When treating sensory processing disorder someone might say “It looks like you’re playing.” My response to them, “Perfect!” Treating sensory processing disorder (SPD) should be fun.
Children learn, grow, engage and process best when having fun, so treating sensory processing difficulties should be fun. Even though it may just look like play, appropriate targeted sensory activities can go a long way in helping your sensory child.
Who treats sensory processing disorder?
Occupational Therapists (OT). At times physical therapists treat SPD as well, but that’s not as common.
OTs work to improve the lives of their clients. Helping them to engage in their daily occupations to their fullest potential, whether that is in play, self-care, being a sibling, or student. This makes OTs the perfect match to work with children who struggle with sensory processing.
Research OTs in your area and find one who has experience working with children who have SPD. Obtain a referral from your pediatrician and get scheduled! The OT will do an evaluation and develop a plan that works best for you and your child.
But how exactly do you treat SPD?
Great question. There are a few different ‘methods’ for working with children who struggle with sensory processing.
Sensory Integration works to gradually expose someone to structured sensory input. Increasing the challenge of this stimulus over time, allows the brain to respond and adapt to these inputs more effectively.
Floor Time is a specific treatment approach and you can read more about it here.
Sensory Diets work to help a child obtain the proper sensory input, provide adaptations and modifications to help be properly regulated to succeed in their environment.
The goal is to help improve overall sensory processing, to improve how the brain interprets and responds to sensory input. As discussed here, sensory input can affect people differently. Some children can be hypersensitive to input, and some hyposensitive.
One way to think about it is, with continued exposure to the appropriate sensory stimuli we can help ‘rewire’ the brain to better respond to input in the future. In time we can help the child who is oversensitive to a stimulus better respond to that input and the child who seeks a certain input to be better regulated.
Swings, balls, rice bins? How does this help improve sensory processing?
We have seven main sensory systems. We want to help regulate these systems. Gradual exposure and challenge of a system that is hypersensitive can help someone better adapt to these stimuli. Providing focused input for a child that is hyposensitive and seeks input can help them improve regulation.
Swings are one way to get vestibular input. Gradually increasing vestibular input, from rocking with a parent, to rolling on the floor to being able to go on a swing is one example of how to progress input for a child that is hypersensitive to vestibular input.
Swings also provide focused vestibular input for the seeker.
You can bounce on a ball for vestibular input, sit on them for an unstable surface for active proprioceptive input, or use one to steamroller for passive proprioceptive input. Large therapy balls provide a variety of different sensory experiences and for most children they are fun, remember the key to successfully working on sensory integration is fun!
Tactile bins with rice, bean, popcorn, or sand all provide different types of tactile input. So for the tactile seeker or avoider, this could help them fulfill their need or allow a way to gradually progress more tolerance to touch. Learn more about how to create your own sensory bin here.
Think of your sensory systems as buckets, each sensory input has its own bucket.
Some buckets are not as full, others may be overflowing.
The buckets that are more empty may cause you to seek out that input, and the ones that are overflowing may make you feel overstimulated by this input.
You want your buckets to be more evenly filled.
Sensory seekers may have a bucket (or more than one) that isn’t as ‘full’ and need increased input to fill that bucket up.
Avoiders may need help to reduce the stimulus that is overflowing their bucket and gradual exposure help them improve their tolerance (desensitize ) to that input.
Putting it all together
A sensory diet is a great way to work on improving sensory processing. We’ve written more in-depth about sensory diets here, and we created Sensory Sid Activity Cards to allow families to easily engage in a sensory diet at home.
Finding a time to work this into your daily routine is helpful for consistency. Taking 5-10 mins before dinner for example to engage in a quick sensory diet may help your child to participate in mealtime with greater ease. Performing a more calming sensory diet before bed can help your child unwind and ease into their nighttime routine.
As with everything, there is no cookbook recipe for each child. You will need to experiment, observe, and discuss with your child’s OT to find the right balance for them, and in time this may need to be changed, just as they change as they grow.