Sensory Functioning

Learn about sensory functioning

Sensory functioning describes the way the body responds to environmental information, like sounds, textures, lights, smells, pain, and temperature.

Sensory functioning can also include extreme reactions or behaviour in response to sensory information. Some young people can find certain sensory information so uncomfortable that they feel distressed. For example, players may be distressed by touch if there is accidental contact at footy, or young people who are in large crowds may be distressed by certain sounds and might cover their ears and become upset.

Others may be sensitive to certain textures and may be bothered by some fabrics, tags on clothing, or types of food. Trying to put yourself in their shoes, and imagining what sensory experiences are like for them can be a great way to help you understand how a player with sensory sensitivities is feeling.

Some young people can also show an interest in sensory stimuli, like sniffing toys or objects, or being fascinated by lights or movement. Some young people can show under-responsiveness to some types of sensory information, like pain or temperature, which can increase their risk of getting hurt.

All young people can show sensitivity to some types of sensory stimuli, but they often grow out of it or are able to manage it without becoming too distressed.

Some young people with disability, such as those on the autism spectrum or with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, are more likely to have sensory sensitivities. They may find some sensory stimuli very uncomfortable and distressing, but may find other sensory stimuli comforting.

All young people will differ in the type and severity of sensory sensitivities they have. For example, some autistic people may show many sensory sensitivities, while others may have none or very few. Every young person is different. Young people who are blind or have low vision, and young people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing may have reduced sensory awareness.

Players might feel distressed by:

  • Noise - they may cover their ears or cry when they hear loud noises (eg. a siren, a whistle, yelling, lots of people talking, or an alarm)
  • Light - they may play footy wearing sunglasses
  • Textures like mud or dirt - they may find it harder to play footy in different weather conditions

Some players may not feel the cold or heat as much. They might wear shorts in winter, or warm clothes in hot weather.

Some players may not realise they have been hurt or there may be a delay in them feeling pain. Others might be very sensitive to pain and show distress with something that seems like a minor incident.

Young people may also find comfort in sensory information, like particular smells or textures. They may sniff objects (eg. the footy or other equipment), or like to touch particular items or surfaces.

Quick Tips

Allow alternate ways to play

Prepare young people in advance and offer an alternate activity or way to play if you know that a young person finds a particular activity challenging due to sensory sensitivities.

Provide equipment that suits a young person’s ability and sensory needs

Allow players to choose the piece of equipment they would like to use. This might be their own gear, such as a particular-coloured football they feel attached to.

Have an agreed back-up activity

Have an agreed activity that the player can do if things become too demanding. This would be an activity that they enjoy and are able to do well. The activity could be used when the player needs a break.

Allow time for a break

Some young people might need to take time out from the group and have more breaks to calm themselves when they get overwhelmed. Let them do this whenever they need to.

Let parents or siblings help

Ask the player if they would like a parent or sibling to help. This might encourage them to be more involved and feel safe to play.

Parents can help calm young people

Sometimes, players might become angry and upset and the reason for this might not be clear. Giving them a break and getting their parents to help might support them to feel calm. Make sure a clear code of behaviour is known up front and provided visually.

Offer all roles

There are many roles on the footy field. Young people could do other roles (eg. umpire or coach helper) if game play is overwhelming or difficult at times.

Use footy stories

A footy story might help a young person play. Some footy stories are also targeted towards sensory sensitivities.

Have a consistent routine: Provide predictability by having a consistent routine at each session. 

Mud and dirt

Young people can wear gloves

If players feel uncomfortable getting wet and muddy, let them wear gloves to gradually become more confident touching the football.
 

Noise

Young people can wear earplugs

Let young people wear earplugs or earmuffs, if they find loud noises distressing (if this helps them). You may need to adapt the activities or the way you communicate, so they are not disadvantaged by wearing the earplugs/earmuffs. Noise-reducing headphones may also be helpful.

Consider your use of a whistle

Players who find loud noises uncomfortable may not like the sound of a whistle. Consider using a different method of starting and stopping activities (eg. visual signs), or gradually support the player to become more comfortable with the whistle.
 

Light

Young people can wear sunglasses

Allow players to wear sunglasses during activities, if they are sensitive to light. Playing indoors may also support players who are sensitive to light.

 

Weather and temperature

Consider playing indoors in bad weather

Bad weather (rain, too hot, too cold, storms) might make it hard for some young people to play outside. Consider finding a place indoors like the clubroom to run your sessions. Be mindful of noise levels in indoor spaces for players who find loud noises uncomfortable.

AllPlay Footy is a joint initiative by Monash University and the AFL. AllPlay Footy was founded at Deakin University in 2015 and has been part of Monash Education since 2021. The AllPlay Footy content and resources presented here have been developed with people with lived experience of disability, consultants from National Sporting Organisations for People with Disability, psychologists and researchers, and are brought to you with funding from a Department of Social Services Information, Linkages and Capacity Building: Social and Community Participation Stream (2020-2024) grant. We aim to use language that is respectful to everyone.