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Strategies to Help Children With Sensory Processing Difficulties

Did you know we have eight senses, not five? In addition to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, there is the less familiar vestibular (sense of balance), proprioceptive (movement of body parts in relation to the rest of the body), and interoceptive (feeling what’s happening inside our body, like hunger or fatigue, as well as physical cues to emotions, like blushing). Our senses tell us important information about our environment and how we should respond. Some children have difficulties processing that information, which can lead to inappropriate responses or impact their ability to learn.

There are several Sensory Processing Disorders. Some children are easily overstimulated, which may cause them to avoid certain stimuli they find uncomfortable. Other children have understimulated senses, which may delay their responses to their environment. Some children seek out an abundance of sensory experiences, which can lead to disruptive behavior. Occupational therapists use a variety of strategies to help children with sensory processing difficulties overcome some of the obstacles they face. Below are a few common situations and potential solutions.

Child is Over or Under Stimulated

Some children cannot regulate the amount of sensory input they receive during a certain activity, such as play. If a child is overstimulated and receives too much information, they may seem grouchy, restless, unfocused or even devolve into a tantrum or meltdown. If they are understimulated and don’t receive enough sensory input, it might take them too long to respond, they might crash into things or display poor motor skills, or they may crave touch. Some children may experience both understimulation and overstimulation at different times. To improve their sensory regulation, you can try grounding them by sitting them on your lap or providing deep pressure through squeezes, massages, or a weighted blanket. Sometimes a hug works wonders!

Child Doesn’t Like Getting Dirty

Children with an overly sensitive sense of touch often find certain textures distressing or even painful, particularly things that are wet, sticky, or slimy. With time, you can teach them that these inputs are not negative through “messy play.” Before engaging in messy play, you should start with some deep pressure activities or swinging or rocking to make sure they are well regulated before you begin.

Start with dry textures like uncooked rice or lentils. Place a small amount on the table and demonstrate picking it up or moving it around and encourage your child to follow your example. Once they are comfortable touching dry textures, move on to fine textures like sand or flour, then sticky textures like cooked spaghetti, playdough, or damp sand. Finally move on to wet textures like shaving foam, soap, or finger paint. Go at your child’s pace and never force them to touch something they don’t want to. If direct touch remains a problem, let them use a spoon or brush to move the materials.

Child is Bothered by Loud Noises

Some children are particularly sensitive to loud noises and may become upset. When this occurs, move them away from the sound and comfort them. Explain what the sounds are or what causes them. Giving your child some control over the sound can help them get over their fear. For example, let them switch the vacuum cleaner on and off. You can also record problematic sounds on your phone and let your child control the volume.

Child Doesn’t Want to Bathe

There are many reasons that children with sensory sensitivities may struggle with bath time. They may be bothered by the smell of the soap or shampoo. They may have a sensitive scalp and not like being touched there. They may dislike the sound or feel of the water. If possible, try to find out what specifically causes them distress so you can tailor your strategies to that issue. Try giving them more control by letting them choose their own bath products or letting them style their own hair. Distract them with a (water safe) fidget toy. If they’re worried about getting water in their eyes, you can use a bath visor or let them wear swim goggles.

Child Cannot Sit Still

Most toddlers have a lot of energy, but some seem to be constantly on the go and have trouble sitting still. These children’s brains may need more stimulation that they are receiving. You can help them calm down by providing opportunities for movement based play. This could include jumping on a trampoline, climbing on monkey bars, or riding a tricycle. But you don’t need fancy equipment. You can also play tug of war with a blanket, fill a beach ball with air and water and play catch with this weighted ball, or encourage your child to fill buckets with sand or water and carry them around the yard.

In Conclusion

Occupational therapists are trained to help children with sensory processing difficulties. If your child has been diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder or struggles with any of the issues above, you don’t have to deal with it alone. Early intervention services, including occupational therapy, are free in Pennsylvania and can teach you and your child ways to improve their sensory regulation.

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