Children with sensory processing issues may either be over- or under-responsive to sensory stimuli. For instance, a child with an over-responsivity to sensory input may be particularly sensitive to noises, lights, and odours or be picky about their clothing and the food they eat. In contrast, a child with an under-responsivity to sensory input may crave sensations and seek out sensory input by hugging others too tightly or running about. Children may also display motor coordination issues where they appear clumsy and uncoordinated (e.g. falling down, dropping things, or having difficulties holding a pencil).
One of the diagnostic criteria of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the “hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment.” Hence children with autism tend to have sensory processing issues as well.
Difficulties in processing sensory stimuli may cause children to feel uncomfortable, anxious, and distracted, which may also result in sensory meltdowns and tantrums or even affect their learning and school life. With treatment, children can better cope with sensory processing issues, allowing them to feel more comfortable, to learn and interact with others more effectively, and to reduce sensory meltdowns and tantrums from sensory processing issues.
Sensory Integration Therapy
Occupational therapists will first evaluate children’s level of sensory defensiveness and sensory cravings before the Sensory Integration Therapy takes place. Sensory Integration Therapy is used to expose children to various sensory experiences and help them learn to integrate all of their senses by providing inputs from the five basic senses, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses. During therapy, children will be involved in physical activities or exercises to help them integrate sensory information more effectively. For children with hypersensitivities to sensory stimuli, therapy includes activities that help calm them down from an overstimulated state. Brushing therapy is also used for children who experience tactile defensiveness and thus find touch unpleasant. A sensory brush is used to run over the child’s skin a few times a day to reduce their aversiveness towards being touched. In contrast, children with a hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli and crave sensations will be able to run into or jump on padded surfaces, use a squeeze machine, or carry weights up the stairs during therapy. Additionally, children having problems with balance and movement may be involved in activities such as swinging, bouncing, jumping, and climbing during therapy sessions.
Everyday Sensory Integration
Here are some strategies you can try out with your child with sensory processing difficulties to meet their sensory needs:
For children who are hypersensitive to their tactile, smell, visual, and auditory senses, the following may help them feel less overwhelmed: wearing tag-free clothing that is loose fitting; having a cloth to cover noses from odours; wearing sunglasses under bright lights; taking breaks when visiting places that are overcrowded or loud; using sound-blocking headphones or earplugs can help children regulate noises.
For children who are seeking or craving sensations, create a sensory zone that they can go to increase their sensory input. This includes activities such as finding an object in a bag of balls or rice.
For children with unusually high activity levels, get them to jump about, carry heavy groceries, and push trolleys in supermarkets.
Children who are under-responsive to tactile sensory stimuli and thus crave tactile sensations may enjoy playing with playdoh or playing with sand and water in sensory boxes.
For children who have difficulties with balancing, activities such as rolling on the floor, swinging, dancing, and jumping on a trampoline can help improve their balance.
It is important to help children with troubles in processing sensory stimuli and heightened sensitivities to reduce the interference with their day-to-day functioning. As each child’s sensory processing issues are different, there should be an evaluation of children’s specific sensory difficulties before the implementation of a therapy or treatment program. Although the research on the effectiveness of the treatment therapies on sensory processing issues is limited and inconclusive, it is good to observe whether your child is experiencing fewer meltdowns and becoming more regulated after treatment. Overall, parents would want to work towards seeing a reduction in sensory meltdowns and tantrums and to make children feel more comfortable, calmer, and better regulated.
Written by Sylvia.
American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington (D.C.): American Psychiatric Publishing.
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