What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory processing disorder occurs when a child (or adult) experiences more than one significant sensory sensitivity that interferes with everyday life. One’s body must first register the arrival of new sensory stimuli in order to process and respond to it. Some kids have poor registration, meaning they have difficulty recognizing and attending to new sensory stimuli; other kids might have high registration, meaning they feel constantly bombarded by stimuli, even those that are insignificant to a typical person in their environment. Your child might also display sensory seeking or sensory avoidant behaviors in response to their differences in processing. It is important to remember that symptoms and behaviors may be inconsistent, with varying triggers, intensity, and frequency. Sensory processing disorder may not always identify as sensory avoidant or sensory seeking, and can include a combination of reactions. Responses to sensory stimuli may change based on mood, level of arousal and their ability to self-regulate.
Types of Sensory Input
- Proprioception is our ability to sense the location, positioning, and movements of our body and its limbs. It allows us to navigate a crowded area without bumping into people and furniture in our path.
- Vestibular sensation is housed in our inner ears and uses gravity to sense spatial orientation and movement. This system is responsible for maintaining balance during movement. If you or child is a victim of motion sickness, you have the vestibular system to blame!
- Touch, or tactile sensation, comes from receptors in our skin found all over the body. Tactile sensation includes sensations of pain, temperature, pressure, and textures.
- Taste includes the specific taste (spicy, sweet, minty, bitter) and the specific texture (crunchy, chewy, mushy). Taste also involves knowing the difference between food items and non-food items.
- Smell involves the ability to distinguish, detect and object certain scents
- Sight includes noticing visual patterns, colors, shapes, bright and dimmed lights and moving objects.
- Hearing involves the ability to distinguish loud sounds (fire alarms, sirens or loud music) and soft sounds (finger snapping, repetitive tapping, hearing others breathing).
Sensory Avoidant Behaviors
The many types of sensory stimuli typically elicit a calming or arousing response. When faced with an extremely arousing, alarming type of stimuli, our body’s fight or flight system can be activated. This leads to sensory avoidant behaviors including, but not limited to, running away, yelling or crying, physical aggression, or self-injurious behaviors. Kids who experience sensitivities to certain types of stimuli typically exhibit avoidance behaviors towards the sources of this stimuli. It is possible to desensitize children’s experiences with certain sensory stimuli; however, this process should be designed and monitored by a licensed Occupational Therapist.
Sensory avoidant behaviors might include:
- Difficulty with washing or brushing hair
- Difficulty with tolerating hair cuts
- Uneasiness with brushing teeth
- Problems with trimming nails
- Upset by unexpected touch
- Difficulty adjusting or tolerating being in a loud, crowded environment
- Prefers solo play
- Prefers stationary activities – avoids running, climbing, jumping, etc.
- Gagging or other extreme response to certain food smells or textures
Sensory Seeking Behaviors
Sensory seeking behaviors are usually defined as hyposensitivity or being under sensitive to input. Children with sensory seeking behaviors are usually constantly looking for more sensory stimulation or feedback from within their environment. Sometimes sensory seeking behaviors are mistaken for behavioral issues and clumsiness.
Sensory seeking behaviors might include:
- Standing too close to others when speaking with them
- Having a hard time understanding the personal space and boundaries of others
- Constantly chewing on clothing or other non-food items
- Making loud noise when it is not appropriate
- Stomping or dragging feet when walking
- Having an unusual tolerance for pain
- Enjoying bumping or crashing into others (unaware of their own strength)
- Breaking toys, ripping paper or preferring “rough play”
- Touching people and objects for fun
- Providing pressure or squeezing certain parts of the body
What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory integration refers to how your body recognizes, processes, and responds to information received by our sensory systems on an individual and combined level. This includes our traditional 5 senses, sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing; however, we also have proprioceptive and vestibular sensory systems. Occupational therapists use sensory integration therapy by exposing a child to sensory stimulation in a structured and organized way. The goal of sensory integration therapy is to adapt the child’s brain and nervous system to process sensory information more efficiently. The OT may use a sensory gym to engage the child in these repetitive and stimulating activities.
How can parents help their child with sensory processing disorder at home?
Maintain a positive mindset:
- Move at your child’s pace. Never force a sensory experience on them. This will lead to broken trust – Remember that your child is experiencing these stimuli as an attack to their state of wellbeing and you are there to support and encourage them.
- Start slow – simply tolerating being near aversive sensory stimuli is something to celebrate!
- Give your child aspects of the situation to control by using conditional choices
- “Do you want to brush your teeth first or take a bath first?”
- “Would you like to try the peas or the carrots today?”
- “Would you like to use the green or the blue finger paint?”
- Desensitizing your child and creating new habits takes time! Progress can seem slow, but don’t get discouraged.
- Messy play – mud, dirt, water, food play, finger paints, shaving cream, bath bubbles, etc.
- Noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs
- Window shades or adjustable lights
- Include your child in meal preparation process – encourage them to help whether with their hands or using cooking utensils to interact with the many food textures and smells
- Food play – This is crucial when trying to expand your child’s diet. Encourage your child to interact with new foods in the most basic manner; the SOS Feeding Approach, used commonly by Occupational Therapists, encourages the following progression with new foods: See –> Touch –> Kiss –> Lick –> Taste –> Chew & Swallow. It is important to allow your child to move at their own pace and allow them to clean off hands or spit out food at any point along the continuum.
- Sensory toys – check out Ark Therapeutic, a leading manufacturer of innovative therapy tools and special needs products! They have great sensory toys, chews and fidgets that can help your child deal with sensory overload.
- Finger painting – also try bathtub paint to reduce mess and give child control over cleaning off their hands
- Listening to music
Kelly Burton, MS, OTR/L, CAS is an occupational therapist at Carolina Therapy Connection. Check out this video of her helping a child overcome a sensory sensitivity!
How can Carolina Therapy Connection help?
At Carolina Therapy Connection, we offer Sensory Integration Therapy and play-based treatment intervention that is specifically designed to stimulate and challenge all of the senses. Sensory Integration involves specific sensory activities (swinging, bouncing, brushing, and more) that are intended to help your child regulate his or her response to incoming sensory input. The outcome of these activities may be better focus and attention, improved behavior, and even lowered anxiety. Our therapists may work on lowering a patient’s negative reactions to touch, help them become better aware of their body in space, and work on their ability to manage their bodies more appropriately (run and jump when it’s time to run and jump, sit and focus when it’s time to sit and focus, etc.). Various techniques include swinging, deep pressure therapy, which may include squeezing, rolling, etc., jumping on a trampoline, or gross motor play such as wall climbing, balance beam, etc.
Carolina Therapy Connection now has the largest and most state-of-the-art sensory gym in all of Eastern North Carolina! Check out our 360° view of our sensory gym HERE. Our sensory gym is fully equipped with a zip-line, monkey bars, slides, scooter board ramps, ball pit, trampolines, rock climbing wall, and an expansive set of swings to offer a wide-variety of sensory experiences for each child.
If you have any questions or would like to schedule a screening for your child, call our clinic at (252) 341-9944 to learn more about what you can do and how we can help!