What Is Life Like For Children With Sensory Processing Disorder
Takeaway: We make sense of the world around us because our brains process a constant stream of sensory signals. But for some people, these signals get crossed and become like a traffic jam in their heads – an unsettling experience, especially for young children who can’t explain what they’re going through. Thankfully, we can tackle these difficulties using tools like sensory integration therapy, occupational therapy, and a sensory diet.
It’s incredible how many sensory processing tasks our brains handle every day.
The human brain sorts through thousands of incoming sensory signals daily – processing sights, sounds, smells, etc., to form a quick overview of our surroundings. It’s how we humans manage to survive and thrive. For example, the brain’s rapid visual processing spots our car drifting and tells us to nudge the steering wheel to the right. And the brain’s smell processing directs us toward the kitchen when we’re hungry.
Unfortunately, sensory processing works differently for some.
For children with a sensory processing disorder, their brains and nerves don’t process sensory input as we’d expect. And this creates a ‘traffic jam’ in their heads – with signals coming in from all directions. At its peak, the conflicting signals becomes a sensory shutdown that can make your child feel untethered. For example, in her gripping blog post about sensory processing difficulties, Rachel S Schneider explains this shutdown as follows: “It’s the moment that my ears, unable to sort through the garbled heap of auditory input, stop trying to form words and derive meaning from sound. It’s when my eyes, unable to weave together fragments of the visual whole in front of me, turn the scenery sharp with parsed, unaffiliated details. It’s the moment my body gives up its battle to make a connection, however shy and tenuous, to the physical space I’m in. Like a helium balloon, I am untied and released with nothing substantial to guide me: not sight, not sound, not physical presence. It’s terrifying but survivable.”
This experience can be especially unnerving for young children with sensory processing difficulties.
Young children can’t understand or explain this terrifying untethering, which makes the experience even more unnerving. At times, sensations might be too intense – for example, a loud, startling car horn or a fresh set of crayons with an overpowering scent. At other times, sensations might be too weak, driving your child to amplify her sensory experience by moving about or touching everything around her. And sometimes, things can be plain confusing. For example, she might love the taste of rice but throw up when eating rice pudding because its texture is too pulpy.
You’ll usually pick up on sensory processing issues in your child between ages one and three.
Initially, you might notice simple things like how your child hates loud noises/lights or doesn’t like tight-fitting clothes. But soon, you’ll likely recognise a broader range of challenges. For instance, if she has issues processing touch, she might avoid (or crave) being hugged, walking barefoot, using skin lotion, etc. Similarly, if her proprioception (body awareness) is affected, she might struggle with coordinated movements like writing, climbing, riding bicycles, etc. Alternatively, hearing-related sense challenges might make it harder to listen to conversations in a noisy classroom or follow rapid verbal instructions in games like Simon Says. Meanwhile, sight-related sense challenges might put her off ‘visually busy’ places like playgrounds or experiences like looking through a kaleidoscope. And they make it difficult to read for extended periods, too.
Obviously, experiences like these make it harder for your child to enjoy many simple pleasures.
Something as simple as a fun day at a theme park can quickly become unpleasant if your child has sensory processing issues. For instance, she might cringe at rocking on a swing, jiggling about on a boat, or freewheeling on a rollercoaster. Also, she’ll likely be bothered by all the unfamiliar smells, loud noises, unusual foods, and more. Alternatively, she might be under-stimulated and decide to run around touching everything, constantly looking for more interaction. It’s these sorts of challenges that make daily living more complicated for children with sensory processing issues – increasing their rates of emotional distress and anxiety.
Further, sensory processing difficulties can co-exist with other conditions like autism.
Often, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) also have sensory processing issues, which can complicate things. For instance, if your child likes humming to herself when things are too quiet, is it linked to her autism? Or to her sensory processing disorder? And if she starts having panic attacks, is it because of her autism-related brain differences or her disorientating sensory experiences? You’ll need answers to these questions to help her cope.
So, what can we do to help? Well, there are a handful of valuable therapeutic tools.
Thankfully, quite a few therapeutic tools can help your child with her sensory processing issues. For example, there’s sensory integration therapy, where your child’s brain is trained to react differently to sensory input. This might involve deep pressure stimulation (using hugs, gentle squeezing, weighted vests, etc.), brush therapy (brushing her skin in a particular sequence), and play therapy using swings, trampolines, and slides. We can supplement these with a sensory diet – i.e., a customised list of daily activities to help your child stay focused and organised. This might include going for a 10-minute walk every hour, using a swing for 10 minutes (twice a day), using music to focus her mind while drawing, or playing with fidget toys. Most importantly, an occupational therapist can help design exercises to improve your child’s fine motor skills, coordination, and balance – specifically, for daily activities like writing, climbing stairs, catching a ball, getting dressed, using a knife and fork, etc.
If you’re looking for specialists to help your child with her sensory processing issues, do get in touch with us to discuss support.
The trick to making life more bearable for your child is to get the right help. It’s not about completely preventing sensory shutdowns/meltdowns but about helping your child understand her differences and adapt to them. For more on this, feel free to reach out to us. The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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