By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 57


So you have a sensory sensitive child who’s sensitive to seams of socks, mushy textured food, messy play, or toilets flushing. What should you do? 

Do you accommodate every environment and task for them so they can avoid the sensory triggers altogether? 

Does that make them spoiled? 

Should you force them to get used to it? 

Where do you draw the line? 

Listen to this episode to find out how I talk about accommodating vs. exposure. 

Prefer to read instead of listen? See the full transript below OR click here to view the companion blog post with the same information, in written form.

Re-Air: Accommodations vs. Exposure in Sensory kids
Speaker 1 (00:00):Eventually I realized it's just my way of helping her save room in her sensory cup for school. For a while I was like, no, you need to learn how to do this yourself. You're four, you can do this. I've seen you do it on the weekends. Why can't you do it...

Speaker 1 (00:00):Eventually I realized it’s just my way of helping her save room in her sensory cup for school. For a while I was like, no, you need to learn how to do this yourself. You’re four, you can do this. I’ve seen you do it on the weekends. Why can’t you do it today? But I realized that her dysregulation is so extreme on school days, that this is the one thing I can do that’s in my control at least to help her have a more manageable school day. Because once she’s there at school, I can’t control how loud other kids are. I can’t control the weather, I can’t control anything else. But what I can do is support her needs at home by making her day have less cognitive demand on her so that when she gets to school, she has more room to tolerate a lot of other things. Welcome to the Sensory Wise Solutions podcast for parents where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura OT and mom To Liliana, a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new OT mom. Bestie. I know my stuff, but I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Speaker 2 (01:13):Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s start the podcast. Speaker 1 (01:30):Hello everyone. Today I am going to be rate airing an episode that I did last year on a topic that is constantly relevant and comes up a lot when I talk about how to accommodate our neurodivergent, particularly sensory sensitive children. And this is the topic of knowing when you should accommodate versus spending time building skills or exposing them to certain things. So I’m going to be replaying an episode. This is episode 19. So keep in mind whatever particular scenario or story I’m telling about Liliana, this was a year ago, so just keep that in mind. But all of the concepts and information still applies. I did wanna let you know though, if you are hearing this the week of January 9th, all the way up until January 21st, then this is the perfect time to register for my free masterclass, free F r e e 3 99 <laugh>. You don’t have to pay for anything free masterclass where I will dive deeper on the topic of the balance between accommodation and exposure for your sensory sensitive kids and how you can apply the just right challenge appropriately. (02:43):The masterclass is going to be held via Zoom on Saturday, January 21st at 12:00 PM Pacific standard time. So noon Pacific standard time. But if you can’t make it live, the recording will be sent out only to those who register on my email list. So before you listen to this episode or right after, you can pause it, you can go to the show notes or just type into your browser, to claim your free spot. All right, enjoy the episode. Hey parents, welcome back. We are on episode 19 of the podcast and we are going to talk about something that is a common topic if you have a child who is sensory sensitive. So specifically for parents who have kids who have some sensory triggers that make them have meltdowns or avoid those sensory activities or inputs altogether. So let’s talk about the topic of avoidance versus exposure. (03:52):So I always like to clarify what I mean by certain definitions of words because depending on which professional you’re talking to or what book you’re reading, the definitions can differ a little bit. So in this episode, when I’m saying the word exposure, I know sometimes that hearing that word exposure can sound very clinical or you know, might think of obsessive compulsive disorder, or it might even make you feel a little icky. You’re forcefully exposing your child to something that they fear. You’re forcing it and putting it in their face, but that’s not exactly what I mean. What by exposure in this context of this episode, is offering your child opportunities to safely and comfortably be at least within the presence of one of their sensory triggers, but not pushing it to any specific level of exposure or intensity. You’re not waving a broccoli in front of their face or forcing it down their throat, but just simply not always shielding them from it. (04:58):I hope that makes sense. Hopefully it all makes sense as I talk more about it. But I wanted to clarify that right at the beginning, what I mean by the word exposure, cuz it can definitely mean something different based on what program or method you’re following. And like I said, which professional you’re speaking to. But for here, that’s what I’m meaning for this episode. But this is a topic that’s common because every once in a while, I’ll get the question from parents that have sensory sensitive kids. Let’s say things like, how do I know if I’m giving into my child too much? Or am I accommodating them too much so that they’ll never get used to socks or vegetables or whatever it is? Am I spoiling them? These are all questions that parents ask me that I get too, because I think about it all the time. (05:45):Am I accommodating my daughter’s needs to the point where this is at a detriment to her growth? And I get that, but I’m going to remind you of something that someone else reminded me when I was seeking help. You can’t spoil a kid with too many accommodations, especially if they’re neurodivergent kids. That just doesn’t exist. You’re simply responding to their needs. So I’m going to give you an example, and my go-to example usually has to do with messy play because this is a really easy one to talk out. They’re not all black and white like this, but this is one that’s also very common in young children. As one of the first signs of sensory sensitivities, and I noticed this with Liliana, one of her first signs of sensory issues was with not wanting to do Play-Doh or arts and crafts or getting her feet dirty, but also her hands. (06:41):So let’s say that your three-year-old starts to cry and wine, maybe even meltdown every time you try to do a finger painting activity with them. You know, see all those cute hand print Pinterest crafts and think like, oh, this is so cute, let’s try it. But whenever you pull out the paint and try to get your little ones like fingers and hands in there, they immediately cry and they try to wipe it on you or hit you or do something to get the paint off of them. Then if this behavior, remember that’s a behavior, sensory is behavior. That’s the theme for this month. When this behavior continues to happen around paint or around other arts and crafts activities, but just in the context of paint and art, then you as the parent might respond in one of two ways if this keeps happening. One, you might just completely stop offering finger painting activities or arts and just think like, well, they don’t really like art, so I’m not going to do with them. (07:39):Every time we do it, they cry. They must not like it, it’s fine. They just don’t like art. Or you might go the opposite way, which some parents do and think, well, she’s going to have to get used to it. It’s only for a few seconds, she’ll get over it. And then you just push their hands into the paint, force it in, paint their fingers even though they’re there crying. Maybe for other examples, it’s that your child doesn’t like the seams in their socks, which by the way, this is a very relevant trigger for us in our house currently. But then you ask, should you completely accommodate your child by just allowing them to wear shoes without socks? Or do you sit through meltdown after meltdown, not leaving the house and force it until they have those socks that you chose on? And my answer to this, as with most things, is you have to find the balance. (08:27):There are times where it’s appropriate to completely accommodate and quote give in, but there are times when it’s important to slowly stretch your child’s sensory boundaries. Again, not completely forcing them out of their comfort zone, but gently nudging them in that direction and stretching it <laugh>. But balance is necessary though, because if you completely avoid the activity, then your child just won’t have a good chance at developing the processes required to tolerate it better. Especially if you have a neuro divergent child, which at the beginning when they’re so young, it’s really hard for you to know these things. But the more you avoid those certain activities and you think, oh, well, they’ll grow out of it. Or maybe when they’re older they’ll like it, but you are missing out on all the opportunity to help them learn and grow with those sensory experiences. But on the other hand, completely flooding your child with sensory input out of their control can set off major fight or flight triggers in their brain, which then can invite more anxiety and fear of the activity. (09:38):So that can also definitely backfire. So the balance is what I call, well not what I call, I did not coin this term. This is from Gene EERs who is the pioneer of sensory integration, but I mentioned this a lot on my Instagram and in my program. But the balance is called the just right challenge. And this is when you meet your child where they’re at and from there, slowly, gradually expose them to the different sensory challenges. So you don’t avoid the activity altogether, but you also don’t throw them in the deep end. You let them dip their toes in very, very slowly at a time and you’re not forcing them to do it. And this is definitely an art, not a science, even though it’s rooted in science. But the act of applying this there is a learning curve, but here’s how that would look like. (10:38):So let’s go back to the paint example. Your child doesn’t like touching paint. They can sit with you at the table and they can watch you paint and tolerate the sight of paint and being around it. They just don’t really touching it and interacting it with themselves. So this would be considered their baseline level, the ability that they could sit at the table and look at paint but not touch it. That is their baseline level. I would from there, continue doing painting activities with them next to you a few times a month, a few times a week, or just once a week, whatever works for you. But just have them be there while you do some painting, craft or activity. Or even better if siblings are doing it, then you could have them watch siblings. There’s no pressure to have them touch it or try it. (11:28):You don’t even have to set up their spot at the table with paint if you know that it being in front of them is a trigger. You just sit down at the table with a craft and start painting it yourself. Talk about it as you do the activity. Or even narrate what siblings are doing. Saying like, oh, she’s painting the car red, or I’m going to paint the car red. You could try to offer them to interact with you while you paint but not have them start painting it. If that’s a trigger, you could, but you could still have them kind of involved. You could say something like, oh, could you hold this cup of paint for me while I paint the car? It keeps tipping over. So they’re already kind of participating. At any point that they do show signs of dysregulation like they’re starting to get into fight or flight mode, then I would move the paint and the craft a little farther away from them. (12:19):See if you can get them to feel back to that comfort zone, at least sitting in the same space as you watching you paint the craft. Again, if their baseline level is there, this would change depending on where their skills are currently at. So this is why it’s important to really understand your child’s baseline level. There’s always going to be something that they can’t do yet, but there’s something that they can do, even if it’s like something as extreme as they can’t tolerate being at the table with the paint. Maybe they need to start by watching videos of people paint and that’s okay. There’s no such thing as too many like baby steps or too little of a skill. Everyone has some sort of skill that you can work with and meet them at. Then maybe the third or fourth time you do this activity, again, let’s assume the baseline level was sitting at the table on your painting at the table with them, and they’re not really painting yet, but they’re watching you. (13:10):But maybe the third or fourth time you do this activity, you can hand them a paintbrush and say, you can paint the car. And the important part is that you don’t give up in between these sessions and stop offering because you think that they’re uninterested or because you think it’s going to cause a meltdown. You have to find that point of entry, their baseline level that they’re most comfortable with and just start there. Stay there as long as you need to. I promise you, the more often and consistent that you are, they will start moving. Taking little tiny baby steps. But don’t compare your journey to other kids who just easily pick up a paintbrush or are painting their skin from head to toe with finger paint over time. The hope is that they start interacting with the paint, maybe with the large paintbrush. Their fingers and hands are still really far away from touching the actual paint cuz the paintbrush is long. (14:05):But then as they get comfortable with the long paintbrush, then their baseline level changes and then maybe the next craft, you could have them paint with a Q-tip because a Q-tip is shorter than a paintbrush. And then if they’re comfortable with that, then the next time maybe you could have them paint with a cotton ball because it’s really short. And then eventually you could get them to maybe put one finger in the paint and make a fingerprint. So do you see how you’re slowly taking gradual steps up to maybe like a full palm fingerprint that this is a very, again, a very objective thing to talk out sensory wise, just to help you get the idea. But you can apply this to any sensory sensitivity your child has. Introducing new foods, new clothes, wearing socks, tolerating sounds, all of those things. (14:54):But the main point of this is that you want to slowly lead your child to the goal. This process could take weeks, it could take months, but as long as you don’t set off their fight or flight and you’re really noticing their regulation and responding to that and you continue to offer these activities and invite them to participate in ’em at whatever level that they’re comfortable at, then this is still making progress and you’re doing an amazing job helping them understand their brain and to also be supportive of their sensory needs. So that is the balance between accommodating and exposing. You’re not forcing them in it and you’re not completely avoiding the task altogether. That’s the just right challenge. Now, there is one caveat to this and one important part to consider. Accommodating your child’s sensory needs should definitely be the priority on school days or any other important day. (15:57):That requires a lot of focus, a lot of attention or calm and regulation. Obviously we would love if our kids were just always regulated even on the weekends, but there are days when your child needs to be on top of their regulation game, and that’s usually on a school day, right? So this means that on school days in the morning, it’s okay to let them wear their preferred leggings or skip socks for that school day. This means that you’re going to make their breakfast and snacks and lunch on school days safe and preferred. Why? Because the school day already offers so much sensory stimuli out of your child’s control that you need to send them there with room in their sensory cup so that it doesn’t spill over a k a cause a meltdown. So if you need a reminder quickly for what sensory cup profiles look like, head back to episodes six and seven. (16:51):You just basically need to make sure that you’re always saving room in their sensory cup because the school fills it up all day. So you wanna make sure that every other part of your child is regulated, including that regulation that they need to feel from being full and not hangry. Because if you send them to school after not eating a good breakfast because it was a not safe food, and then they’re hangry at school, then that’s going to make it way harder for them to be able to tolerate the sound of the school bell or the sound of chairs squeaking on the floor or the sound of clapping and all of the bumping into them in line and all of the sensory inputs from school. So for us in this house school days are a huge anxiety trigger that causes liliana’s sensory sensitivities to be extreme in the morning. (17:41):So I do a lot of accommodating for her on school mornings. It’s like she’s a different kid on the weekends, on Saturdays and Sundays, she could get out of bed, change out of her pajamas and get into her clothes independently without me even knowing she’d just come downstairs and I’m like, whoa, you’re already changed. You picked out your clothes, which is a huge thing for her. She’s a hard time picking. And then the actual motor skills of getting out of pajamas and into clothes on a weekend, it’s great on school days, it’s a different kid. I literally need to pull her pajamas off, help her put her pants on one leg at a time. Sometimes we have to outfit change because she can’t choose. And then I even feed her, sometimes I can need to help her hold her breakfast sandwich or scoop cereal just right because she’s so dysregulated and has such a rigid brain on those mornings that she really, really needs help. (18:33):And it took a while for me to be okay with this and accept this, but eventually I realized it’s just my way of helping her save room in her sensory cup for school. For a while I was like, no, you need to learn how to do this yourself. You’re four, you can do this. I’ve seen you do it on the weekends. Why can’t you do it today? But I realize that her dysregulation is so extreme on school days that this is the one thing I can do that’s in my control at least to help her have a more manageable school day. Because once she’s there at school, I can’t control how loud other kids are. I can’t control the weather, I can’t control anything else. But what I can do is support her needs at home by making her day have less cognitive demand on her so that when she gets to school, she has more room to tolerate a lot of other things. (19:22):So school days, I prioritize accommodating, especially in the morning then after school or on non-school days, on the weekends. Then I practice using the just right challenge. I hold firmer boundaries about her being flexible about things, and this is when I intentionally work with her on feeling comfortable around a certain sensory input like socks or certain jackets and just hope that eventually her tolerance levels increase around that. But I’m just always keeping in mind how full her sensory cup is or is about to be on a certain day. So in summary, you want to accommodate as best you can, safe clothes, safe food, allow sensory breaks, allow noise canceling headphones, all of that when they’re going to school, you need them as regulated as possible, and you also then wanna try to build up their sensory tolerance and sensory processing skills in a gentle, respectful, just right challenge way outside of those times. (20:22):So it’s all about finding the balance. So remember that the next time someone says that you’re spoiling your child or you keep giving them what they want by letting them get away with eating pizza all the time or wearing the same pants over and over, first of all, tell ’em to mind their own business. <laugh>, you have my permission to say that. And second of all, remember there’s no such thing as spoiling a child with too many accommodations. There’s no such thing as spoiling a neuro divergent child with too many accommodations. You are simply being responsive to their needs, but you do want to remember to make sure to help them grow those skills at other times. I hope that this episode was helpful. I know it can be hard to always second guess your parenting skills and whether or not you’re doing the right thing, but my hope for these episodes is to give you some insight into new ways to support your child while also acknowledging the simple fact that raising divergent kids is hard and it’s impossible to do everything perfectly. (21:20):But hopefully this is helpful. Definitely stay tuned to my podcast each week because again, like I said, at the end of this month, I’m opening enrollment for the Sensory Wise Solutions Program. It only opens a couple times a year, and it is my 16 week online program where I teach parents of sensory sensitive kids how to support their children at home. And we go in depth into the just Right challenge for a lot of common sensory sensitivities, including clothes, food, messy play sounds, busy environments and all of the grooming activities. So make sure you stick around so you can know when the doors are open. You can also join the wait list by heading to the ot list. All right, I’ll see you next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review, which helps other parents find me as well. Wanna learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT Butterfly. See you next time.  




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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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