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Sensory Processing: What is it? And what goes along with it?

Sensory Processing is a term that you may have heard of but may not be able to define. That’s because it can be difficult to decipher when looking at your child. Let’s break it down by looking at each of the human senses: taste, touch, sight, hear, smell and to make it even more complicated, let’s throw in 3 more called proprioception, vestibular and interoception.

Now that we have our 7 senses, let’s go through a few and discuss what they mean, how it can look to an outsider and what we can do about it.

We’ll start with an easy one, taste. We all know we have taste buds that can literally “taste” the different types of foods we eat such as sour, sweet, etc. but for some children these senses or tastes are amplified which means their “distaste” for a type or texture of food can be stronger than normal. What can we do about it? Use techniques and strategies on a smaller scale to de-escalate their anxiety when trying something new or trying a food they might have disliked prior. One way of doing this is finding a texture they enjoy (let’s say crunchy) and a food they usually dislike (bananas) and finding a middle ground such as dried banana chips.

Unfortunately this doesn’t change overnight, and although it may sound easy to find the sense that affects your child the most, it is not always as easy as we wish. This is because sensory processing diso

rder or deficits in sensory integration usually mean there isn’t just one of the senses affected and intervention is not a one size fits all.

Fortunately, that is where Occupational therapy comes in to help! We are trained in not just seeing the problem but to look for underlying issues and finding the “why” or what triggers these concerns. Behaviors like refusing to eat, only wearing certain clothes, throwing a tantrum, having accidents, hitting, etc. indicate a child may be having difficulty processing sensory input. This can happen when there is a change in routine or in an unfamiliar environment such as eating lunch at school or going to the bathroom at a public restroom when the child has been eating and using the toilet fine at home. It is the OT’s job to put the pieces together and find a treatment plan that is specialized for your child’s sensory needs.

Now let’s skip to the senses we don’t hear much about like the vestibular. Yes, it does have something to do with our ears but more importantly, it’s why we use a swing during therapy. No, the swing is not just for fun, it is for regulating your child’s vestibular system. For some kids, spinning regulates their body and behavior, others it might escalate it. Some children might react better to a lateral push (back and forth) others in a circular motion. What works best for them depends on their vestibular system and proprioception, knowing where their body is in space. For most adults, we can’t imagine how spinning or swinging can regulate how we feel but those with sensory processing concerns, who take in the world differently than we do, benefit immensely from unconventional movements and pressure to understand their body and feel more comfortable.

Lastly, there is the sense of interoception, knowing how you are feeling internally (cold, hot, hungry, full, having the feeling to go to the bathroom, thirsty, etc). Occupational therapists go back a few steps to those who are having trouble feeling these cues and help create connections to their body and their brain. We do this by simplifying a feeling to a degree they understand and building from that understanding to more functional tasks.

Occupational therapy begins with an evaluation using a standardized assessment to see what areas to focus on with your child, from there OT’s have numerous resources and equipment to assist in treatment for sensory processing integration. Every child is unique so they deserve and an equally unique and personalized intervention plan to help them be as independent and comfortable as possible. It is a journey and we are here to support you and make it easier along the way!

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