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How to Make Life Easier For a Child With Sensory Processing Disorder

When she's not writing, Claire Gillespie can most often be found wiping snotty noses, picking up Lego, taking photos of her cat or doing headstands.

Here's how to manage your kid's sensory issues like an pro

Sensory processing disorder (formerly referred to as sensory integration dysfunction) is a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing incoming streams of information. They are either over- or under-responsive to sensory stimuli, making it harder for them to cope with the demands of life.
Unfortunately, getting help for SPD can be difficult because the medical community can't even agree that it exists at all, meaning there is no official diagnosis. But it absolutely does exist, says Dr. Leah Light, director of Brainchild Institute in Hollywood, Florida. "Just ask any parent whose child rips their clothes off because they feel too itchy, holds their hands over their ears because sounds are overwhelming, or gags the moment a toothbrush is placed in their mouth, whether sensory processing disorder exists. You will hear a resounding 'Yes!'" she tells SheKnows.

More: Early Warning Signs of Autism Every Parent Should Know

The world can be a scary place for kids who have atypical reactions to their sensory environments. And it can be scary for parents, too. When your child with SPD has frequent meltdowns and issues with daily tasks, it's hard to know where to begin. But you have the power to help your kid. Take a deep breath — and take control.

The first step toward helping your child overcome their challenges is to establish what your child's particular likes, dislikes and triggers are.

Is your child a sensory avoider or a sensory seeker?

Kids who are sensory avoiders, i.e. sensitive to particular sensations, such as sound, light or smell, may be drawn to activities that provide intense pressure to the skin, resistance to the muscles, and input to the joints, according to STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder. On the other hand, kids who are sensory seeking are typically extremely active. They often respond positively to very intense forms of sensory stimulation and look for as many ways as possible to jump, fall, crash, kick, pull, push, hang, lift, etc.
It's crucial to remember that your child is different than every other child — and different than every other child with SPD. Some kids may be over-sensitive to sensations, others may be sensory seeking, and others fluctuate between the two. They will like some activities and hate others — it's a process of trial and error. Also, your child's patterns may change depending on where they are going, what's going on, who they are with, etc.
Ultimately, a process of elimination will help you identify what makes your child feel happy and safe, and you can then give them opportunities to do those things. This might mean quiet time under a weighted blanket, a few minutes a day on a mini trampoline or special headphones to block out noise at homework time. When you have some idea of what your child needs, you can adapt your daily activities and home routines accordingly.

How to incorporate sensory input into everyday life with your child

  • During bath time, gently scrub your child with a washcloth or bath brush, experiment with a range of soaps and lotions, use shaving cream or bath foam to write and draw on the wall and sprinkle powder onto your child's body and rub it into their skin.
  • During meal preparation, invite your child to mix the ingredients (the thicker the better to work those little muscles), let them mix, roll and flatten dough, tenderize meat with a mallet and help you carry pots, pans and ingredients.
  • At mealtimes, encourage your child to eat chewy foods and drink with a straw. Experiment with an air cushion to sit on or a weighted blanket on their lap.
  • Let your child help you with household chores both indoors and out: moving furniture, vacuuming, carrying the laundry basket and digging in the gardening.
  • Playtime offers so many opportunities for sensory input. Read books in a rocking chair, create obstacle courses in the house for crawling, jumping hopping, climbing and rolling, listen to quiet music and add small cars, cups and shovels to sandboxes.
  • Play the "sandwich game": your child lies between two pillows and you apply different levels of pressure to the "sandwich" to work out what your child likes best, asking them "harder or softer?" as you press.
  • If your child struggles with visits to the dentist or hairdresser, give them a deep head massage beforehand, or let them wear a weighted hat. When you're running errands, let your child wear a backpack weighted to their preference with books. Lots of kids with SPD need predictability, so make sure you let them know in plenty of time if you need to make changes to their normal routine or run unscheduled errands.
It's important to recognize signs that your child is becoming over-stimulated, says STAR. These include sudden yawning, hiccuping or burping, changes in skin color, extreme over-activity and excessively silly or unsafe behavior. If you observe any of these things, stop the activity right away and do what works to calm your child down, such as wrapping them in a blanket, holding them and rocking them slowly or giving them a warm bath or shower.

SPD can be overwhelming for parents. If you're struggling to deal with your child's SPD, there are many professionals with specialized training in sensory integration who can help. Occupational therapists can deal with balance issues and tactile defensiveness, speech-language pathologists can treat oral motor problems due to an inability to tolerate different foods or textures, and audiologists can help improve poor sound-processing and loudness sensitivity issues.

"Things improve most when this team of professionals collaborates on a plan for the individual and designs a sensory 'diet' that is tailored to the specific sensory needs of the child," says Dr. Light.

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