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Sensory Thresholds: Understanding the Sensory Cup Analogy

Sensory processing is a complex process that involves receiving, interpreting, and responding to sensory information from our environment. One way to understand sensory processing is through the analogy of sensory ‘cups’. Each person has different sized sensory cups, or thresholds, which can vary between sensory systems. The size of these cups determines how much sensory input a person needs or can handle before feeling overwhelmed.

Understanding Sensory Thresholds

Sensory thresholds refer to the amount of sensory input needed for a person to respond. High thresholds, or large cups, mean that a person requires more sensory input to respond, while low thresholds, or small cups, mean that a person can respond to a small amount of sensory input.

The size of a person’s sensory cup can vary between different sensory systems, such as the tactile (touch), auditory (hearing), or vestibular (movement) systems. This means that a person might have a large cup for one sensory system and a small cup for another.

The Goal of Sensory Processing

The goal of sensory processing is for a person’s sensory cups to feel full, but not overflow. When a sensory cup is full, it means that the person has received just the right amount of sensory input to feel satisfied and regulated.

However, if a sensory cup overflows, it means that the person has received too much sensory input and may feel overwhelmed or overstimulated. On the other hand, if a sensory cup is not full enough, the person may feel under-stimulated and may seek out more sensory input.

The Impact of Sensory Cup Sizes

The size of a person’s sensory cup can significantly impact their sensory preferences and behaviours. For example, someone with a large vestibular sensory cup may seek out a lot of movement activities to fill their cup. This could include activities like swinging, spinning, or jumping.

On the other hand, someone with a small vestibular cup may feel overwhelmed by just a small amount of movement. For example, they may feel dizzy or nauseous when riding spinning rides at amusement parks.

Overresponding and Underresponding to Sensory Input

The size of a person’s sensory cup can also influence how they respond to sensory input. Someone with a small sensory cup may overrespond to sensory input, as it does not take a lot of sensory input to fill up their cup and cause it to overflow. This can result in heightened sensitivity, avoidance behaviours, or emotional reactions.

Conversely, someone with a large sensory cup may underrespond to sensory input, meaning they need more of it to feel full. This can result in sensory seeking behaviours, such as craving intense sensory experiences or being constantly on the move.


In conclusion, understanding sensory thresholds through the sensory cup analogy can provide valuable insights into a person’s sensory preferences and behaviours. It can help us to understand why some people seek out certain sensory experiences, while others avoid them. By recognising and respecting each person’s unique sensory cups, we can support their sensory needs and promote their wellbeing.


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