Sensory processing disorder (formerly referred to as sensory integration dysfunction) is a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing incoming streams of information. Kids — and adults — with this disorder are either over- or under-responsive to sensory stimuli, which can make it a lot more difficult for them to cope with the demands of life.
Unfortunately, getting help for SPD can be tough because the medical community can’t even agree that it exists at all — there is no official diagnosis. But it absolutely does exist, insists 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.
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 a child with SPD has frequent meltdowns and issues with daily tasks, it’s hard to know where to begin. But you do 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?
The difference between kids who are sensory seekers and kids who are sensory avoiders is simply that sensory seekers’ systems have a higher threshold before information can be perceived, says Light. This means they need more input to decipher the message they are trying to understand. On the other hand, sensory avoiders have lower sensory thresholds, meaning a small amount of signal provokes a big reaction. Because of this, they avoid stimulation because it overwhelms them. “Both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders may respond with hyperactive behaviors, but for different reasons,” explains Light. “One is seeking more input and running toward the stimulus, while the other is seeking less input and running away from the stimulus.”
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 because it calms them down when they are overstimulated, says Light. 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, even, than every other child with SPD. Some kids may be oversensitive 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 sensory seeker
- Experiment with a weighted blanket, weighted vest or weighted toy.
- Let your child help you with household chores, both indoors and out: moving furniture, vacuuming, carrying the laundry basket and digging in the gardening.
- 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.
- Offer chewy foods or foods that are sour or spicy to stimulate taste.
- Give “embracing squeezes” (deep-pressure squeezes) up your child’s arms and legs.
- Give your child a racquetball or other rubbery object.
- Dress your child in tight-fitting, elasticated clothing.
- Play tug of war with an old towel.
- Take your child to the park and encourage them to climb a tree or roll down a hill.
- 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.
How to incorporate sensory input into everyday life with your sensory avoider
- Let your child play with dry rice or sand, encouraging them to squeeze it and run it through their fingers. Hide a few coins in the rice or sand and ask them to dig for buried treasure.
- Use containers to play with water, pouring and splashing.
- Play soft, slow music and encourage your child to move in time to the beat.
- 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.
- 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.
- Snuggle and hold your child often. Try gently touching their hair, face and ears and stroking them with a range of textures: feathers, cotton balls and vibrating massagers.
For sensory avoiders, Light recommends offering only one type of stimulus at a time in a calm, quiet setting.
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 overstimulated, says the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder. These include sudden yawning, hiccuping or burping, changes in skin color, extreme overactivity 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 Light.