What is Sensory Stimulation?

Sensory stimulation refers to the impact the environment has on our minds and bodies  as we receive information through our sensory organs and our brains interpret this input. Usually sensory stimulation involves one person providing the stimulation to another person such as when someone is passively receiving a massage or has fur rubbed on his arms. 

But sometimes a person can merely sit outside to enjoy the visual stimulation of the trees, olfactory stimulation of flowers, auditory stimulation of birds, tactile stimulation of the wind and vestibular stimulation of the rocking chair.

Click on photo for visual stimulation.

Occupational therapists often talk about providing sensory stimulation to a person who is so disabled she is only able to passively receive the stimulation.  This may be a coma patient, severely developmentally delayed child or adult or a victim of Alzheimer's disease.  Sensory stimulation is used as a way to involve the person with the environment, bring pleasure and it provides a medium for interaction with a person who otherwise, has limited abilities to interact.

Sensory stimulation provides input to our:

These sensory systems are discussed on the page  What is Sensory Integration?

However, sensory integration is very different than  sensory stimulation.

Sensory integration involves active participation. Therapists guide the children to develop adaptive responses to sensory activities.  For example, the child who learns how to pump the legs to swing independently has developed an important adapted response to the vestibular and proproprioceptive input of swinging.

Sensory stimulation, on the other hand is passive and the therapist is providing the stimulation to another person. Perhaps the person will smile in response and be more aware of the environment but the goal of therapy is not specifically to promote adaptive responses.

Why is Sensory Stimulation so important?

We all need stimulation and much as been written about the effects of no stimulation on prisoners in solitary confinement and institutionalized patients who did not receive proper care.  They may hallucinate or stimulate themselves by head banging, rocking or biting. Sensory stimulation and interaction with the environment is critical to maintain the highest level of awareness and connectedness with others.

Visual Stimulation

Parents provide visual stimulation from the very beginning with both beautiful objects in the natural world and toys such as picture books and crib mobiles. People who are passive may not look around or be able to
cribmobile understand what they are seeing in the distance. Therefore, they benefit from stimulating objects being brought close to the face.

beadballObjects which combine both auditory and visual stimulation are great because the sound will attract the person's attention to look at the object. This ball makes an interesting sound when the beads move around and the movement of the beads catches the eye.

beadsintubePlastic tubes can be filled with interesting objects which make sounds when the tube is rotated. This tube  is sold to hold long light bulbs.  The contents can be little pieces of bright plastic, beads, jewelry pieces, necklace chains, anything bright and shiny and small.        Click on the picture for a larger view.

tornadotubeTornado tubes involve purchasing the small plastic piece in the center which has threads on each side. Screw a soda bottle to each end. Fill the bottle with water. You can add food coloring, glitter or even  shiny plastic confetti for a visual effect.  It is fun to watch the water swirl down into the lower tube. Place the person's hand on the bottle to feel the movement.

visualtoyBright visual toys with moving parts may catch the person's attention.  Move a flashlight slowly across the visual field to see if the person's eyes follow the movement. Bright lights can be fun and stimulating but be careful with flashing lights which may be irritating and cause seizures. 

crinklleyShiny paper such as mylar is often very attractive and multisensory since it feels and sounds interesting when squeezed. On the left is an inside out potato chip bags filled with packing peanuts placed inside a mesh bag for an additional texture. On the right is mylar paper.

Auditory Stimulation

goantubeMusic is often a very powerful stimulation, especially since it is so varied and holds personal meaning associated with the person's past. Objects which make other sounds can be fun. This "Groan Stick" makes a funny sound when rotated and there are many toys on the market which make animal and other types of sounds. 

bellsinboxBells were placed inside this plastic packaging and secured with red duct tape to make a shaker. Residents might enjoy bells which are strapped around the wrist to shake, grasping or just listening to other types of shakers.  Different sounds can be made by putting marbles, pennies or water into small juice bottles.

marblesintoyMarbles were inserted inside this toy and the ends taped closed.  It makes a great sound when shaken. Try to place the resident's hand on the object while gently shaking it.

                                  babyballoon      birdsound      cat        telephone        bicycle

Make a tape recording of familiar environmental sounds such as children playing, animals, cars beeping,  phones rining, a familiar television theme song and the voices of loved ones. 

Tactile Stimulation

massagerMassagers come in all different shapes and sizes.  Some vibrate and others are just rolled along the body. Sensory catalogs and stores also sell vibrating pillows and long tubes which can be wrapped around the shoulders. Vibrating balls are sold for children and vibrating  pens are designed to make writing fun. However, when the pen point is removed, you have a wonderful device which fits inside the hand.


tactileballsThere are lots of different types of textured balls which feel great when placed in the hand. Perhaps the person is able to use these tactile toys in an activity such as dropping them into a box.

  A therapist might gently rub pleasant textures such as  satin, fur or velvet along the arms and legs.


furry bagThis furry bag feels great. There is a squeaky dog toy inside. A gentle push makes the sound.

Higher functioning individuals can use such a bag in a game of catch or pass it around in a circle.

Proprioceptive Stimulation

Tactile and proprioceptive stimulation really go hand in hand. Vibration and weighted objects such as this sand bag provide proprioceptive input.

sandbagMy mother likes the weight of  a bag filled with sand or water on her lap.  Higher functioning individuals may be able to use such objects in games or activities such as placing them in a box or pushing them off the table. holdingwaterbag

My mother is holding a bag filled with water and plastic fish.  It is marketed for babies. You can also fill an ice bag sold in drug stores or even a disposable glove with water. Place the glove in the person's hand to squeeze.

pillowsThe squishy pillows filed with microbeads feel great on the lap and under or around the head. They are sold in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and designed like stuffed animals.

Gustatory (taste) Stimulation

Many older people find their  sense of taste and smell reduced and may  enjoy foods with strong tastes to stimulate their pallete.  Thanksgiving is often  the best day of taste and smell stimulation at nursing homes and other institutions.  

Olfactory (smell) Stimulation

Pleasant scents or aromas can be provided by either holding the bottle below the nose or spraying a mist nearby. Many lotions and massage oils have pleasant aromas which they can smell as the hands and arms are massaged. 

Vestibular(movement) Stimulation

rocking chair

It's not an accident that we associate elderly people with rocking chairs. The rhythmic, back and forth, slow movement is relaxing, yet stimulating.  There are special rockers which can be attached to wheelchairs.   However, a relaxing wheelchair trip through a facility or better yet the great outdoors can be very stimulating and enjoyable. wheelchair

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What is Occupational Therapy?
What is Sensory Integration  ?
Sensory Integration Activities
Promoting Visual Skills
Why Is Handwriting So Challenging?
How To Choose Good Learning toys

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