Sense and Sensibility

Treating sensory processing disorders.

Most of us have sensory preferences: We like our clothes to fit a certain way or we enjoy a conversation in a restaurant with minimal background noise. But did you know that as many as one in 20 children have nervous systems that function atypically, making it difficult for them to tolerate and process everyday sensations? Such children struggle with learning, playing and socializing. The child who insists that the sensation of having shoes on his feet is so repulsive that he must go barefoot everywhere, or who feels the need to chew or lick seemingly everything or who appears to deliberately bump into people and objects may actually have sensory processing disorder (SPD), also known as sensory integration dysfunction.

Symptoms of SPD

  • Unusual reactions to everyday sensations
  • Poor body awareness and physical awkwardness
  • High distractibility
  • Picky eating, avoiding foods of certain textures
  • Hyperactivity and impulsivity, difficulty calming down
  • Uncomfortable or easily overstimulated in group settings
  • Dislikes getting messy
  • Resists grooming activities
  • Becomes dizzy or nauseated by movement, or has no reaction
  • Unusually high or low pain threshold
  • High activity level or very sedentary

When a child’s nervous system isn’t accurately processing sensory information, he can become confused and even frightened. He may respond by avoiding transitions from one activity to the next, and feeling anxious about new sensations and experiences. He’ll withdraw in order to avoid the noxious sensory input, or he’ll become aggressive and even panic in situations that a typical child would find irritating but manageable.

If you suspect your child has sensory issues that are interfering with his everyday activities, help is available. A pediatric occupational therapist who is trained and experienced in working with children with SPD can use therapeutically designed play and enjoyable activities to help a child’s system slowly begin to function better, and build the child’s ability to accept sensations that he finds scary or upsetting. The therapist can also suggest accommodations that might significantly improve the quality of life for the child.

At school or at home, a child with SPD can use items that are readily available from therapy catalogues, such as:

  • an inflatable bumpy cushion to sit on that provides sensory input to help with body awareness. The cushion also provides movement that a child with SPD might need in order to stay focused.
  • items that fit atop pencils or around the wrist that the child with oral needs can chew on.
  • weighted vests, blankets and lap pads, or soft surgical brushes, which a trained and qualified occupational therapist can teach you and your child to use.

Other invaluable tools for a child with SPD include typical items, from a Koosh ball to girl’s hair scrunchie, that a child can play with for fidgeting, to a Lycra band placed around the front legs of a chair that the child can push with his feet to give him sensory input that calms him and helps him to focus.

If you would like an occupational therapist (OT) to evaluate and possibly treat your baby or toddler for SPD, ask your state’s birth-to-3 early intervention organization for help. If your child is over age 3, an OT who works for your local school district may be able to provide an evaluation or therapy. Private OTs can be found through your local Yellow Pages under “OT Clinics” as well as through autism advocacy groups. Most children on the autism spectrum have sensory processing issues. An alternate option, explore the “Find an OT” page at www.sensorysmarts.com.

The right occupational therapist can increase your child’s ability to process sensory information. Such an OT can also help parents, caretakers, teachers and others to assist a child with SPD by providing opportunities for him to retreat from the sensory onslaught of daily life through the use of calming and focusing sensory input. Such a schedule of activities is called a sensory diet. Over time, the child can take on the responsibility of carrying out a sensory diet on his own, giving him control and confidence in his ability to meet personal sensory needs.