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Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the inefficient processing of messages from a person’s body or environment received through the senses. Children with SPD may be over-responsive to certain sensations, such as sudden touch or movement. However, some may be under-responsive, not noticing that the door slammed or the hammock is swaying.
Rather than growing out of it completely, children with severe SPD usually grow into it as they develop, sticking to regular routines and familiar environments that help them feel safe and comfortable.
SPD is not a learning disability, but it can lead to academic and social problems, as a child may be inclined to avoid ordinary childhood experiences that are distressing, such as messy art and science projects, circle games with other children, new foods, and other sensory stimuli. Fortunately, SPD is treatable, especially when children are young and their brains are malleable.
It is important as a therapist and a parent to understand the cause of the behaviors that the child is engaging in. Sometimes the behaviors are to serve a sensory need that the child has. For example, an older child who is mouthing everything in his environment may have oral sensory needs or a deficient tactile processing system. A child that is making loud noises or repeating sounds or words may actually be doing so to block out other outward sounds that he or she might be sensitive to. There are times when behaviors may not necessarily be sensory but maybe fulfilling a communicative need, the need for attention or expression of displeasure for something that the child cannot express verbally.
Children with sensory processing challenges respond to situations or stimuli the way they do because of a nervous system response rather than a desire to be badly behaved. The best way to support a child with SPD would be a combination of sensory integration therapy, follow through at home regularly with a sensory diet and environmental accommodations.
In my interaction with an experienced occupational therapist I learnt some of the crucial insights which would help parents and professionals in distinguishing the cause of child’s behaviour so that it can be managed appropriately. For instance, a close observation of the antecedent before the behavior occurs is a must. Scolding may only momentarily subdue the behavior or in some cases even exaggerate it in the form of anxiety. When the behavior occurs due to a sensory need, it is generally not something that the child can control and may need to engage in to fulfill the sensory seeking or avoiding need. It is best to address the child’s sensory needs in such instances rather than resort to shouting or other negative consequences.
Sometimes anxiety or even overwhelmingly positive emotions can bring about exaggerated responses such as flapping, jumping or banging with hands. She shared that sensory wise, organizing and calming strategies such as deep pressure, oral organization input such as using crunchy, chewy foods may be used. Another useful sensory approach would be to allow for a higher intensity of the input the child is seeking and then gradually bring it to the baseline level. For. Eg. If the child is engaging in hand flapping, one can initially increase the intensity of proprioceptive (Proprioceptive means awareness of one’s body movement and position) input by adding weights or using a heavy large gym ball to play catch with and then gradually decrease weights and/or the size of the ball. In addition to this, if it is already known that a certain situation is going to induce increased anxiety or overwhelming emotion, preparing the child visually or verbally can help alleviate the anxiety as well.
All of us have sensory preferences and that is what makes us all unique and different. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often perceive certain stimuli differently than Non-ASD children, which can be a reason for an unexpected emotional response. A lot depends on a child’s social and communication skills and cognitive levels also. For instance, covering the ear maybe a way of blocking out the extraneous stimuli in an attempt to organize self when in a challenging or non-preferred situation. As per the occupational therapist I met, suggested that a constructive way to work on this is–a) structure the activity b) use of music or head phones if that is helpful c) structure it so that there is a preferred activity before and after a challenging task. She further explained that putting a child on a swing and swinging them or spinning them is NOT Sensory Integration Therapy. It involves complex analysis of what the child’s sensory needs truly are, following the child’s lead and then providing with activities and challenge levels that are just right for the child to perform at the next level. This is called an adaptive response, which a therapist trained in Sensory Integration Therapy should be able to look for and elicit. The sessions build on the adaptive response so that the child is constantly encouraged to perform at the next level of achievement in a fun and playful way.
Depending upon the child’s cognitive levels and other socio-demographic factors (such as child’s age, home environment, amount of emotional support in child’s environment), demystifying the child about his sensory needs can help him become more independent in responding to his internal as well as external environment. The age at which different children may be ready for a demystification session maybe different. Middle and high school aged children that have been receiving sensory integration therapy for a period of time may start developing awareness and ask questions on their own about why certain sensation bothers them or why they are different from other children. This may be a good time to introduce them to the sensory processing challenges they have, work together on finding strategies that they can themselves use to support their sensory systems and help them function in school and other social situations.
She gave me an interesting perspective to look at a child’s needs and respond to it as well.