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Navigating Sensory Processing Challenges with Children

Child in shopping mall

From birth, children explore and understand the world around them using their senses. They discover sights, sounds, flavours, smells and textures, slowly developing their experiences over time. But, for some kids, the world can be too much. Toys, sand, clothing labels, bright sunshine, fireworks, crowds or crunchy food can be stressful and overwhelming.

Though all children have sensory preferences, it only becomes a problem when their reactions disrupt daily life. While common in children with autism, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) also affects otherwise typically developing children meeting their milestones, but struggling to interact with their environment. It can become difficult, or even impossible, for them to feel comfortable, safe and open to learning and socialization.

For these children, Occupational Therapists knowledgeable about sensory issues can make huge gains, notes Amanda Lee, Occupational Therapist (OT) at VHA Home HealthCare. “SPD affects the way a child’s nervous system processes the information received from their senses, leaving them over- or under-stimulated and possibly stressed,” says Amanda. “No two children experience SPD the same way and the symptoms vary tremendously from child to child. It can impact only one sense—like hearing or taste—or can affect multiple senses,” she explains.

What are the Symptoms?

If you suspect your child is struggling with this disorder, Amanda identifies what to look out for:

  • Gagging or refusing to eat certain foods
  • Resistance to teeth-brushing, hair washing or sunscreen application
  • Distress in noisy or crowded places
  • No reaction to loud noises
  • Intolerance to unexpected touch
  • Affected by clothing’s texture or fit
  • Resistance to certain sounds or smells
  • Unconcerned by messy hands and/or face
  • Clumsiness or bumping into things (sensory issues can make them “not see” their surroundings)
  • Struggling with new routines, locations or change

Again, these behaviours need to be significant enough that they are affecting day-to-day life. Your child’s reaction to stimulation can be either over or under responsive. “Being too hot or too cold can cause little response, while the sound of a vacuum can give the child physical distress or extreme anxiety,” clarifies Amanda.

How is it Treated?

Untreated, SPD can persist into adulthood. It is important that children get the right diagnosis and treatment early to prevent anxiety, depression or behavioural problems. “There are many ways to treat SPD, and the trick is to find the right one, or combination of strategies, that work for your child,” suggests Amanda. Often, the best approach is gradual, increased exposure to whatever is causing distress combined with small, simple changes you can do at home. Amanda believes that, “through time and support, kids can develop their own ways to cope better.”

Suggested Strategies from a Paediatric OT

Amanda works with many families who are feeling isolated and guilty and questioning their parenting. SPD is often misdiagnosed, so they end up referred to a behavioural therapist, when in fact, “these children have a neurological disorder and are experiencing distress,” says Amanda. An open mind and a willingness to problem solve will help make children with SPD more comfortable and confident.

  • Try simple adaptations. Instead of avoiding things or places that distress your child, make some adjustments. If your child is bothered by bright sun, always have sunglasses on hand. Pack noise-cancelling earphones when you know you’re going to be somewhere loud. Or, aim to visit restaurants outside of peak dinner times, so you’re more likely to have a meal without a meltdown.
  • Gradually increase exposure. It can be very isolating for a family with a child who has SPD. If attending a birthday party feels unattainable, divide the event up into little parts. Parents often see things as all or nothing. Go to the play portion and leave before everyone sings happy birthday. Next party try joining in but use headphones. Make it gradual and work your way up to staying and enjoying the whole party.
  • Focus on the little gains. While you may desperately want your child to eat solid food, allow them to explore at their own pace. As a first step, this may simply mean tolerating a food that they have a strong aversion to. Maybe they’ll touch it, get sauce on their fingers and have a small taste. Celebrate and build on each step forward.

Contact VHA Home HealthCare today for more information on how an OT can help your child.


Article reviewed by Sharon Rosenthal, OT, REG (Ont)