It usually happens in the preschool years. You notice that your toddler seems to be unusually sensitive to noise or light. And he’s very, very picky about clothes and shoes, which are often “too scratchy” or “too tight.”
Then a teacher observes that, compared to other kids his age, your son is a little clumsy. He has difficulty with fine motor skills like holding a pencil. And he may be prone to tantrums or meltdowns for no reason that’s apparent to you.
What do these behaviors have in common? They suggest your child may have trouble processing the sensory information he is getting from the world around him. Being too sensitive to stimulation, or not sensitive enough, can make him uncomfortable, anxious, distracted or overwhelmed. Fortunately, you can help him feel better and avoid meltdowns.
If You Suspect Your Child Has Sensory Processing Issues
You and your child are not alone. A 2009 study suggests that 1 in every 6 children has sensory issues that get in the way of their daily functioning and learning. While sensory processing issues are frequently seen in children with autism, lots of kids who are not on the autism spectrum also experience them.
There is no medication to treat sensory processing issues. But there are therapies as well as practical changes you can make at home and at school to help your child feel better and do better.
You’ll want to rule out other causes for your child’s symptoms. Anxiety and ADHD can also cause kids to be fidgety, distracted and prone to meltdowns. If your child also has ADHD or anxiety, those issues should be treated separately, because they can make dealing with his sensory processing problems harder for him. If he has ADHD, for instance, and has poor impulse control, he might be quick to melt down over loud noises, bright lights or other overwhelming stimulation. If he has anxiety, he might be prone to either flee or get aggressive (fight or flight) when his senses are stressed.
Adjustments You Can Make at Home and at School
If your child seems to be overly sensitive to stimulation, you’ll want to limit his exposure to overstimulating environments like video arcades, loud birthday parties, supermarkets, fireworks—any place with bright lights or loud noises. When you have to go places where you think he might have problems with the noise, you can outfit him with soft, comfortable earplugs.
You and your child’s teacher can discuss changes you can make to help him be more comfortable and able to focus in the classroom. For instance:
- Make sure he’s not sitting next to distracting sources of noise.
- If possible, eliminate buzzing and flickering fluorescent lighting.
- Make sure his chair is a good fit for him and when he’s sitting at his desk he can put his feet flat on the floor and rest his elbows on the desk.
- For the child who needs to move a bit, you might try an inflated seated cushion or a pillow from home so he can both squirm and stay in his seat.
- Some kids are better off if they sit close to the teacher. However, if your child is easily distracted by noise, he may end up turning around often to where the noise is coming from.
Who Can Help
Occupational therapists (or OTs) are the specialists who work with kids who have sensory issues. Your child may be referred to an OT at his school, or you may want to find one who is in private practice. OTs engage kids in physical activities that are designed to regulate their sensory input, to make them feel more comfortable, secure, and able to focus.
There are no scientifically sound studies proving that the work occupational therapists do with kids who have sensory processing challenges is effective. But many parents have found that the therapies and exercises help kids to feel better and function better. “It works like a reset button,” one mom reports.
Dr. Michael Rosenthal, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute and the son of an occupational therapist, explains it this way: “It’s clear that identifying sensory issues and working with an OT help many children become calmer and better regulated.”
But since kids with sensory issues are all so different, and since occupational therapists usually aren’t connected with research institutions, the science isn’t there to back up the clinical evidence. “The thing we don’t really understand is how and if this approach works for every kid who has sensory issues.”
What Occupational Therapists Do
Evaluation: Each child is different. Before therapy can begin, the OT will evaluate your child’s specific sensory issues. She will use tests as well as closely observing your child’s behavior and talking to you and his teacher.
Treatment: Occupational therapists offer activities to make your child feel more comfortable, secure, and able to focus. There is a lot of physical contact designed to give him the right amount of stimulation. Activities include rolling or bouncing on huge balls, jumping into a ball pit, crashing into a mountain of huge pillows, jumping on a trampoline and spinning in a protected sling.
Brushing: OTs also use something called “brushing,” particularly for children who find the sensations of what most of us would consider “normal” touch—walking barefoot, the feel of clothing against our skin, of being touched by another person—irritating or unpleasant. It involves using a soft-bristled brush to provide deep pressure, followed by joint compressions. OTs teach the procedure to parents so that it can be done several times a day.
The sensory gym: Treatment usually takes place in a setting outfitted with specialized equipment, called a sensory gym. The equipment allows kids to safely spin, swing, and crash into padded surfaces. The gym may also be outfitted with things like weighted vests and ”squeeze machines”—developed by the autistic writer/inventor Temple Grandin— to provide deep pressure that is calming to kids with sensory processing issues.
The sensory diet: Your child’s OT may also design a sensory treatment plan, custom-made for his needs, for you to carry out at home. Activities are designed to give him stimulation he needs, from weight and contact that help a child feel grounded to tastes and temperature that stimulate an underactive sense of taste. Lindsey Biel, an OT whose book The Sensory Smart Child offers a lot of useful information for parents, describes activities that might be part of a “sensory diet.” They include:
- Having her feet massaged
- Using a vibrating toothbrush
- Jumping on mini-trampoline
- Going to the playground
- Pushing grocery cart or stroller
- Drinking cold water
- Carrying weights up stairs
- Eating crunchy and chewy foods
- Helping set the table, using two hands to carry and balance a tray
How to Know If the Treatment Is Working
There is debate about the effectiveness of these treatments, because they haven’t been rigorously studied. But many parents say they help kids be calmer and more focused.
One excellent suggestion for parents of kids starting treatment for sensory processing problems comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics. They suggest that you work with your pediatrician to set goals and find ways to measure how much it’s helping your child.
It’s a good idea create a scale of behaviors to compare how your child is doing before and after treatment. Some specific goals you might want to work toward include the ability to focus better, to stay calm in a loud room or have fewer meltdowns.