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Guide to Sensory Processing with Tips and Strategies

Young children have a fascinating way of perceiving the world around them. From a young age, a child reacts to sights, sounds and textures in their own special way. For some children, processing the five senses can lead to an overload of emotions. If you think your child might be showing signs of unique sensory processing, we can help you and your family find tips to help sensory sensitivity for your child!

Take a look at the following sensory processing tips and strategies to learn how to help a child with sensory difficulties.

What Is Sensory Processing?

Everyone processes their senses differently. Imagine living in a big city with loud noises surrounding you at any moment. While some may be able to adapt to honking, planes flying overhead and loud chatter, those with sensory processing differences may find these senses challenging to overcome.

Parents can typically see signs of a sensory processing disorder in their children starting in their toddler years or slightly later. Rather than filtering the five senses through the body to the brain to make sense of the world around them, children may feel like they are processing too many stimuli at once. This feeling can cause a traffic jam in their minds, and their reaction to their senses may differ from other children’s.

Understanding the signs of sensory overload can help your child process their surroundings to better enjoy day-to-day activities!

Toddler girl in child occupational therapy session doing sensory playful exercises with her therapist.

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload can appear differently depending on the child. Some parents may confuse sensory overload for a normal tantrum, but the two experiences are very different for a child. In the case of sensory overload, their surrounding environment can be the reason for their changed behavior. Straying from specific objects or activities, feeling overwhelmed by their current situation and reacting to their environment through excessive movements are all actions you might observe in a child experiencing sensory overload.

The most common signs of sensory processing disorder that can lead to sensory overload include:

  • Being sensitive to sounds, such as vacuums, lawnmowers or sirens.
  • Withdrawing from or craving others’ touch.
  • Disliking food because of how they chew it.
  • Not wanting to get their hands dirty.
  • Refusing to wear clothing with certain textures.
  • Appearing clumsy or having a poor balance.
  • Swinging and jumping around excessively.

Different Kinds of Sensory Processing Sensitivities

While some children may process their senses by reacting negatively toward touch, sight and sound, others may lean more toward these stimuli. Unique reactions to senses can signify two types of sensory processing — over-response and under-response. Some children may experience both sensitivities, making detecting the signs of sensory processing disorder a bit more challenging for parents.

Not to worry! Understanding a few of the most common signs of over- and under-response can make your child’s reactions easier to spot.

The following signs of these sensory processing sensitivities include these common reactions and behaviors:

  • Over-response: Hypersensitivity is a child’s over-response to their surrounding environment. The senses can feel overwhelming to them, which causes an overreaction to clothes, foods, sounds, touches and other stimuli. Children with over-response sensitivities may also be stronger than they think! They might need to be made aware of the force they apply when holding objects, being around others or playing.
  • Under-response: The opposite reactions to similar stimuli are signs of under-response sensitivity. While some children may find an aversion to their surroundings, others might find them more pleasing and lean toward these senses. Children with under-response sensitivity enjoy physical activity, touching others and their things, being in others’ personal space and moving constantly.

Tips to Help With Sensory Sensitivities

The education to become an occupational therapist involves earning an undergraduate and graduate degree and then passing the required licensure exams.

Take a look at the following tips to help with your child’s sensory sensitivities at home.

1. Heavy Work Activities

Feeling grounded and centered is incredibly important for children with sensory processing disorders. Their bodies might often feel out of control because of their reactions to their senses.

Luckily, heavy work activities that keep your child busy are excellent for feeling more in control of their movements. Children with sensory processing disorders benefit from heavy work that pushes and pulls against their bodies so they feel centered in the moment.

Heavy work can be as simple as the following activities:

  • Pushing the vacuum or shopping cart.
  • Carrying groceries and laundry baskets.
  • Rearranging lightweight furniture.
  • Swimming and running.
  • Swinging on monkey bars and other playground activities.

2. Surroundings and Environment

To avoid feelings of overwhelmingness regularly, it’s vital for your child to have a safe space away from the hustle and bustle of life. Dedicating a quiet corner of your home or their bedroom that uses calming colors, smells and sounds can transform the surrounding environment into the perfect haven.

When they begin to show signs of sensory over-response, please encourage them to relax in this area to feel comfortable with their surroundings again.

3. Clothing

Clothing comes in all shapes, sizes and textures. Your child likely has a favorite shirt or pair of pants they’d prefer to wear almost every day if they had the choice.

Some clothes, however, may be their least favorites because of the type of texture or how it fits them. Avoiding the morning blues while picking out an outfit and getting dressed can happen with one simple step that your child will love.

The next shopping trip you take for your child’s wardrobe, take them with you! There’s no better way to fill your child’s closet with their favorite clothes than to let them pick out items they love. Encourage your child to walk through the kids’ clothing section to try on the choices they like most. Making sure the texture and fit feel right can make all of their clothes feel comfortable during each start to the day.

4. Sound

Headphones are an excellent tool to shield your child’s ears from loud noises that can cause sensory overload. Sirens, neighbors’ lawnmowers and other distracting sounds are unpredictable. Luckily, giving your child access to noise-counseling headphones can minimize the overload of senses they may experience daily!

5. Taste and Smell

Children’s preferences to taste and smells can change with age, so it is completely normal for your child to have favorites! If they prefer the smooth textures of yogurt and ice cream over the crunchy chewiness of vegetables, try to incorporate these nutrients in their meals by blending ingredients into smoothies.

If your child loves crunchiness more than soft textures, frozen fruits, veggies and snacks make great alternatives to soft foods.

Air fresheners and candles can also become effective tools in your household if your child has a favorite smell. Let them choose a scent they love at the store that they can use in their room whenever they please!

How Can Occupational Therapy Help With Sensory Process Difficulties?

Occupational therapy is an excellent treatment option if your child is experiencing sensory processing difficulties.

Pediatric occupational therapy allows children to work with a licensed and experienced therapist to build fundamental skills and encourage participation in everyday activities. With the right support team behind your child at all times, they can begin developing adaptive skills to minimize sensory over- and under-response.

Along the journey, your child will also have opportunities to gain age-appropriate occupational skills and achieve personal goals they set with the help of their occupational therapist.

How Sensory Toys Help Children With Special Needs

Our five senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound are important learning tools for everyone, and all children learn better by playing games using sensory toys. This is especially important for children with special needs. The more they use their senses, the easier it becomes to develop them and learn by using them. Thus it becomes more apparent how sensory toys help children with special needs.

Benefits Of Sensory Toys And Learning

You probably remember the first time you touched shaving cream or maple syrup and how they felt. One was light, the other heavy, one immediately came off your fingers and the other stuck on them. This is how our senses can help children remember how something felt and learn something new.

Sensory Toys Help Build Language And Vocabulary

When a child describes how a particular activity feels, what he sees or hears, it can enhance his or her understanding of words and build vocabulary.

Sensory Toys Promote Social Interaction

Playing and sharing helps children to engage with each other and develop social skills like planning and negotiating. Even if they are with children of a different level, it can entice them to come closer to investigate.

In addition, sensory toys help children with special needs in the following ways:

  • Helps them develop gross motor skills like brushing their teeth or zipping their jacket
  • Helps them grasp things with less fear and play more naturally
  • Helps children to relax, stay calm, and focus on a particular event or situation
  • Helps enhance coordination

Examples of Sensory Play

Sensory play is an activity that stimulates the child’s senses.

For A Child Who Is Visually Impaired 

Have them touch and feel different types of surfaces: sandpaper, paper with a texture, corrugated, or silky smooth. You could also have them color with crayons on each type of surface.

For A Child Who Is Hearing Impaired 

They may not be able to hear music clearly, but they should be able to “feel” the drum beat and other instruments and then tap to the sound.

To Help Them Learn Smell, Touch, And Sight

Get some playdough and separate into small pieces and place in separate containers. Mix in different ingredients to create smells and colors. Scented extracts like cinnamon, lemon, or vanilla are good suggestions to start. Add in some small beads to enhance touch, and/or also add food coloring to enhance the look.

Find Supportive Therapy Options

There’s no better time to help your child combat sensory processing difficulties than now! At Orlando Children’s Therapy, a part of the family of companies here at Kids SPOT, your child will receive support from an occupational therapist who provides individualized lessons. With personalized sessions and caring staff to guide your loved one toward achieving their goals, occupational therapy can provide many benefits during their developmental journey.

Contact us today with any questions or to start your child’s evaluation.

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