Sensory Processing 101
Our children are bombarded on a daily basis with sensory information. When they walk out the door in the morning to go to school, to a class, to the park, or to the store, they must take in information from the five senses. They hear fire engines go by, cars honking, or people talking. They smell pleasant and not so pleasant odors. They see cars and buses whizzing past them. They feel the sun or the rain on their skin and carefully maneuver around objects and people on the street. They taste different foods and textures during snack or meal time. Once exposed to all these stimuli, a child must work to make sense of what he is being exposed to and put it all together in order to, for example: walk down the street, stop at the corner, wait for the light to change, and then cross the street when appropriate.
For some children, the sensory information they take in somehow gets jumbled and they cannot make sense of what they are being exposed to. Given that sensory traffic jam, for that child, the car honking is too loud (they cover their ears), the cars whizzing by make them dizzy, the tag on their clothing feels painful against their skin, the yogurt for breakfast feels slimy in their mouth, the food truck on the corner smells awful, and the sun is just way too bright.
Most kids can handle all this sensory input without even thinking about it, but some children become so focused on how these sensations feel that it can interfere with simple everyday tasks. Transitions can be difficult as these children become panicked by not knowing what to expect next (will it be pleasurable or painful?). As parents, it is essential to be detectives and pick up on cues as to why your child is having a hard time transitioning or why he is having a meltdown when you ask him to get dressed. What seems to be the trigger? Perhaps your little one is not having a tantrum just because he is being “difficult” but rather, he may not be able to use the right language or actions to express these overwhelmed sensory feelings.
Here are a few simple suggestions that can help with common daily activities that can be challenging for the child who is processing sensory information poorly:
- If your child is bothered by loud sounds, the use of noise cancelling headphones can be great but may not be tolerated.
- If your child hates getting his head wet, avoid having him tilt his head back when washing the hair and use a visor to avoid getting water in his eyes.
- If your child hates the feeling of tags; cut them out, try seamless clothing or use ankle socks rather than longer socks.
- If you child hates getting his hair or his nails cut, try massaging the head and the hands prior to the cutting. Avoid the use of an electric buzzer.
- Avoid rushing and warn him about what is coming next prior to transitions.
Karinna Dancourt MS OTR/L received her Masters Degree in Occupational Therapy from Tufts University in Boston, Ma in 2001. She is the principal Occupational Therapist at Jumping Jax located in Manhattan on the UWS. Karinna has worked in a variety of settings including hospital based, school-based and Sensory Integration clinics performing evaluations, direct treatments, consultations, and school observations. She has extensive training in Sensory Integration, Handwriting Without Tears/handwriting interventions, and neurodevelopment treatment for children ages 3-18 years old. Karinna is bilingual in Spanish and English and is a proud mother a four and one year old.