Understanding and Supporting Children With Sensory Processing

Published on: February 12, 2020

An occupational therapist tells us the information caregivers often ask about to help children with a sensory processing disorder.

By Chanipa Vipatawat

One of the most challenging things that parents normally face with children with special needs is the sensory processing system, this issue sometimes ends up with parents leaving their child at home or even leaving them occupied with televisions or smartphones, but does this really help them calm and regulate themselves in the long term?  

There are many basic areas in a humans’ daily life including self-care skills, motor skills, executive functions, social skills, and the ability to live in a large community. But for little ones with special needs, these skills might be difficult without our help.  The imbalance of the sensory processing system is one of the challenging factors which can interrupt their learning skills and many children with special needs have this disorder.   

A brief explanation for the sensory processing system is that children are unable to regulate themselves with these sensory components; proprioceptive, vestibular, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, and visual senses. Normally, people will respond to these senses properly at the ‘optimal level’, but children with sensory processing disorder might have difficulty dealing with these inputs.  

The imbalance of the sensory processing system can stimulate children to respond to the environment or people in inappropriate behaviors due to their lack of coping skills. It can also obstruct the beneficial sensory input to the body. For these reasons, sensory integration is another vital area of needs that parents should understand better to help their child live with less assistance.   

Children with sensory processing disorder are roughly classified into two broad groups including the Avoider and the Seeker. The first will avoid the sensory input that comes into the body, they dislike different tactile sensations, refuse new clothes, dislike loud sounds, only like certain foods, avoid crowded places, shy away from physical activities, and refuse strongly to smells, tastes, and visuals as they have difficulty processing them. The Avoider lacks many basic experiences in their life and can become overwhelmed when trying to practice processing sensations. Their threshold is low so they can get anxious very easily.   

On the other hand, the Seeker is the opposite. The Seeker loves to play rough with friends, likes hard food, loves jumping or running, likes touching various textures, loves doing a messy play, talking with a loud voice, and staring at moving objects, just to name a few. The Seeker has a high threshold so they will try to get as much sensory as they can to satisfy their high sensory needs.   

Many people say that parents are the most favorable toys for children, it is very beneficial for our children to join sensory activities with their parents by adapting simple activities to their routines. Children will gradually regulate themselves depending on the activities they’ve been working on throughout the day. The cooperation between a child and parents will never be a disappointing result and they also feel comfortable being alone with their parents.   

Here are some easy activities I recommend by using simple materials at home:

  1. Deep pressure – Apply massage through joints without using any tools or using a cushion. 
  2. Messy play – Find textures around your home to play with like soap, shaving cream, oobleck, playdough, jelly beads, bean bucket and more. Children will be calmer and have fun with these activities. 
  3. Storytime – Use a calm voice and roleplay to have children participate in activities.
  4. Playing sports – Use equipment from the sports they like to play to motivate their self-esteem and reduce energy.
  5. Community – Give them opportunities to participate in the community by playing with friends in the playground and to promote social skills and experience nature. 
  6. Provide children the appropriate utility for each area as recommended by the therapist. 

These activities can reduce anxiety, improve self-control, regulate sensory level, and facilitate cooperative play with parents. Once they can optimize their sensory processing system, they will definitely be more independent in many other areas.   

As described above, sensory is a part of our life that we can gain from many experiences not just from a therapy session. The more fun a child has with activities, the more they gain sensory input from it. Moreover, children love to get positive energy from people, so giving them the token economy system or praising consistently is what children want most, and they will be able to improve their self-esteem and self-confidence.  

Everything takes time to achieve, but consistency is the key to success.  

About the Author

Chanipa Vipatawat (Ruth), B.Sc. Occupational Therapist Registered/Licensed. Ruth found out that she loves being with children since the first year of clinical practice at her university, and determined to be a pediatric therapist since then. She is currently working as an occupational therapist at New Day Learning Clinic.

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