By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 17

Let’s talk about mixed thresholds. When I talk about thresholds, I’m referring to the threshold or bar or level that a certain sensory input needs to reach before it’s noticed or recognized by the brain.

A person with a low sensory threshold typically notices sensory input at a higher, more intense rate than someone with a high sensory threshold. 

Just to make things sound a little less science-y, I like to talk about thresholds like cups, and how much liquid it could hold. So you’ll hear me talk about a sensory cup being small (which is like having a low threshold), which is our sensory sensitive kids.

And you’ll also hear me talk about a large sensory cup (which is like having a high threshold), which is our sensory seekers OR our sensory under responders (remember, there’s a difference between these 2 large threshold kids). If you want an in depth review on each sensory profile, head back to episodes 6 & 7

Difference between sensory seeking and self regulation

One thing I DO want to clarify as there is some confusion usually when we talk about sensory seekers. Just because your child enjoys, likes, or feels regulated by a certain sensory input, it doesn’t make them a sensory seeker.

So I’ll repeat that again. Just because your child enjoys, likes, or feels regulated by a certain sensory input, it doesn’t make them a sensory seeker. 

For example, I like the feeling of my weighted blanket. It helps me feel calm, zen, cozy, etc. But I’m not a sensory seeker- that’s just one of my self regulation tools. 

A sensory seeker is someone who will constantly be looking and finding ways to get a certain sensory input, and seek out intense levels of it (like a kid who spins and spins and spins without feeling dizzy, or a kid who would jump into the sensory bin if they could and never come out). 

So, if you have a sensory sensitive kid with a low threshold who dislikes loud sounds and toilets flushing, but loves playing in the sand at the playground and enjoys finger painting… that doesn’t make them a mixed threshold child, it just makes them a sensory sensitive child who is regulated by some touch input. 

But today I want to talk about what it looks like when someone has different sized sensory cups.

There are a couple different ways a person could have mixed thresholds.

Mixed threshold within the same sensory domain

For one, you could have an individual who has mixed thresholds (different sensory cup sizes) within the same sensory domain.

So, lets say your child is hypersensitive or has a low tolerance (low threshold) for messy play.

They don’t like playing with playdough, sand, finger paint, anything that gets their hands wet or sticky, they try to avoid or maybe have a meltdown around.

Liliana tactile sensitive to messy play.

But also, this same child maybe loves and even seeks out (or has a high threshold) cuddles with you, or they really love the feel of a certain fabric or blanket. All of these sensations (the water, playdough, sand, cuddling) is all activating the tactile (touch) sense. And a child can seek out some kinds of touch while being hyper sensitive to other kinds of touch. 

This happens also with movement. Sometimes a kid can be super sensitive to spinning, but seek out a lot of fast swinging and running. 

Mixed threshold across different domains

Another common mixed threshold presentation is when a child is a sensory seeker for one sensory input (like movement) but is sensitive to another kind of sensory input (like sound or touch). 

This one is actually pretty common.

For example, you could have a child who is extremely sensitive to sounds. Maybe they hate the sound of the toilet flushing or they get overwhelmed in busy environments like schools or birthday parties, and tend to shut down or melt down with too much auditory input, but then they are constantly moving and jumping and swinging and spinning around, seeking more and more movement in their environments. 

Or maybe you have a kid who is an extremely picky eater, is sensitive to textures, temperatures, tastes and smells of foods and getting them to eat anything but goldfish is a huge task. But this same child is always chewing on their sleeves, crashing into other kids, jumping off high surfaces and is more of a rough and tumble kind of kid. They are a proprioceptive seeker who is sensory sensitive to tactile input and smell input. 

So you really could have a different sized sensory cup for each one of the sensory domains. 

We all have Sensory Quirks

But again, remember, just because something regulates your child, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily a seeker. 

And also vice versa, just because your child dislikes something, it doesn’t mean they’re sensory sensitive or an avoider. 

Remember at the end of it all, we all have some sort of sensory quirk. We have sensory inputs we love, some we don’t love, and some we don’t even really care about or think about much. 

But only when you start seeking out certain inputs to the point that it interferes with daily life and functioning, or when you start avoiding/being hyper sensitive to input to the point that it interferes with daily life and daily functioning does it need to be addressed as a sensory processing disorder. 

What does it mean when our kids have mixed thresholds?

It can be super confusing as parents, caregivers and even as therapists coming up with the proper support plan for children who have mixed thresholds.

And the thing to keep in mind is we really just need to keep paying attention and observing their behaviors (how they act in the world), notice any patterns that come of it and analyze their patterns of regulation and dysregulation to come up with the best plan of action. 

Because sensory drives behavior, and sensory drives emotion as well. Sensory, behavior and emotion are all really intertwined. If you think about it, when you experience the emotion of anger, you have bodily sensations (which is part of the interoception sense) like fast heart rate, increased body temperature, and it can cause your body to tense up, make a fist and maybe hit a pillow or stomp your feet, which is a behavior. 

So we can really tell a lot about our kids by their behavior. And no, it’s not always very clear or black and white, but there usually are some clues there, and that’s our best bet at supporting a child with mixed thresholds. 

Getting support for your child’s mixed thresholds

If you need help with coming up with the best support plan for your mixed threshold child, I’d love to help you.

Looking for more guidance on how you can support your child’s sensory needs? Let’s work together. I specialize in helping parents understand how sensory impacts behavior and how you can still use gentle parenting techniques for neurodivergent children.


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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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