How to Help a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) | A Comprehensive Guide

Introduction 

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) impacts how the brain perceives, interprets, and integrates sensory information from the body and the surrounding environment. This may cause children with SPD to struggle to respond appropriately to this sensory information. 

Living with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can be deeply challenging for a child, often leading to feelings of isolation, frustration, and embarrassment. These emotional struggles may manifest in behaviors like defiance and aggression as the child tries to cope with overwhelming sensory experiences.

For parents, raising a child with SPD presents its own set of challenges. Understanding your child’s unique sensory needs and developing an awareness of the specific experiences that trigger abnormal responses requires a lot of patience and energy. It’s about constantly adapting and finding ways to support the child through their sensory journey, all while managing the complexities and emotions that come with it.

This article is designed to provide parents with the tools and knowledge on how to help a child with sensory processing disorder by assisting them to identify and support their needs. We look into various treatment options available for children with SPD, offer effective management strategies, as well as tips and common mistakes to avoid.

Key Take-Away Messages

What are simple approaches to help a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
Some simple approaches to help a child with SPD include:
Avoiding sensations that trigger them
Providing sensory breaks in between lessons or activities in the home
Accommodating their environment according to their needs, like reducing clutter in the classroom and moving them away from background noises
Providing purposeful activities that can help them “reorganize,” such as jogging, biking, and doing sports

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How to know if your child has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) struggle to process and respond to sensory information from their bodies and surroundings, leading to a spectrum of abnormal reactions [1]. 

A child with Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD) finds it difficult to respond with a behavior that matches the degree of the information they received, exhibiting reactions that are either too muted or overly exaggerated. They may also be overly sensitive to certain stimuli or require more intense sensory input to be affected.

Meanwhile, a child with SPD may have Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD), where they find it difficult to interpret the quality of the sensations. This can manifest as difficulty distinguishing similar stimuli, like the letters “b” and “d,” or pinpointing the source of sounds, as in the case of those with auditory processing disorder. Some children may have movement or posture challenges because of their sensory problems (sensory-based motor disorder, or SBMD). They may have low muscle tone, poor balance, or inadequate control of movement.

It’s crucial to understand that SPD can impact one or multiple senses, and a child’s reactions can vary not only between different senses but also within the same sense. For example, a child might enjoy the loud volume of a TV but be extremely bothered by the noise from an air conditioner. Similarly, another child with SPD may delight in spinning around but hate the motion of a swing.

Here are some other signs that a child may have SPD:

  • Refuse to eat certain foods because of the texture
  • Dislike certain types of clothing
  • Hates getting their hands messy
  • Uncomfortable with particular movements, like sliding or swinging
  • Spin, jump, climb, and run excessively
  • Appear clumsy
  • Overly sensitive to sounds
  • Hate being touched or hugged

What are treatment options for a child with SPD?

Currently, SPD is not considered a medical diagnosis, making it hard for families of children with SPD to get help. Despite this, children with SPD are typically referred to occupational therapists (OTs) for the evaluation and treatment of SPD.

Occupational Therapy for SPD

OTs perform a thorough evaluation to assess the child’s participation in their daily activities and see whether sensory issues are affecting their performance. At the same time, OTs do a series of observations, caregiver interviews, and checklists to identify a child’s sensory processing issues and develop a treatment plan suited to the child’s needs. 

The focus of occupational therapy for sensory processing disorder is to boost a child’s engagement and participation in activities meaningful to them, such as play, school participation, social interaction, and community involvement. 

Treatment sessions are catered to the child’s unique needs. They provide sensory-based activities for children to address their sensory issues. At the same time, OTs also help with other challenges a child may have. This is especially true in children with conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who typically have sensory issues along with other challenges. 

OTs also use dancing, movement-based exercises, drawing, sports, and other fun activities to help address other skills a child needs to perform their daily activities safely and efficiently. 

OTs use different strategies to handle a child’s sensory needs:

Sensory Integration Therapy (SIT)

Trained occupational therapists use sensory integration therapy (SIT), also called Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI), which is founded on neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change through experience [2]. This is done by providing individually tailored activity challenges that address a child’s sensory issues. The aim is to improve the child’s ability to handle sensory information so they can do better at activities they find challenging and get used to things they cannot tolerate, such as dressing, eating, personal hygiene, handling textures (e.g., messy play), and more.

During a session, an OT adjusts the activities moment by moment [3] based on the child’s response to the sensory experience or sensory challenge and their interest in the activity. Activities include providing tactile, proprioceptive, auditory, and vestibular input through play [2] using brushes, balls, trampolines, swings, and other equipment. These activities typically tackle one or more sensory systems at a time and aim to organize their sensory systems and enhance their child’s arousal state.

Sensory diet

Because children only see their OTs once or twice a week, therapists prepare a sensory diet that their family or teachers carry over into their home and school. Like a diet that nourishes the body, a sensory diet provides “sensory nourishment” for a child with sensory needs. It contains an optimal combination of sensory-based activities according to the child’s needs.

Alternative therapies

A child with sensory issues may benefit from other therapies:

  • Physical therapy: PTs can help address motor-related sensory challenges like muscle tone, posture control, balance, and coordination.
  • Speech and language pathology: SLPs can help children with SPD who have social skills and communication challenges.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy can help children with anxiety or depression because of SPD
  • Listening therapy: Listening therapy involves asking a child to listen to a variety of sounds with different patterns and frequencies that aim to stimulate their brains

How to manage your child’s sensitivities?

Parents of children with sensory sensitivities should do their best to recognize what sensations affect their child. This includes the sensations they seek, avoid, and calm and organize them. Knowing what they avoid can help you accommodate their activities and environment. Here are some examples:

  • For children with tactile sensitivities, choose fabrics they prefer and remove tags from clothing
  • For children with visual sensitivities, remove excessive indoor lighting and visual distractions in classrooms
  • For children with auditory sensitivities, provide the child with sounds that they find acceptable and move them away from background noises like fans and generator sounds
  • For children with gustatory sensitivities, provide food textures they can tolerate and slowly introduce new textures in small amounts. Prepare a spit bowl nearby.

Parents are also encouraged to experiment with different sensory environments to find things that can alter a child’s perception of the event. For instance, a child who hates showers may enjoy bathing in a bathtub. Or, a child may prefer dim lights over bright, white lights.

If their sensory-seeking behaviors are non-purposeful or unsafe, like repeated spinning, find more purposeful and acceptable ways they can seek their sensations. Here are some sensory or movement break ideas you can try:

  • Obstacle courses with heavy work, like pulling a wagon, pushing furniture, digging a sandbox, and wearing weighted backpacks
  • Movement activities and exercises like jump ropes, jogging, cycling, animal walks, and resistive band exercises
  • Stretching and yoga
  • Set up safe places to crash, like padded/cushioned walls and floors

Here are other tips that can help parents manage their child’s sensitivities:

  • Give a child activities that can help prepare them for a challenging task. For instance, desensitization techniques, such as applying firm touch on the skin just before messy play like finger painting or sand play, can help the child better tolerate the activity. Provide the child brushes and sand tools, which they can use when they need a “break” from the unpleasant sensation [3].
  • Modify the activity or find ways that are most likely to help the child succeed. For instance, one child with dyspraxia and coordination problems may benefit more from visual demonstrations, while the other may benefit more from physical guidance [3].
  • Teach the child how to tell their parents, teachers, or other adults when they feel stimulated and need a break. You can also prepare a corner where they can have a sensory break.
  • Prepare a child by gradually introducing the sensation. Introducing it in a safe environment, like introducing finger paint near a sink where they can easily wash their hands or spit out the food with a new texture, can help them gain more confidence.
  • Try not to force a child to do something they are uncomfortable with. For instance, a child with tactile sensitivities may not like kisses and hugs. Find an alternative way to say hi to others, like a fist bump or a high five.
  • Children with sensory issues may also be sensitive to large, noisy crowds. Instead of forcing them to be active in these events, let them take the lead and wait for them to initiate.

Living with SPD: tips and mistakes to avoid for parents

Giselle is a speech therapist and a mom of a child with ADHD with sensory sensitivities. She shared that while she’s a therapist, she still finds it challenging at times. His son is sensitive to food texture and has a very limited list of foods he can tolerate. There are days when he gets overly sensitive, and the slightest change in the texture of his favorite food can make him vomit and stop eating. “He loves fried chicken, but only ones from McDonald’s, and could happily eat that every day. However, he’s highly sensitive to the chicken’s preparation; he’ll immediately notice if any part is undercooked or overcooked. As a therapist, my instinct would be to force him to finish the meal despite his issues so that he can “overcome” them. But being a mother trumps being a therapist, and so I try to encourage more instead of forcing him to finish his meal. I want him to have a healthy relationship with food and enjoy his meals, but at the same time, I want to gauge up to what point I can still push his tolerance for this slight change. What I would usually do after my son expresses that there’s something wrong with his chicken is to make him specify what it is. This makes him feel heard/seen and, at the same time, introspect about the situation. Then, I try to address the issue. If he says the meat is too hard, I would try to cut up the meat into smaller pieces. If he says the meat is too mushy or soft, I would add crunchy chicken skin on the next scoop. These strategies usually work.”

Another mom, Debbie, has a son with autism with sensory sensitivities. She shared how his son refuses to eat certain foods because of texture or appearance, dislikes getting his hands dirty, bumps and trips easily, gets irritated with clothing tags, has problems recognizing personal space, and is overly sensitive to electric toothbrushes and hair razors. He has attended OT for several months and has shown improvements. When it comes to strategies, she shared that “it’s still a hit or miss when it comes to food, but I try to explore and see what he would tolerate. He still struggles with the hair razor since he doesn’t encounter it regularly. In contrast, he now tolerates toothbrushing much better since he has to do it every day. In all other things, we just affirm him and say it’s okay. We don’t force him when he doesn’t want something, but let him take the lead.

Living with SPD as a teen and adult

As individuals with sensory issues enter their teenage and adult years, they often face additional challenges. Navigating the physical and hormonal changes associated with puberty, coupled with the increased responsibilities and expectations of adulthood, can amplify the complexity of managing sensory issues. These factors can significantly impact their lives, including academic performance, work, and relationships. Here are some things that can help:

  • Modify the activities and techniques to be more teen or adult-appropriate. Instead of using sensory play and games, focusing on tasks like gardening, arts and crafts, and cooking can help equip them better for daily challenges
  • Provide social skills training along with strategies to address issues and challenges that prevent them from initiating and engaging in conversations and seeking friendships
  • Parents should be aware that teenage years often come with heightened emotional states and be more patient.
  • Encourage adults with sensory needs to actively explore their own sensitivities and develop coping strategies that work for them. Breathing techniques, yoga, and developing routines can help
  • Advocate for adults with sensory needs to get school and workplace accommodations.

Conclusion

Dealing with sensory issues can be challenging for individuals with SPD. In addition to sensory integration therapy, adapting activities, making environmental accommodations, and receiving strong parental support is crucial for helping a child with SPD. By tailoring daily activities, modifying surroundings to reduce sensory overload, and leaning on solid family support, individuals with SPD can navigate their sensory world with greater ease and assurance.In addition to sensory integration therapies, children with SPD can also benefit from listening therapies like Soundsory®and Forbrain®. Soundsory is a 40-day home-based program that mixes music listening with exercises to help provide children with multisensory input to organize their brains. Forbrain® is a brain training device that uses the child’s own voice to stimulate their auditory system to improve their attention span, learning, and memory.

FAQs 

What are coping strategies for sensory processing disorder?
Some of the coping strategies for SPD include making sensory changes to things you can directly control, like the materials your child wears and the environment they are in. Providing sensory breaks in between activities can also help. Sensory breaks are part of a sensory diet, which consists of activities a child can do to do sensory-based activities that calm and reorganize them.
How do you calm down a child with Sensory Processing Disorder?
What can calm a child with SPD differs from child to child. However, when facing a sensory meltdown, it is best to remove the child from the sensory trigger and bring them to a quiet sensory corner – ideally a quiet, dark, and enclosed space.
What triggers sensory overload?
Sensory overload is when a person becomes overstimulated. This overstimulation can arise from a single intense source or accumulate gradually from multiple inputs over a day. Common triggers include environments with large crowds, noisy settings, or a combination of various visual, tactile, and auditory activities a child engages in during the day.

References 

  1. Miller, L. J., Anzalone, M. E., Lane, S. J., Cermak, S. A., & Osten, E. T. (2007). Concept evolution in sensory integration: a proposed nosology for diagnosis. The American journal of occupational therapy: official publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association, 61(2), 135–140. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.61.2.135
  2. Guardado K., & Sergent SR. (2023). Sensory Integration.In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing
  3. Case-Smith J. & O’Brien J. C. (2010). Occupational therapy for children (6th ed.). Mosby/Elsevier.

Rachel Ann Melegrito

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I’m a licensed occupational therapist turned content writer with over a decade of clinical experience as a pediatric OT. I also used to teach basic sciences and OT courses in a university before I shifted to content writing.