It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by noise, movement etc, but for children with sensory processing difficulties, this can impact their ability to function, focus, and learn. When we refer to sensory processing, we don’t only mean sight, taste, hearing, touch, smell. It includes numerous other senses such as vestibular and proprioception. Autistic children, and those with ADHD often have additional sensory needs, however it is not limited to autism and ADHD. Also children without any additional diagnosis can have SPD.
‘SPD is a neurological condition that interferes with the body’s ability to interpret sensory messages from the brain and convert those messages into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.’
Sensory difficulties manifest in a variety of ways. Some children are over responsive, taking in too much information, and some under responsive, not receiving enough. Some are a combination of both. Some of the ‘behaviours’ we see are; banging and crashing into things, finding it impossible to focus, displaying aggression towards themselves and others, withdrawing from activities, seeming constantly lethargic and numerous other things. To find out more about sensory processing and ways to help, I’d recommend ‘The Out Of Synch Child’ and ‘The Out Of Synch Child Has Fun’. However, the best source of learning comes from the child, with guidance from an Occupational Therapist and parents.
Here’s my top 10 tips for helping children and young people who do, or might have sensory processing difficulties.
1. Look for triggers. I found the best way to do this is to keep a diary or log of events. Write down what you are seeing but also take note of what is happening around the child. What is the environment like? Is it noisy? Busy? What has just happened? Have they recently been active? What is about to happen? Are there changes coming up? Look at the information you’ve gathered to see if there is a pattern.
2. Environment is key! Reducing sensory input and providing specific support can really help. I always think of a reception classroom when I mention this, because it has pretty much every ‘sensory’ area covered! Displays everywhere, things hanging from the ceiling, lots of children moving about, noise, movement etc. If they need to focus on structured tasks, think about removing as much as you can from the environment, or providing a separate space free from additional sensory input. This could be a bare workstation or a pop up tent.
3. Some children crave noise, but can also cover their ears at noises too. This is because it is often its specific noise they crave, or can only cope with noise which they have control over, or which they are making. Children who are over sensitive to sound, often benefit from ear defenders. If they don’t like these, try in-ear headphones with quiet music playing. It can actually help them to focus.
4. We are all unique and individuals. What works for one child might not work for another and can make things worse. For example, weight can help calm senses if the child is over responsive, but weight for a child who is under responsive can make their ability to engage, reduce. Vibration works in a similar way, in that it could help an under responsive child become more alert, but for an over responsive child, it could make it even harder for them to engage.
5. Occupational Therapists often recommend join compressions and body brushing. This might sound alarming, but I can assure you if the children need this input, they soon learn it helps & come and ask for more! It is a way of allowing them to know ‘where their body is’. That might sound odd, but if you imagine having a numb leg, you possibly instinctively stamp your foot until you feel it in a normal way again. Although this isn’t about numbness, it’s similar in that you might find these children bumping into things, hitting themselves or numerous other things in order to gain the information their body needs. They could try doing joint compressions themselves by doing wall push-ups, lifting themselves off their chair with their hands whilst seated, hugging themselves, putting their hands palm to palm and pushing as hard as possible 5-10 times.
6. Sensory circuits are brilliant, but they need to be carried out in full. They involve an ‘alerting’ activity, then an ‘organising’ activity, finally a ‘calming’ activity. It isn’t always helpful to recommend ‘running off spare energy’ because many of these children are already overstimulated, they will need a reduction in sensory input and calming, rather than more. That’s not to say structured exercise won’t help, it often can. Be led by the child, get to know what works for them. There is more information about sensory circuits and ideas for activities online if you google ‘sensory circuit ideas’.
7. Consider what you see, to be a clue to what the child needs. For example, if the child is purposefully running into things or people, they may be looking for a way to alert their body. If this is the case, ‘deep pressure’ activities could help. The OT might recommend joint compressions, brushing, using a hug-jacket or weight, or you could try putting a few heavy books in a rucksack, asking them to carry heavy items from one place to another.
Sleep is often another issue, but strategies can be included in night time routines to help. Nice smelling baths, soft lighting, different coloured light bulbs (UV ones are fab!) Rolling them up in their towel to provide deep pressure, tight PJ’s etc.
8. Many children don’t want to feel ‘different’, so they might avoid or refuse support. You can try disguising them as ‘helpful tasks’ such as pushing a heavy box across the floor, carrying the shopping bags in, doing the hoovering or other housework tasks. Cycling, climbing, running etc are helpful. Provide them with a rough sponge to shower with in the morning and/or a rough towel to dry themselves on. This will get a form of body brushing into their day. Buy them tight vests to wear under their clothes. The key is to be creative, get them onboard and follow their lead.
9. Have fun! Try using songs and rhymes along with joint compressions or brushing. Set targets or goals in sensory circuits to make them more motivating. Do the activities with them and/or in groups so they don’t feel singled out. Let them try them out on you first if their anxious. Allow them to be in control at all times. If they don’t want to try something, get creative and think of other ways to provide the same input. Teeth brushing used to be a big battle, you can’t really allow them to choose not to brush their teeth, but you CAN make it fun. Sit in front of a mirror so they can see what’s happening, (if a child has issues with body awareness, the mirror can help. It can also help with a feeling of control). Sing a silly teeth brushing song and take turns for 5 seconds saying ‘your turn, my turn’. Try an electric toothbrush and various toothpastes. The flavor can be a big no-no for some kids! Clothes can cause big problems, so take them shopping with you, or order a few choices online to try at home. Let them feel the textures and try them on (if possible). Get seamless socks (Primark sell these) & be prepared to cut all labels out of clothes.
10. Sensory processing differences morph, and this can happen a lot! Just when you think you have it nailed, their needs change and something they loved last month, is now the root of all evil! (The exact terminology my son used to describe his *very expensive* vibrating cushion, just 1 month after he begged for one ‘just like the one at school’). This is why I wouldn’t suggest spending lots of money on various sensory equipment unless recommended by a professional of course. There are ways to make or use cheap alternatives and still get the same input.
I hope this is helpful in some way. I couldn’t possibly cover all the possibilities, but please ask if you need ideas for a specific problem. I might not have the answer, but someone will and I’m happy to ask on your behalf.