Sensory Modulation – What does it mean?

Perhaps you are reading an occupational therapy evaluation or maybe an article on the internet, and you are wondering what is sensory modulation?  

Sensory modulation is the ability of the brain to interpret sensory input and form an appropriate behavioral and motor response.

The definition of sensory modulation has been described by researchers as the following:

Sensory modulation is considered a twofold process. It originates in the central nervous system as the neurological ability to regulate and process sensory stimuli; this subsequently offers the individual an opportunity to respond behaviourally to the stimulus“. 

Brown, A., Tse, T., & Fortune, T. (2018). Defining sensory modulation: A review of the concept and a contemporary definition for application by occupational therapists. Scandinavian journal of occupational therapy.

In simpler terms, sensory modulation is the ability of the brain to interpret sensory input and form a response that results in maintaining the body at an appropriate level of alertness.

Why is sensory modulation important?

Our bodies and brains need to be able to filter out important sensory information and ignore irrelevant sensory information in order to formulate an adaptive response. By interpreting sensory information properly, we are able to keep the body in a ready state. 

When sensory information is not organized correctly by the brain and body, individuals may overreact to sensory stimulation (ie motion sickness), underreact to sensations (ie always moving), or fluctuate between the two (sluggy or moving nonstop).

What Is Sensory Modulation Disorder?

Sensory modulation disorder can be present when individuals frequently demonstrate exaggerated behaviors or inappropriate responses to basic sensory input. These responses do not match what you would typically see based on the environmental demands or expectations. 

There can be many different responses and unusual behaviors in individuals with sensory modulation disorder. For example, one person may be over-responsive to sensory stimuli and bright lights may be extremely unpleasant causing an extreme avoidance reaction when they walk into a room. Someone else may be under-responsive to vestibular stimulation and will seek out an increased intensity of that type of movement wanting to spin and spin on a swing for hours. 

Another example might be over-responsiveness (low threshold) to tactile stimulation and a child finds wearing socks to be painful. This can result in increased stress levels making it hard to focus on learning if they can not stop thinking about their socks.

Sometimes sensory defensiveness can be so extreme that it can cause a flight or fight response by the autonomic nervous system.

Research has indicated that sensory modulation disorder symptoms, can negatively affect developmental and functional abilities limiting a child’s participation in school, leisure activities, socializing, and more! 

What Interventions are Helpful?

Occupational therapists can provide insight regarding sensory integration to help your student or child. It is important to ask an occupational or physical therapist if you have questions about the most appropriate activities for a specific child.

During therapy sensory integration sessions, children with sensory processing disorder will practice being exposed to different environmental stimuli in a safe environment. They will work with the OT or PT to form an appropriate behavioral and motor skill response. 

Basic Suggestions to Help with Sensory Modulation

Here are a few basic suggestions to help children respond to incoming sensory stimuli throughout their school day.

  • It can be helpful for children to follow a consistent routine at first so they know what to expect. This makes it easier to formulate a response to sensory input. 
  • Provide children with verbal and visual reminders that a transition will soon occur so they are prepared to get their body ready to work.
  • If possible, provide choices of activities. Most children know if they feel like they need to move to be alert or if they need to sit and be focused.
  • Reduce excessive odors in the classroom (like perfumes or scented oils) that may make it difficult for a student to modulate their sensory reactivity.
  • Proprioceptive input (heavy work activities) can help all students to process sensory input. Try including motor skills such as jumping, wall push-ups, crawling, etc into the day to provide this type of input for your sensory seeking students.
  • Reduce distractibility from auditory input by providing a quiet environment at times throughout the day to reduce sensory processing difficulties.
  • Use self-regulation strategies such as checklists to help children get their bodies ready to learn.
  • Teach children about emotional regulation to help deepen their understanding of behavioral responses.
  • Provide opportunities for children to register and process meaningful sensory input to that child. For example, try to offer activities that challenge the child but not overwhelm him/her. 

Each time that the child is successful in forming appropriate responses to sensory input, he/she can build upon that for future or more challenging experiences.


Bar‐Shalita, T., Vatine, J. J., & Parush, S. (2008). Sensory modulation disorder: A risk factor for participation in daily life activities. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology50(12), 932-937. 

Case-Smith, Jane (2005). Occupational Therapy for Children Fifth Edition. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.

Resources to Help with Sensory Modulation Disorder

Too Slow, Just Right or Too Fast – Visual Supports for Self-Regulation digital document that includes 11 visual supports to help young children practice self-regulation skills.

As children develop motor skills and process sensory information they start to understand how their body can move slow, fast and all the speeds in between.  Over time, children begin to learn to self-regulate and determine their “just right” body state that is ready to learn.  Therapists, teachers, and parents can help children practice self-regulation skills with these 10 visual supports.

Use the visual supports to have children practice moving at different speeds to determine their “just right” state.  If children have trouble processing sensory information, you can use the visual supports for them to respond and reflect on their current level of arousal. FIND OUT MORE HERE.

Created by a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant, this Self Regulation Triggers and Calming Tools Resource is ready to go to help your students succeed. It is an emotion and self regulation, self control resource which can be used to support your SEL, PBIS and ZONEs of Regulation™ lessons.

It includes pictures, activities and worksheets that can be used to teach about triggers, unexpected & expected behavior as well as, calming strategies and tools.  These are important for all students to be successful in school and life. FIND OUT MORE.