5 senses

ADHD: Setting Up A Successful Environment

By | NESCA Notes 2020

Co-authored by: Lauren Zeitler, MSOT, OTR/L, NESCA Occupational Therapist; Feeding Specialist, and Lindsay Delling, OTS, Occupational Therapy Graduate Student

Before any assessments, treatment planning, or suggestions of adaptations take place, we must first understand what attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in childhood means, and how it may present and affect each individual child. The American Psychiatric Association defines ADHD as one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders affecting children, with symptoms including, “inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting) and impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought)” (2017). There are three different types of ADHD: inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, or combined type, that come with specific criteria within each to provide a diagnosis. While some symptoms of ADHD are common amongst young children, such as difficulty sitting still or limited attention spans, the difference in children with ADHD is the inability to control it without external forces providing regulation for them. This blog post will outline the sensory systems and will provide environmental suggestions and adaptations for children with ADHD to help them succeed and increase focus!

It is estimated that 8.4% of children have ADHD; so, that being said, what can we as occupational therapists recommend to enhance attention and regulatory strategies in children with ADHD using the sensory systems as a guide?

  1. Touch – Children with ADHD may actually scientifically benefit from utilizing fidget toys to increase their attention to a task. This thought process comes from the fact that using a fidget toy, such as a fidget spinner or some putty, allows children to exert some energy while also keeping their hands busy. This then makes them more likely to attend to another task, such as listening to a teacher speak, because they have sustained alertness while working with the fidget toy and can therefore sustain attention to the overarching task. We have seen this in most people on a smaller scale as they twirl their hair or tap a pen while attending to a task; they are essentially using these items as fidget toys to enhance their alertness and sustain attention to the task at hand (CHADD, 2021). The same can be said for a wiggle seat cushion or chair to promote seated movement so the child can gain that sensory input of movement, while staying seated and attending to the task.
  2. Sight – Because children with ADHD exhibit hyperactive tendencies, this means that they are likely hypersensitive to lighting and types of lighting within environments, such as fluorescent lighting which is prevalent in many school systems. Providing children with ADHD breaks from this harsh light and allowing time for their eyes to relax is a great way to promote improved attention throughout the school day. Hypersensitivity in sight is also important to be aware of regarding any schoolwork a child may be doing. If there is a lot going on within the page, a child with ADHD can become easily overwhelmed and may be quick to abandon the activity due to overstimulation. Covering portions of the page so that the child can only see one activity at time may be helpful in keeping them focused and on track and will likely decrease frustration.
  3. Hearing – Due to the hypersensitive nature of children with ADHD, sounds can be very distracting for them when they are trying to focus on a task. One solution would, of course, be to find a quiet space for them to complete schoolwork and other activities. This, however, may not always be readily available or even an option. In that case, providing these children with other adaptations, such as noise cancelling headphones, while they complete their work or even just frequent noise breaks and allowing them to take a walk or play with a preferred item can be great alternatives in promoting sustained attention in a noisy environment!
  4. Smell – Just like the other senses, certain smells can also become overwhelming and even distracting for some children with ADHD. This can happen for many reasons, such as smells of food reminding them how hungry they are at school, smells that make them think of a certain memory that promotes daydreaming, or even simply gross smells that the child cannot seem to get their mind off of. To promote sustained attention and a calming effect with children with ADHD, essential oils can be a good option to trial! While they are not scientifically proven to directly help with symptoms of ADHD, they are proven to ease anxiety and stress, which can occur with ADHD. Scents such as lavender, vetiver, and chamomile are known for their stress-relieving abilities that promote relaxation and serenity within the body.
  5. Taste – Snacks…a fun way to wrap up this post! Similar to fidget toys, crunchy snacks can also provide attention-enhancing qualities when eaten during a time where sustained attention is necessary. The child will be focused on the task of chewing the crunchy item, such as carrot sticks, an apple, or some chips, and will therefore be present in the moment and better able to attend to the task going on around them. This strategy can be used in a variety of settings where eating is appropriate – school, home, tutoring, etc. And, it’s a fun contribution to the repertoire of strategies to enhance attention and self-regulation strategies!

As always, we recommend reaching out to your occupational therapist or getting an occupational therapy evaluation. Contact NESCA’s Director of Clinical Services Julie Robinson, OT, to learn more at: jrobinson@nesca-newton.com.





Lauren Zeitler is a licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in pediatric occupational and feeding therapy. Ms. Zeitler joined NESCA full-time in the fall of 2020 to offer occupational therapy assessment and treatment for children of all ages, as well as to work in conjunction with Abigael Gray, MS, CCC-SLP, on the feeding team.


Lindsay Delling is a graduate student at Regis College working toward obtaining her master’s degree in occupational therapy. She previously completed fieldwork at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown and many school-based settings before coming to finish her fieldwork with NESCA. Prior to graduate school, Lindsay worked with children with disabilities in the Boston Public School system, as well as in a special education preschool setting in her hometown. Lindsay is open to working with many different populations once she completes her degree.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Interoception: The “Hidden Sense”

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach

Conventionally, children are taught that there are five different senses, and that these senses help them to experience and understand the world around them. These five senses are sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Clinically, we refer to these sensory systems as the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile systems. Each system provides unique information and works to alert the brain about the environment around them. Children all develop these systems differently, and all have unique preferences, strengths and interpretations of the world around them. As adults, a sommelier likely has an incredibly refined gustatory system, while a classical musician’s strength lies in their auditory system.

As knowledge about the human body continues to expand, two additional sensory systems have started to make their way into the common lexicon—the vestibular system and the proprioceptive system—both of which describe body awareness. The vestibular system gathers information from the inner ear and tells us where our body is in space. It monitors movement, acceleration and deceleration, balance and any changes in position. A gymnast uses this sense constantly as they flip across a mat or balance on the beam. The proprioceptive system gathers information from our muscles and joints and tells our brains about our position in space and any strength or force that we are using. Proprioception allows us to touch our noses with our eyes closed! These seven senses are all generally acknowledged and frequently assessed by occupational therapists. But what is interoception? And why is it referred to as the hidden sense?

Interoception refers to the perception of information coming from inside the body. Organ systems and the autonomic nervous system provide information about heart rate, hunger, thirst, temperature, respiration and even emotion (Vaitl, 1996). This sense of interoception helps us meet our most basic needs, such as knowing when we need food and water, realizing that it is time to use the restroom and putting on a jacket if it is cold outside. It also helps us to gain a more nuanced understanding of ourselves, such as realizing that an activity is making us anxious by acknowledging heightened heart rate and perspiration. This sensory system is often referred to as the “hidden sense,” because it is completely unique to each individual and no one knows exactly what someone else is feeling internally.

Children develop this sense slowly, with the most basic cues, such as hunger being recognized first. As they continue to grow, different internal signals are more easily understood and start to impact behavior. For example, around the age of two or three, most children start the process of potty training when they begin to recognize what it feels like to have a full bladder. As children continue to grow through their elementary, middle and high school years, this sense continues to be refined. As is expected, this is easier for some children than others.

Recent research shows that there is a strong connection between interoception and emotional/self-regulation. Individuals with low interoception often have more difficulty with both understanding and regulating their bodies and emotions (Zamariola et al., 2019). It appears that the ability to truly understand our body allows us to more intentionally control our responses. Luckily, as with other sensory systems, there are ways to increase interoceptive awareness and help children to notice the information that their bodies are feeding to their brains. In our next OT Tuesday blog, we will discuss some tips and strategies for helping children to perceive, understand and appropriately respond to this internal information.



Vaitl D. (1996). Interoception. Biol. Psychol. 42 1–27. 10.1016/0301-0511(95)05144-9

Zamariola G., Frost N., Van Oost A., Corneille O., Luminet O. (2019). Relationship between interoception and emotion regulation: new evidence from mixed methods. J Affect Disord  246:480–5. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.12.101

About the Author

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.