We speak to Occupational Therapist, Rebecca Karo

Sensory Processing in Sensational Kids

Does your child walk on their toes? Is your child sensitive to sound and light? Does it seem like your child can’t sit still?

It may be that your child experiences what is known as Sensory Processing Disorder.

We spoke to one of our amazing Occupational Therapists at Irabina Autism Services, Rebecca Karo, to learn more about sensory processing in children.

Occupational Therapy incorporates sensory processing as an area of consideration when assessing and developing a therapy plan, as it impacts children who are and who are not on the Autism Spectrum.

What is Sensory Processing?

Sensory Processing is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives sensory messages and turns them into responses. It’s a neurological process – we receive information from our sensory receptors and it’s then sent to the brain to process, organise and plan an appropriate response.

In children with a sensory processing disorder the processing of this information from the sensory receptors is disrupted and the response elicited is not deemed appropriate for the situation. It may be over responsive, or under responsive, or they may not actually feel the sensation altogether.

Sensory integration is the ability to organise sensory information for use… that enables man to interact effectively with the environment” – Dr. Jean Ayres.

When we have a disruption in that processing is when we see children not being able to appropriately respond to their environment.

Why is Sensory Processing so important?

The way we receive information about the world around us (our sensory processing ability) are the foundations to how we learn and develop.

Our senses include the five you’re likely most familiar with (sight, smell, taste, sound and touch) and three internal senses: body position, movement/balance and interoception, which is how we monitor things like hunger, pain, thirst, temperature and so on.

All of our senses are essential to supporting development, and they need to function together. For example in order to climb a ladder we need to be able to see and feel the rungs (sight and touch), we need to know where our body and hands are in relation to the rungs (body position) and we need to be able to adjust our balance to successfully reach for the next rung on the ladder (movement/balance).

Sensory Processing is integral to every facet of our life.

What problems can Sensory Processing difficulties cause?

Sensory processing difficulties can interfere with a range of things, including a child’s ability to attend; develop social, motor, visual and auditory skills; and regulate their behaviour and organise tasks. This can make it difficult for them to play games with friends, accept bright lights or strange/loud sounds, or follow instructions in a classroom.

Sensory processing difficulties can also interfere with a child’s ability to complete self-care skills – they may have trouble brushing their teeth, falling asleep, eating certain foods or going to the toilet.

Children with sensory processing difficulties can struggle to feel comfortable in their environment. Their impaired senses can create anxiety or a sense of panic, and this discomfort will affect their happiness as they’re in a state of flight, fright or freeze.

In extreme circumstances difficulties with Sensory Processing can lead to social exclusion and decrease a child’s awareness of their own safety.

“Sensory Processing is integral to every facet of our life.”

Who is affected by Sensory Processing disorder? Is it just children with Autism?

Any of us can be affected by a sensory processing disorder. Sensory processing is the foundation for human growth and development. Everyone is at risk of a sensory dysfunction unless we’re able to adapt and regulate ourselves in an appropriate manner without intervention.

However, it is estimated that 85% of children with autism have a difficulty with sensory processing. As such, if your child is reacting unexpectedly, they may be responding to something you are less aware of. It’s important to read the situation and take note if there are any sensory stimuli that they may be reacting to – a lawn mower or leaf blower outside the window, a flickering light, a strange smell. You may not be affected by these things, however your child could be more sensitive.

How can I tell the difference between a sensory response and behaviour?

This can be really difficult. A key differentiator that we will use is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. In a tantrum the child will often glance at you or look your way to see your response, they may try to communicate or negotiate. In comparison, a meltdown will see the child completely shutdown or meltdown (‘explode’), where they won’t be able to interact with you and can’t communicate at all. A meltdown could be the result of sensory over-stimulation.

Something to note is that a sensory response can become behavioural – for example, what started out as an over-sensitivity to the sound of a leaf blower which caused screaming and led to lots of cuddles and chocolate could turn into the child learning that screaming equals comfort.

If you’re unsure it can be very helpful to track ‘ABC’ data – this is a way of recording the Antecedent (what happened immediately prior to the behaviour occurring), Behaviour (what actually happened and how long it lasted for), and the Consequence (what happened as a result of the behaviour). Working with your therapist, you can review this information and it can assist to better identify the reasons behind your child’s response.

When do Sensory Processing deficits need to be addressed by a professional?

When it is limiting full functioning in daily life or social interactions. To be labelled a disorder it must be severe enough to disrupt the ability to adapt to challenges in daily life. So if you find that there are activities throughout the day that your child just cannot engage with because you feel that they are over/under aroused and not able to pay attention it may be worth having a discussion with an Occupational Therapist to identify if there are sensory processing deficits.

How will Occupational Therapy help with sensory processing?

An Occupational Therapist will be able to help assess and identify your child’s sensory processing challenges. Based on the information you supply, they’ll be able to provide you with an understanding of your child’s sensory profile as well as observing your child during therapy sessions to gather more information.

From there, an OT can support you with sensory strategies and/or a sensory diet to assist with combatting these sensory challenges. A sensory diet is where a therapist will construct a set group of activities that are required for your child throughout the day to maintain an appropriate level of arousal. For example, if the child is under-responsive we can give them more input throughout the day. Similarly if the child is over-responsive then they can be given calming options and activities. This sensory diet is extremely important to assist with integrating their sensory systems and providing input.

Over time, with therapy and continued intervention, improved sensory integration should occur, improving the child’s capacity to engage meaningfully in activities and their environment.

How can I learn more about Sensory Processing?

This interview is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding sensory processing and how the sensory system impacts a child’s development, behaviour and the way they interact with the world.

If you’re interested in learning more, please join Bec for her workshop “Sensory Processing in Sensational Children” where she will walk you through Sensory Processing, give you an insight into your child’s sensory needs and provide techniques you can implement at home.

This workshop has been pre-recorded so that you can watch it at your convenience, and access it as many times as necessary. All our online workshops will be available until 31 December 2020.

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