When your child was still a toddler, you may have noticed that he seemed unusually sensitive to light or noise. And maybe you could never seem to get him into the right shoes or clothes – they were always too tight or too scratchy. As your child grew, he had problems with fine motor skills like brushing his teeth or writing. Plus, he may have become prone to meltdowns or tantrums. All of these behaviors suggest a child having difficulty processing sensory information received from the world around him.
Are Sensory Processing Issues Limited to Children With Autism?
While sensory processing disorders often go hand in hand with autism, many other children are also affected. Your first step in helping your child is to get an accurate diagnosis to rule out other causes for your child’s symptoms (e.g., ADHD). There are currently no medications available to treat sensory processing issues. However, some things can be done at home and in school and there are therapies that can help your child feel and function better. These are discussed below.
Limit your child’s exposure to overstimulating environments, especially any places involving loud noises and bright lights – rowdy birthday parties, video arcades, crowded supermarkets, firework displays, etc. When you can’t avoid situations where your child might have problems with noise, outfit his ears with some soft, comfortable earplugs.
Talk to your child’s teacher about ways to help your child be more comfortable and better focused in the classroom. For example:
- Don’t seat him near distracting noise sources.
- Keep him away from flickering and buzzing fluorescent lights.
- Make sure his chair fits him well. When seated, he should be able to rest his elbows on his desk and put his feet flat on the floor.
- Provide him with a pillow or inflated cushion so he can squirm but stay in his seat.
Occupational Therapy (OT) for Sensory Processing Issues
OTs work with children who have sensory processing disorders. They engage kids in physical activities designed to regulate their sensory input and make them feel more secure, comfortable, and able to focus. Because each child’s issues are different, an OT will first evaluate your child and then design an appropriate course of therapy.
- Brushing: OTs use a technique called brushing, designed for children who find sensations that don’t bother most of us unpleasant or irritating – the feel of clothing touching the skin, walking barefoot, being touched by another person. This therapy involves the use of a brush that provides deep pressure prior to joint compressions.
- Sensory Gym: This treatment takes place in a facility containing equipment that allows children to safely swing, spin, and crash into well-padded surfaces. The gym may also contain squeeze machines and weighted vests developed by autistic inventor/writer Temple Grandin. These implements provide deep pressure that is calming to children.
- Sensory Home Treatment: Your child’s therapist will create a sensory treatment strategy custom-designed for your child’s needs. Activities will be planned to provide the necessary amount of stimulation needed to help him feel grounded.
How to Know If Your Child’s Treatment Is Working
Create a scale of behaviors and keep notes to compare how your child is doing before and after treatment. Work toward some specific goals such as getting your child to stay calm in a noisy room, focus better, or have fewer meltdowns.