Helping The Child Who Has Sensory Issues
There's something up with a child you know. He's clumsy, picky, always on the move, or flopped in a chair like a wet noodle. He's impulsive, intense, and quirky. Maybe he has a learning disability, ADHD, or autism, or maybe not, but his behavior and responses to everyday sensations are puzzling. Why does he withdraw or act out? Why are transitions so difficult? Can he really hear the fluorescent lights that he claims are distracting him?
It's very likely that this child you're concerned about has sensory processing disorder, also known as SPD or sensory integration dysfunction. An estimated 1 in 20 children and almost all children with autism have SPD.
This child's nervous system is wired atypically, causing her body to process everyday sensations differently. Unable to rely on her senses to give her an accurate picture of what is going on in her body and her world, she is prone to anxiety, distractibility, impulsivity, and frustration. A child with SPD will tune out or act out when overstimulated. The need for sensory input such as movement and touch can be so overpowering that the child truly can't control her need to seek it out. Many of us have difficulty tuning out background noise, or prefer clothes that fit a certain way. These are sensory preferences. When a child's sensory issues interfere significantly with learning and playing, he needs the help of an occupational therapist and a sensory smart adult who can teach him how to feel more comfortable in his body and environment.
Fortunately, many of the accommodations that can make a huge difference in the life of a child who has sensory issues are simple and inexpensive. Here are just a few:
Cut out clothing tags, turn socks inside out or buy seamless ones, and avoid clothing with embroidery and elastic that will touch the skin and create distracting, irritating sensations.
To tolerate the intense sensation of having his teeth brushed, the child with SPD may need to use nonfoaming toothpaste and have his mouth and lips desensitized by using a vibrating toothbrush or even just gently pressing a hand-held vibrator against his cheek, jaws, and lips before attempting to brush.
To calm and focus a child with sensory issues, you can try applying deep pressure against the skin as you compress her joints. Hugging, or pressing pillows against her body or rolling her up in a blanket to play "burrito" are often enjoyable ways for a child to get input. Always pay close attention to what a child is telling you, in words or body language, about her response to sensory input. Do not upset her with unwanted touch.
At school or at home, allow him to sit on an exercise ball or an inflatable cushion, with a smooth or bumpy surface. This will meet the movement needs of a child who just has to be able to squirm and help the child with poor body awareness to better sense where his body is when he's seated. When these needs for movement and body awareness are met, the sensory child will focus better on listening, eating, or doing schoolwork.
Provide a quiet retreat when she's overwhelmed by the sensory onslaught of everyday life. Whether she sits alone with you in a car outside of a party or restaurant, or in a quiet, darkened room, listening to relaxing music on a personal music player with headphones, a sensory break can do wonders for a child's ability to tolerate her environment.
A pediatric occupational therapist, trained and experienced in helping children with sensory issues, can work with parents and teachers to plan and carry out activities for the child that can help him or her function better at home, at school, and away. She can also help problem solve and discover accommodations that will ease the child's discomfort, and can set up a sensory diet of daily activities that will help the child cope as well as gradually retrain her system to function more typically. Whether working on a consultation basis, in a sensory gym nearby, at home or at school, the right sensory smart OT can make a huge difference for a child with sensory processing disorder.
by Nancy Peske
Nancy Peske is an author and editor and the parent of a child who at age 2 was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and multiple developmental delays. Coauthor of the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, available from Penguin Books, Nancy offers information and support on her blog and website at www.sensorysmartparent.com She has been active in the SPD community since 2002.