So now your child has a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or you know they have sensory issues, so what do you do? While there are no medications to treat SPD, there are therapies that can help. Although SPD is often associated children with Autism and ADHD, not all children with SPD are on the Autism spectrum.
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SPD means that your child’s brain has a hard time taking in and responding to sensory based information. Previously called a sensory integration dysfunction, it is not considered a distinct medical diagnosis which can be difficult for parents.
Children with SPD can have developmental difficulties, such as speech delays, because their sensory conditions impact their ability to focus. However, parents should keep in mind these deficits can often be overcome with the proper treatment.
One sign of SPD is that a child is overwhelmed and loses control when in a loud or overcrowded space.
While no official DSM diagnosis exists, experts agree that the signs of SPD include over and under sensitivity to information one receives through their senses. For example, a child with SPD may have trouble with noise or touch sensitivity or they may display a need for deep muscle pressure. Additionally, research shows that SPD is relatively common with 16 percent of 7 to 11 year olds displaying symptoms of SPD.
How Can Professionals Help With Sensory Processing Issues?
Once your child is identified as having sensory processing issues or SPD, you should seek treatment and support from professionals, as this will support the nervous system in regulating the multi-sensory information it receives. Typically, children with SPD or sensory processing disabilities get support at school or privately from an occupational therapist or psychologist.
Occupational therapists engage kids in physical activities that are designed to regulate their sensory input. Psychologists can provide psychoeducation along with social, behavioral, and emotional support.
How can occupational therapy help with sensory processing issues?
Occupational therapists directly train and support to children (and adults) with sensory processing problems. They provide activities that directly remediate the common challenges associated with SPD. The goal of OT is to develop appropriate body responses to sensations in an active, meaningful, and engaging way so the child is able to learn how to act in a more functional manner at home and school. With therapy over time, the appropriate behavior generalizes to environments beyond therapy sessions, including home, school, and in the community. Interventions can include involving the skilled use of sensory and motor treatment activities and equipment as well as engagement in activities that provide increased tactile, proprioceptive, and movement opportunities.
In addition, they also provide accommodations and adaptations at work and school called sensory diet programs. Sensory diet programs involve a daily routine with a menu of individualized, supportive sensory strategies (e.g., rocking chair, quiet space, aromatherapy, weighted blanket), identified physical activities (e.g., yoga, swimming) and materials (e.g., sensory kits containing music, stress balls, items for distraction).This allows the child to appropriately use their senses to take in and organize sensory information for success in everyday activities.
How can psychologists help children with SPD?
Psychologists can offer clinical counseling for the child and parent coaching, as well as psychoeducation around SPD and sensory needs. Children with SPD have difficulty with regulating emotions, which can impact all facets of child’s life including learning and social functioning. A psychologist can guide kids by teaching them how to cope, self-regulate, and use strategies is key for managing the symptoms in a positive way. Parents are big part of that because they need the tools to coach their sensory processing challenged child. Children with SPD experience more challenges with attention, mood, anxiety, executive functioning, learning, and just following directions. Having an experienced pediatric psychotherapist on your team to help with evaluation can go a long way in more effectively getting to the heart of issue with the right tools and behavior management. This of course helps your sensory challenged child and preserves your sanity.
What is a Sensory Diet?
A plan to support sensory needs is referred to as a “sensory diet”. A sensory diet is a group of activities that are specifically scheduled into a child’s day, both at home and school, to support attention, arousal and adaptive responses. A sensory diet can be very useful with helping a child alert to and follow through with learning activities.
Specific to each child’s sensory needs, the activities are chosen based on what type of input they need. The use of specific types of input; proprioceptive, tactile, visual auditory, vestibular, gustatory, and oral motor are introduced during various times of the day and assist the brain in regulating attention and foster an appropriate level of arousal.
What Services Can Schools Provide for Sensory Processing Disorder?
Many children with SPD receive occupational therapy at school and also have accommodations to support their sensory needs within the classroom. A plan to support sensory needs or a sensory diet is often put into place at school so a child can learn to process sensory information more adequately in order to get a more functional response. Depending on what type of sensory input they need, the foundation of the plan comes with common classroom accommodations.
- Carrying a weighted bookbag or books to the office and back
- Moving heavy items
- Wall push-ups
- Seated push-ups
- Weighted lap pad for sit down activities
- Stacking chairs
- Big self-bear hugs activities
- Jumping jacks
- Running in place
Oral Motor Input:
- Chewy, crunchy foods to alert and increase attention (raw fruits and vegetables, licorice, gummy snacks, pretzel rods, gum, etc.)
- Food with intense flavors (extreme sour)
- Whistles, blowing activities, (blowing cotton balls across a paper, blowing bubbles)
- Provide things to chew on
- Sucking (use of straw water bottle)
- Provide accessible touch sensory activities (play in tubs of rice, beans, macaroni, use shaving cream, messy art)
- Water activities
- Practice letters and words in shaving cream
- Head shoulders knees and toes songs
What Can be Done at Home for Sensory Processing Disorder?
The best thing you can do for child with sensory processing issues at home is to be proactive and avoid triggers. Ask your OT for home-based sensory diet plan and try follow it. Supporting your child as young as possible, can help the nervous system mature and deal with sensory impairment in a more appropriate manner, which means a happier, healthier child and family.
Suggestions for supporting a child with sensory processing issues or SPD at home:
- Create a sensory area at home (e.g., trampoline, weighted blankets, obstacle course, etc)
- Engage in sensory calming activities before stimulating or difficult tasks or activities
- Create a calm area for emotional times (think an area to chill out not punish)
- Reduce lighting and noise
- Reduce clutter
- Have clear cut expectations
- Provide a visual schedule
- Alert to schedule changes
- Use visual aids
- Break down tasks and instructions
- Stick to routine
- Streamline getting dressed and mealtimes
- Be consistent
- Think and plan in advance for difficult activities or times of day
- Role play out social activities to model behavior
- Be a “parent whisperer” by being in close proximity and offering support in social situations
- Explicitly teach emotional words and calming strategies
Over time children with sensory issues do improve when given the right support. Creating the right program and being consistent and calm can go a long way to helping your child achieve wellness.
If you think your child might have SPD, contact a doctor. Early intervention and care can help alleviate the anxiety that living with SPD creates.
Dr. Roseann is a Psychologist who works with children, adults, and families from all over the US, supporting them with research-based and holistic therapies that are bridged with neuroscience. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and is a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS) and Epidemic Answers. She is also a member of the American Psychological Association (APA), National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), Connecticut Counseling Association (CCA), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).
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