Sensory processing disorders occur when the brain has difficulty receiving and responding appropriately to information it receives. For instance, they might have problems with touch, spacial awareness, vision or how they interpret things that they hear. Children with sensory processing disorders often have autism or another disability too, but sometimes it can occur in healthy children. A sensory processing disorder isn’t an actual medical diagnosis and is not widely known about. Children with sensory issues can be mistakenly labeled with behavioral problems when in fact the problem is physical and comes from the brain and nervous system.
Some of the different types of sensory processing disorder are:
Tactile Defensiveness –This is when the child is extremely sensitive to touch and to the ways fabrics or other items feel on the skin. They may refuse to wear certain clothing, like nylons or stiff collars or they could hate the way sand or mud feels under their feet. This is due to the brain misinterpreting the sensation. The skin may feel pain when touched and this is one reason why children with the disorder recoil from kissing and hugging.
Visual Perceptual Processing Disorder –This is a fault in how the brain interprets what the eyes see. The child may have difficulty distinguishing colors, similarly shaped letters (like b and d), may be confused and they could struggle to write within lines on a page. They could also have limited spacial awareness and judge incorrectly the space they occupy in a room so they appear uncoordinated and may bump into walls and tread on people’s toes.
Oral Defensiveness –Oral defensiveness is altered sensitivity to taste. Children affected by this may not be able to bear certain types of food and become extremely picky eaters, but it can go further than being fussy – it is a medical condition. There may be a lack of sensation, causing children to cram food into their mouths because they can’t feel what they’re doing. Other children have a hypersensitive mouth and find eating uncomfortable. Some crave particular flavors or textures from food and so they can’t help binge eating.
Hyperacusis –This is an extreme hypersensitivity to sound. The child’s tolerance to sound collapses and any noise no matter how small becomes painful.
How Play Therapy Can Help
Treatment for sensory processing disorders is typically provided by Occupational Therapists and play centers. An occupational therapist will visit the child in their home or school and help de-sensitize them from the senses they find troublesome. If they have difficulty interpreting space they may be invited to participate in games that require balance and strengthen coordination, such as use of a therapy ball. (See Rib-it-Ball)
If they have hearing sensitivity then the use of music therapy is commonly practiced. Music tracks with high pitched frequencies are designed to re-train the brain to hear sound correctly. It is a slow process and may be difficult at first but the benefits can be life changing. Toys that use gentle noises might also help. Audiologists have a similar approach to treating hyperacusis in their hospitals, with pink noise therapy (a device that resembles a hearing aid and emits varying frequency pitches into the child’s ear, eventually ‘re-booting’ the brain’s auditory processing).
Children with tactile defensiveness could benefit from a range of toys that help the child explore different textures in a non-threatening fun way. Messy play like play-doh, finger paint pots, sand toys, ‘funny foam’ or games involving water could help him build up a tolerance to different textures, as can soft toys made using a variety of fabrics. They may be resistant at first but if the parents and other siblings play with the toys in front of them, they may eventually be enticed to join in. Occupational therapists can play and explore textures with the child in a controlled way so that the more resistant child can be introduced to it in a way that feels safe to them.
Play Ability soft toys can begin the de-sensitization process for even the youngest of children and can be used for children with visual perceptual problems too. The toys are made with bright, colorful and contrasting patterns to stimulate a visual response.
Other Ways to Help Your Child
If your child has tactile issues and can’t bear their clothes, you could buy second-hand ones as these are more pliable after multiple washing. Washing their clothes in an eco-friendly fabric softener (hypoallergenic to sensitive skin) can make them feel more tolerable.
If your child has hyperacusis it’s important to make sure they receive medical care because this condition is painful and can worsen if not corrected. Early intervention with pink noise therapy is vital. Anti-inflammatories or steroids have also been used in cases of acute hyperacusis.
Some parents have found physical therapy or chiropractic exercises useful in coordinating their child’s balance. Locating quality toys that can reinforce some of the therapeutic concepts found in actual therapy sessions, can improve the rate at which the child develops and promote a happier, healthier childhood.
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National Center for Learning Disabilities, accessed October 7, 2014, http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/adhd-related-issues/visual-processing-disorders/visual-processing-disorders-by-age-group
ARK, accessed October 7, 2014, http://www.arktherapeutic.com/post/205
Sensory Processing Disorder, October 7, 2014, http://www.sensory-processing-disorder.com/overeating-and-spd-adult.html