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All parents and educators should be thinking about the sensory needs of children.  Most of us do it instinctively by sending our kids outside to play when they get too wound up or by having quiet time with a bath and a story before bed. 

A growing brain needs to experience many different stimuli daily for the central nervous system to develop typically and allow children to process sensory information.  Kids are spending more time inside watching TV or playing on electronics.  This, combined with our school systems taking away more time from recess and increasing the requirements of young children to sit, our children’s sensory needs are being neglected.  Many children with ADHD, autism, or anxiety have more sensory needs than the average child.  Therefore, planned activities or designated spaces where they can get these needs met is essential.

Sensory Basics:

What Does "Sensory" Really Mean?

Sensory processing is the communication between our sensory systems and our brain.  It is not just our 5 senses, but 8 sensory systems that process information and send it to the brain.  They are:

  1. Visual – seeing- color, shape, orientation, and motion

  2. Auditory- hearing - sound frequency and volume

  3. Tactile – touch – pressure, temperature and pain

  4. Olfactory – smell – discrimination, detecting and filtering out background odors

  5. Gustatory – taste- discriminate between sweet, salty, sour, or bitter

  6. Vestibular – balance – orientation in space, position of head in relation to gravity.

  7. Proprioception – muscle and join movement- position, location and orientation of the body.

  8. Interception- general feeling of the body – hunger, thirst, pain, temperature, itch, and general sensations.

Children may have problems in the way that they perceive sensory information from one, a few, or all of these sensory systems.  Some of their systems may be over active and need very little input to become overloaded.  Others may be under active, causing these kids to be sensory seekers.  These kids never seem to get enough of a given stimulus.  For example, many kids have over active auditory system and cannot tolerate loud noises.  The same child may also have an under active proprioceptive causing them to always be in motion or to spin in an attempt to get enough proprioceptive input. 

From SPD Parent Support

Sensory Processing Disorder:

All children have varying degrees of sensory needs.  However, when a child has a very disregulated sensory system, it is call SPD or Sensory Processing Disorder. SPD is when individuals perceive sensory input differently and have abnormal responses to the stimuli.  It is estimated about 1 in 20 people have SPD.  Some children have SPD by itself, but it is more prevalent in children who are gifted or have other conditions like ADHD or Autism.

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What Can I Do to Help My Child with Sensory Needs?

The first and most important thing to do is to find an Occupational Therapist.  Many people think of an OT as just someone that works on handwriting, but they are highly trained in sensory input.  They will evaluate your child and help you figure out exactly which of the 8 sensory systems need attention and help you figure out a plan to address each one.  The OT can then create a sensory diet specifically for your child. 

When I first heard this term, logically, I assumed that it had to do with food.  It does not.  It is a schedule that an OT will help you create to give your child sensory input on regular intervals throughout the day.  Engaging your child in frequent sensory activities can retrain their brain to process information in a more typical way which will improve self-regulation, focus and mood.     

Behavioral Effects:

Many times people perceive children’s abnormal responses to sensory stimuli as simply behavioral problems.  They may get annoyed with a kid who will never sit still or is always crashing into things.  They may think that a child is just being stubborn by not eating new foods or refusing to touch anything sticky.  Behavioral interventions will not be successful with these children unless their sensory issues are first addressed.  This is why sensory is one of the possible functions of behavior when therapist complete a Functional Behavior Assessment. If a child is having behaviors that result from too much or not enough sensory input, a proactive plan to address these need should be developed. Many times this includes scheduled sensory breaks, providing sensory materials like fidget toys or therapy balls, and the teaching of replacement behaviors like chewing on a designated object instead of their shirt. Addressing behavioral effects of sensory needs requires planning ahead and creative ideas from teachers and Occupational Therapists.  

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Sensory Activities You Can Do Every Day:

  1. Outside play - No matter the weather, dress them appropriately and get outside and play.  Rain, wind and snow are just more opportunities to experience sensory input.

  2. Water play – Go to the pool, give them a bath, play with the hose, go out in the rain, or buy a water table.

  3. Messy play - Make playdough, ublic, or slime.  Play with shaving cream, foamy soap, sand, bubbles or finger paint.

  4. Join a sport – Get them running, jumping, or climbing.  It doesn’t have to be competitive just get them moving.  Swimming lessons, gymnastics, and yoga classes are great activities for dysregulated kids!

  5. Get cozy - Allow them to build a tent of blankets, make a pillow corner or fill a pop up tent with balls or turn a closet into a sensory room.

  6. Get calm -  Turn down the lights and put on the lava lamp or bubble tower.  Play soft music and put a heavy blanket on.

Find more great ideas here.