Occupational therapists help children and adults acquire or regain the skills essential to perform activities of daily life. They help patients develop, recover, improve, and maintain the skills necessary for a successful and fulfilling life. A growing area of our clinical work in pediatrics is treating children with sensory processing difficulties.
A sometimes-overlooked condition that an increasing number of children are exhibiting is sensory processing disorder or SPD. The disorder—also known as sensory integration disorder—occurs when someone has difficulty taking in and interpreting sensory information and, in turn, reacting to that information. It’s a complex neurological condition that affects the way sensations are experienced and processed. When sensory signals aren’t organized into appropriate responses, a child’s daily routine and activities are disrupted.
Sensitivities can stem from any of the eight senses:
- Auditory (hearing)
- Visual (seeing)
- Olfactory (scent)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Tactile (touch)
- Interoception (relays sensations from the organs)
- Vestibular (balance and coordination)
- Proprioception (motor control and posture)
The sensory system, a component of the nervous system, passes messages out to our physical world. These messages provide a sense of who we are and where we are in relation to space. When our sensory system is intact, foundational skills for development and higher-level learning are present. However, when there’s a miscommunication between that message and how it’s processed, it can impact a child’s developmental growth and functional independence.
Sensory issues often accompany autism. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association added sensory sensitivities to the symptoms that help diagnose autism. For example, many people on the spectrum are hyper-sensitive to bright or fluorescent lights, while others find certain sounds, tastes, and smells overwhelming. Certain types of touch, such as a stiff shirt on the skin, can feel extremely uncomfortable. Children with autism often have sensory processing difficulties, but not all of those with SPD are diagnosed with autism.
Could It Be a Sensory Issue?
Some common observations that can be associated with SPD are if your child has trouble focusing or sitting still, moves around a lot, or gets overwhelmed by his or her environment. SPD may manifest itself as:
- Eating issues
- Resisting cuddling
- Delayed motor skills, such as crawling, standing, walking, or running
- Sensitivity or overreaction to stimulation, such as not liking certain noises, smells, or touches
- Seeming clumsy or awkward
- Craving rough-housing, tackling, or wrestling games
- Seeming overly distracted in the classroom or when learning new tasks
If your child is experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s recommended that you consult a doctor and seek a referral for therapy.
How Occupational Therapy Can Help
Occupational therapists evaluate children to determine which stimuli they are sensitive to, then work with each child and his or her family to develop coping mechanisms and treatment plans. We use a sensory integration approach which is play-based and focused on providing a safe environment for children to be exposed to various stimuli. Activities include swinging, therapeutic brushing, climbing a ladder, jumping, water play, and navigating an obstacle course with varied surfaces.
What Is a Sensory Diet?
A sensory diet is not necessarily what goes into the body. This type of diet focuses more on physical activities that help provide the body with the information it needs to process stimulation or cope with the excess stimulation that’s overloading the child’s sensory circuits. The right diet provides the right amount of stimulation. These diets are implemented during therapy, and parents are educated about replicating those conditions at home to provide what their child specifically needs.
Occupational therapists work with children across the lifespan to help them behave in a more functional manner. We help improve our patients’ independence to enable them to be successful in their academic, social, and home environments.
Skyler Stein, OTR/L, MS, is a pediatric occupational therapist on staff at CentraState Medical Center. She can be reached by calling 866-CENTRA7.