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What is a sensory processing disorder? Occupational therapist Sheilagh Blyth explains.

Sensory processing (sometimes called sensory integration or SI) is a term that refers to the way the body receives and interprets messages from the senses.

Humans have a multitude of senses that help them to gather information about the world around them: hearing, seeing, touch, smell, taste, balance, and proprioception (which is knowing what the muscles are doing without looking).

People process this information through the nervous system. This tells an individual to react either with a motor or a behavioural response. 

For example if a butterfly touches someone’s arm, the brain would receive a message that they could either feel or see that butterfly. How a person reacts to that sensation is dependent on how their body interprets sensations. They could brush the butterfly to one side, scream, wave their hands in the air or stand still in fright. Everyone’s reaction can be different.

Sensory integration usually occurs automatically and unconsciously without any effort. Someone with a difficulty may have a sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Children with sensory processing disorders

A child with SPD may have reactions which can be difficult to understand and explain. Their body is automatically reacting to what is around them by being in a ‘fight or flight’ mode, and this can be wrongly interpreted as bad behaviour. Every day these children may feel overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or appear aggressive.

Adults will often describe these children as being a fussy eater, emotional, stubborn, fearful, disruptive and uncooperative.

These children may find it difficult to make friends, to sit still in class, or to work as part of a group. They may appear disorganised, or find certain clothing or clothing labels difficult to wear.

A sensory processing disorder is not down to something a parent did or did not do. Research is currently investigating both genetic and environmental factors, however at present the cause is unknown.

Types of sensory processing disorders

Children usually present with three types of responses to sensations: under-react, sensory seeking and over-react.

  • Children who appear to under-react may appear withdrawn or be difficult to engage in an activity, they are watchful kids.
  • Sensory seekers need to activate their senses any way possible. This may be by wandering around the room (appearing to be uncertain and bored), swinging their feet or tapping their fingers, twirling their hair, biting their nails, tapping their pencil, or clicking their pen.
  • Children who over-react may appear to be excessively emotional in response to events.

What can parents and teachers do to help?

With seven different senses, three different ways of reacting, and every child’s response being unique, there is no one solution.

Parents can help by noticing if their child needs a quiet place to go to if there is too much noise.

If a child gives firm bear hugs, this would suggest they like to feel deep muscle pressure.  In that case a light touch or tap on this child’s shoulder to get in line at school could be an unpleasant sensation, and could scare them into an overreaction. If a child is constantly fiddling, a stress ball in class could help their concentration.

To help a child manage their sensory processing disorder both at home and in school look at the activity, the environment and the individuals around them. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would this activity result in the child under-reacting, seeking out sensations or over reacting? If so, can it be changed? Sometimes 10 minutes on a trampoline can calm one child but over-excite another.
  • Is the environment set up to help that child? If a child becomes scared by too much noise, is it possible to create a den or quiet reading corner? Perhaps a child who under-reacts may benefit from sitting on a wobble cushion to reawaken their senses.
  • Are you dressed appropriately? Some children find patterned clothing, dazzling jewellery or bright lipstick too visually stimulating. Others may find the smell of perfume or aftershave too overpowering causing them to be distracted from what they need to do or learn.

Sensory diets

As a child becomes older sensory diets can be a powerful behavioural tool in helping kids to respond appropriately to their senses.  A sensory diet is a personalised activity plan, designed to provide the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organised throughout the day. Done well, it should help with attention, concentration, sensory reactions and self-regulation. The concept is that the child rates their body in relation to a car engine, if it is going too fast then you need to look at the activity to see why. The aim is to have the engine running ‘just right’.

An occupational therapist (OT) with training in sensory processing disorders can help to devise a sensory diet, and offer advice which needs to be specific to an individual child.

The aim of any OT treatment is to help a child manage their own responses appropriately. There are many adults who have sensory difficulties however they have learnt to manage their responses. With help and understanding these children can learn how to play with friends and enjoy school.

Sheilagh Blyth is a children’s occupational therapist and founder of the Enable Me Method which provides books, resources and courses to educators.

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