- What is sensory processing disorder and how can I help my child?
- Causes, symptoms, and treatment of SPD
- Sensory processing disorder (SPD) kids: How they are different
- You know sensory processing disorder exists, so why don’t they?
- What to do when your sensory sensitive child has a meltdown
- Challenges your sensory sensitive child will face at school
- Occupational therapy for a child with SPD
- Can a child outgrow SPD?
- Does a weighted blanket help with sensory issues?
Children connect with their surroundings through their senses. Sensory information helps them understand the world around them.
Simple activities like kicking a ball, climbing stairs, playing with a friend, jumping a rope, or putting on a shirt all involve receiving, integrating, and managing sensory input. Life can become really challenging for children facing difficulties in processing and integrating sensory information.
I have worked with children who were over-responsive to auditory stimuli, and their parents couldn’t take them to any public place because of the environmental noises. I remember a boy who was under-responsive to pain and couldn’t notice or report any injury or body pain. This sensory processing disorder could literally put him in a life-threatening situation.
According to the diagnostic manual for infancy and childhood, sensory processing disorder (SPD) is diagnosed on the basis of difficulties in processing sensory information to an extent that impairs daily life. Many children with autism also have SPD.
What is SPD?
We receive sensory information from our environment and from within our body. This sensory information (auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular) is processed in our brain and translated into specific behaviors or actions. The processing of sensory information by the brain is called sensory integration (SI).
Some researchers divide sensory integration into following four phases:
- Registration: receiving sensory information
- Modulation: regulating stimulus intensity
- Discrimination: organizing a sensory stimulus according to its characteristics, specific qualities, and relevance
- Response: brain integrating all the information to elicit an appropriate response
SPD is a condition in which one or more phases of SI are altered, and it interferes with everyday activities. A child with SPD might have over-responsiveness, under-responsiveness, or sensory craving.
Most epidemiological studies carried out on western lifestyle populations indicate a high prevalence of SPD. A study on public school children aged 3-6 found that 13.6% of the 703 subjects met the criteria for an SPD diagnosis.
Another study, which involved 796 children aged 3-10 from all over the USA, revealed a prevalence of 11.6%. Boys are more likely (14.6%) to have SPD than girls (8.6%). In this sample, 63% of children with SPD also had other disorders, like ASD.
Occupational therapy for SPD
Occupational therapy helps people with improving the coordination, movement, and skills required to perform daily activities.
Occupational therapists use a sensory integration-based approach to help children with SPD. After a detailed assessment, they develop a plan and expose children to different sensory stimuli in order to help them differentiate and integrate sensory information.
Along with working on environmental sensory information (sound, touch, vision, smell, and taste), they also focus on proprioception (awareness of the body position and movement) and vestibular sense (sense of balance), which are internal.
How occupational therapy helps in SPD
Here are some occupational therapy benefits for children with SPD:
Occupational therapists help in identifying the areas of sensory processing where a child is facing difficulties. They develop a sensory profile of the child and devise a therapy plan.
Sensory integration therapy engages children in well-thought-out, structured, and fun activities. Different sensory material is used to provide sensory stimulation. Gradually, the child learns to deal with the sensory load through efficient sensory processing.
2. Identifying sensory sensitivities
An occupational therapist helps parents and teachers in identifying the sensory stimuli that can disturb or trigger meltdowns in the child. Once the parents understand that their child is under-responsive or over-responsive to certain sensory stimuli (e.g. lights, sounds, temperature, or pressure), they can make the necessary adaptations in the home and school environments.
Some children need a certain type of sensory input to calm down; this condition is called sensory craving. Temple Grandin, a film based on the real-life experiences of Dr. Temple Grandin, shows how she constructed a hugging machine to calm herself.
This is a great example of sensory craving and its role in regulating behavior. An occupational therapist can help and guide the parents on the sensory cravings of their child and empower them to satisfy those cravings in a productive way.
3. Therapy in a multisensory environment
Occupational therapists work with the child in a multisensory environment. A sensory gym has specialized equipment that includes swings, trampolines, balance beams, sensory mats, different lights, auditory toys, and sensory pools.
Therapists develop a therapy plan based on the requirements of the child. In a guided activity, the child is provided with specific sensory input, and the therapist supports them in exhibiting an appropriate behavioral response.
For example, children with oversensitivity to visual input are gradually exposed to lights of different intensity, and a therapist helps them respond calmly to the sensory input. For children having difficulty in integrating information from the sense of touch, different textured toys, mats, and surfaces aid them in differentiating among various textures and managing their under- or over-responsiveness.
The underlying principle of sensory integration therapy is that with practice, the brain starts processing sensory information in a better way.
Scaffolding is used to gradually make the child independent in responding more effectively to sensory input. Scaffolding looks like this:
- A task is divided into smaller bits. For example, balance (vestibular) sense small activities can include walking on a straight line or a balance beam, climbing stairs, self-managing on a swing, standing on a balance board, or jumping on a trampoline.
- The child receives help to master each step by providing appropriate responses.
- Therapists gradually reduce their support.
- The child becomes independent in effectively responding to sensory input.
4. Home management plan
Occupational therapists can only work with the child for a limited time. To make sensory integration therapy more productive, they develop a sensory therapy schedule (also known as a sensory diet) in collaboration with the parents. This schedule is carried out across environments (e.g., home and school) and helps in producing better results.
Occupational therapists also assist parents in adapting their home to make it sensory-smart. Parents receive guidance on allocating spaces for managing sensory load. They might set an area with controlled lights to calm a child over-responsive to visual stimuli or a sound-controlled, quiet corner for a child with auditory over-responsiveness.
Some final words
I’ve found that therapy becomes more effective when parents and therapists work as a team. As a parent, try to follow the sensory schedule at home and liaise closely with the therapist.
Aside from educating yourself on your child’s requirements, make sure you include teachers in this process. Collaboration with teachers can facilitate the transition and adjustment of a child with SPD in school.