or humming to add sound to a mundane activity. Contrastingly, passive self-regulation involves registering the sensory input and then reacting to it, like being annoyed by the loudness of the room or being completely unaware the volume is up.
These thresholds operate on a continuum, not just as high or low points, and each person has a specific threshold range for each type of sensory information. If the threshold is too low, then the brain detects sensory stimuli very quickly, whereas if the threshold is too high, more sensory input is needed for the brain to pick up what’s going on.
People respond to sensory experiences in four basic ways depending on how their neurological threshold processing and self-regulating actions interact with one another, proposed by The Dunn's Model of Sensory Processing:
Sensory seekers present a high threshold and active self-regulation strategy; they love sensations, so they create as much sensory information to fulfill that need. This may look like moving their legs up and down, getting up a lot during times they are expected to remain seated, hum, or sing while doing an activity that it's predictable and mundane, or might need background noise to focus.
Sensory avoiders have low thresholds and an active self-regulation strategy; they want to be in charge of how much sensory information they get. Avoiders want to control the amount of sensory input they receive. New experiences create a sense of unfamiliarity that can fill them with anxiety and discomfort.
Sensors have low thresholds and a passive self-regulating strategy; they notice almost every sensory information around them. They have very delimited ideas of what loudness, brightness, and softness are right for them. They can perceive tiny changes in the environment and people as their brains register every type of sensory information that comes through their senses.
Bystanders have high thresholds and a passive self-regulating strategy; they need more sensory information than others to pay attention. They can be very unaware of their surroundings and need a more intense sensory input to notice what's happening in the environment and reach an appropriate level of alertness. They benefit from increasing and changing sensory information to provide enough data for their brains to process it.
It’s important to remember no one has solely one type of sensory profile, as your sensory profile is made up of all of your different sensory patterns. You may find that most of your sensory processing needs fall into one of these categories, but it doesn’t mean you can’t experience the other ones when it comes to different sensations.
You can make small changes to your routine that are more aligned with your sensory profile that will help meet your sensory needs without throwing your system off daily.
Seekers, for example, thrive when they can jump from one thing to another, especially in day-to-day activities like getting ready because they work best when they receive sensory stimuli from different places. As a result, they may find themselves multitasking during sensory simpler tasks to keep sensory information coming and keep them focused on the task at hand. Seekers can benefit from loud and bright places, singing or dancing while getting ready, using house-cleaning products with intense aromas, trying new products, leaving clothing in separate locations for more opportunities to move around, and changing up their routines reasonably regularly.
Sensory avoiders, in contrast, are very consistent in their life management. They do their best to develop strategies to reduce sensory input and work to avoid it by doing the same thing repeatedly. They tend to be well organized; they save time getting dressed by keeping their clothes in the same spot every day; they wake up at the same time, leave and return home at the same time, and eat at the same time every day. They are very loyal to different products as they meet their specific and complex needs and will have a preferred store, meal, brand of clothes that remains consistent throughout their days. Sensory avoiders may also benefit from allowing extra time to get ready so they don’t have to rush and become overwhelmed, plan ahead of time and keep sensory input such as light or sounds to the minimum when getting ready in the morning.
Sensors are susceptible to whatever's happening around them, can hear things that others ignore, may be perceived as picky eaters because they are capable of detecting even the most minor changes in food (such as textures, temperatures, and flavors), and need to spend a lot of time choosing their clothing and sound to make sure the correct type of sensation is getting to them. Sensors tend to be very detail-oriented, so they are likely to prefer control over their workspace in terms of lighting, seating, and clothing; they may need more time to work on more laborious tasks and benefit from planned and well-organized activities.
Sensory bystanders miss sensory information around them. Their brain requires higher intensity input, and not all sensory experiences in daily life are intense enough for them to register, so they may find it helpful to take notes and check in with others to ensure they have all the information they need. They are also not bothered by any last-minute plans or changes in their schedule; may leave the house missing a lot of items or lose things often; miss errands on their to-do list and lose track of time. Sensory bystanders therefore benefit from written instructions, visual aids, and reminders to get their attention.
Knowing your unique sensory profile based on your sensory patterns helps you learn more about your brain's automatic sensory regulation responses to help you process information more comfortably. And this knowledge can help you tailor a routine that has an overall positive impact on your wellbeing - one that is attentive to your unique sensory profile!
Agustina is the voice behind @theautisticlife, a space where she shares resources about living life as a Neurodivergent human. You can find more of Agustina's content via theautistic.life, @theautisticlife on Instagram or on Patreon.