Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) affects 5 percent of children, and 80 percent of children with traumatic backgrounds experience sensory processing challenges. Technically, SPD isn’t a recognized diagnosis yet, so it’s sometimes referred to as “sensory challenges.”
If your child is diagnosed with sensory challenges, one of the first questions you may ask is, “what can be done about it?” Well, we’re here to help.
First and foremost, treatment for you and your family might mean getting help from an occupational therapist (OT), who can help you navigate how to best approach your child’s sensory needs. The ultimate goal of occupational therapy is to adjust how the body responds to sensory stimuli and encourage appropriate responses. It can be hard work, but it’s in the form of play, and kids often don’t even realize they’re working.
In addition to sensory exercises usually performed in a sensory gym, some of the approaches that an OT may use include:
- Therapressure Brushing Protocol (a.k.a. Wilbarger Brushing Protocol or Deep Pressure and Proprioceptive Technique) — Brushing a child’s body with a special therapeutic brush, followed by quick joint compressions on the major joints, helps trigger the release of hormones needed for regulation. This technique is especially useful if your child struggles with tactile defensiveness, but should only be used after being trained by a practitioner familiar with the protocol.
- Sensory diet — As strange as it sounds, a sensory diet has nothing to do with food. Rather, it’s a tailored set of sensory activities designed to help regulate your child’s responses to sensory input. Used throughout the day, these activities help your child to reach a “just right” state of arousal and attention. We’ll dive into this more in an upcoming blog post.
- Oral-motor programs — These exercises are designed to improve the overall functioning of the mouth, jaw, lips, cheeks, and tongue so your child can develop the coordination required for sound production and articulation. Oral-motor exercises may also be helpful for picky eaters who struggle with certain textures of food.
While occupational therapy is the ideal approach for addressing sensory challenges, it’s not always practical or available. For those of you thinking, “we’re already stretched so thin, I don’t know if we can fit another appointment into our day,” there are plenty of at-home activities that can help your kiddos better process sensory information.
At-Home Sensory Processing Treatment
- Bath time: Use bubbles and soaps, and be sure to let your kids have all the fun by playing with the different shaving creams on the walls.
- Meal prep: Let your kiddos help carry pots and pans, and mix ingredients, especially the ones that are thick and really work their muscles.
- Quiet times: Create quiet spaces and reduce visual clutter. Listen to soft, calming music. Use a weighted blanket (though not for kiddos younger than 2 years old) or lap pad during downtime.
- Play times: Reading books in a rocking chair or bean bag may be beneficial. You can also help your child make an obstacle course in the house or yard. Be sure to include jumping, crawling, animal walks, etc. A tunnel, a mini-trampoline, or a BOSU dome are also great tools to have. But if you don’t have any of those, you can just use your couch.
- Grocery shopping: Let your children carry groceries, push the shopping cart, carry heavy groceries, and help put them away.
- Errands and Appointments: Before visiting doctors or salons, try giving your kid deep massages to the head or scalp (if tolerated). Be sure to give her ample warning of any change in her routine or any unscheduled trips, and verbalize exactly what is going to happen at the appointment. Predictability is key!
- Weighted blankets, lap pads, or stuffed animals
- Sensory clothing (e.g., compression garments, clothing without tags and/or seams)
- Fidget toys
- Chewable jewelry or toys
These are just a few of the common therapeutic approaches OTs use to address sensory challenges, but it is in no way an exhaustive list. Talk with your OT to get a personalized treatment plan for your kiddo’s specific sensory needs. While sensory processing challenges don’t completely go away, just remember there is absolutely the capacity for change!
- Our friends at The Archibald Project wrote a great article outlining what occupational therapy can do for you.
- The STAR Institute provides families with useful resources and SPD treatment center and services. A lot of the information detailed here came from these pros.
- Child Mind Institute has plenty of resources on SPD and other information related to understanding and supporting your kiddos with SPD.
We also recommend a couple of books that help explain the ins and out of SPD:
- The Out of Sync Child, by Carol Stock Kranowitz
- Sensational Kids, by Doris A. Fuller and Lucy Jane Miller
- Finally, Project SOOTHe is here to help! Check out our resources, or contact our Caregiver Support Coordinator, Rachel DiMasi.
Primary Sources: Miller, Lucy J., et al. Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder. Penguin Group, 2014. Sensory processing - star institute. Sensory Processing - STAR Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://sensoryhealth.org/.