Sensory Processing “Case Studies”

After my post about the very basics of the 4-quadrant sensory processing model, a lot of people asked me more questions about “sensory missers” (in specific) and just the “passive” side of the axis in general. I ended up writing a lot about it in the comments section and thought it was a helpful post of its own. It’s easier to instinctually imagine what sensory seeking and sensory avoiding look like, I think, than sensory missing and sensory sensitive.

A sensory sensitive person might be just as overwhelmed by some specific input as a sensory avoidant person, but where the sensory avoidant person’s body’s default is to actively do something to avoid, the sensory sensitive person might just shut down or melt down.

(Sensory avoidant people, and other types of processors, can also shut down and melt down, though, too…it can be kinda complicated!)

Let’s say there’s a particular classroom, and it has a sensory-sensitive kid, Sam, and a sensory-avoidant kid, Alex.
There’s a quiet background noise, a slightly rattly fan or something, in the classroom that bothers Sam and Alex both. (They may or may not be aware that the noise bothers them–depending on various factors, including how young they are)

Alex the avoider sits down to do their “quiet independent work time” but sings and hums quietly to themselves at their table. Their body just instinctually goes, “Hey, there’s a problematic noise. I know how to cover it up: I’ll make a noise I can control.”

Sam the sensitive sits down to do their “quiet independent work time” but their body goes into panicky mode because the noise is all-encompassing, they can’t think of anything but the noise…again, not necessarily in their level of consciousness and awareness, but their brain CAN’T focus on the work. They might sit there silently staring at the blank page (shut down). They might explode, scream, throw things (melt down). They might “elope”/run away (body going into flight mode). Or other things.

Both Alex and Sam might get reported to me as “behavior problems”–Alex is being a “disruption in class” by “singing even when they’re not supposed to”, and Sam might be “zoning out and not paying attention to work” or “eloping” or “melting down” or whatever else.

And both Sam and Alex just can’t handle the background noise. They both need a coping strategy that works for them.

(This is obviously an EXTREMELY simplified example, but hopefully it helps.)

Okay, so now sensory “missers”. They have a *high* tolerance for sensory input, just like sensory seekers do. But they also don’t necessarily behaviorally respond to it — they don’t go out seeking it.

In my experience, this kind of child often looks…content. They’re kind of taking it all in (except we know they’re actually missing some of it). They often might look very “floppy”–draping themselves on furniture, propping on their elbow on their desk, leaning on the wall as they walk, dragging their feet. Ironically for being sensory “missers”, if they’re struggling, that fact might also get “missed”.

Let’s take a hypothetical classroom with sensory-misser Max and sensory-seeker Sage.

Max and Sage are both expected to sit quietly with their hands in their lap and criss-cross-applesauce while the teacher instructs the whole group about something.

Max and Sage both have a HIGH tolerance for sensory input. Not only is it their “tolerance” but it’s their threshold that their brain needs to be able to attend to something — to be hooked, to be paying attention, to be “getting it”!

Neither Max nor Sage are getting anything out of the lecture because it doesn’t have any movement, it doesn’t have any visuals, and the audio happening at the moment is just the teacher droning on about whatever.

In an attempt to meet their needs, seeking-Sage starts wiggling around. Their body is no longer criss-cross-applesauce but kneeling, and then sticking a leg out, and then accidentally kicking another kid, and then whispering an apology, and then noticing a thread on the carpet, and then picking at it, and then noticing some marker on their hands, and then rubbing their hands together, and…

Meanwhile missing-Max’s brain is totally not engaged in what the teacher has been saying, because their sensory needs are going unmet, but their body is passive about it. They’ve just zoned out, or are daydreaming, or whatever; there aren’t many external clues to the fact that they’re not taking anything in. They might have their face generally pointed in the teacher’s direction and look like they have a “calm body” and “listening ears” or whatever. But they’re actually missing what’s being said.

Both Max and Sage might get reported to me. Sage is the “obvious” problem…they kicked a kid, they picked an inch and a half of the rug apart before anyone stopped them. And Max is not the obvious problem because Max was quiet, but Max can’t seem to get any of their work done because Max doesn’t have any clue what’s being asked of them when they go back to individual workstations because Max didn’t hear anything that was lectured on because Max’s needs weren’t being met either. So Max also might *not* get reported to me…they might just get seen as a child with a learning delay or whatever, when really their sensory systems just needed a little more engagement for them to be able to have enough sensory input to connect with what’s going on.