The Cup Analogy
We all have different sized sensory cups, and they can vary between sensory systems. The goal is for a person’s sensory cups to feel full, but not overflow. The bigger the sensory cup, the more sensory input that person needs within that system. If someone has a small sensory cup, they can only handle a small amount of input before the cup overflows. For example, some people have a very big vestibular (movement) sensory cup. This person would seek out a lot of movement activities to fill that cup all the way up. On the other hand, someone may have a small movement cup. Just a little bit of sensory input can make that small sensory cup overflow. I know my vestibular cup is small as I cannot ride spinning rides at amusement parks – it is too much for me.
Therefore, someone with a small sensory cup may overrespond to sensory input. It does not take a lot of sensory input to fill up the cup and overflow. Someone with a big sensory cup may underrespond to sensory input, meaning they need more of it to feel full.
Sensory cups may be different sizes
It is important to remember that sensory cups may not be the same across sensory systems. Just because a child has a big vestibular or movement cup does not mean he will have a big auditory cup. If that is the case, taking the child to the loud gym for a movement break will fill up his very big vestibular cup without overflowing it, but his small auditory cup will overflow very quickly in the loud setting. When a sensory cup overflows, it may look like sensory overload. A child may become distressed and disregulated very quickly.
Why is the sensory cup analogy important?
Understanding your students’ sensory needs is essential for providing the most effective supports. If we understand a child’s sensory cups, we can be sure the big cups are getting filled and the tiny cups do not overflow. When the right sensory supports are in place for a child, we will see more successful participation in the classroom and daily routines.
Have you heard of the sensory cup analogy before? Do you find it helpful when thinking about sensory processing? Let me know in the comments!