In 2015 my daughter was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD), a relatively unheard of condition until the last decade.
Sensory Processing Disorder impacts a child’s ability to process a variety of senses like taste, smell, touch, and sound. Every child with SPD is different, and their interaction with their senses in unique.
The SPD Foundation defines it as, “a condition that exists when sensory signals don't get organized into appropriate responses.”
Given that as many as one in 20 children have sensory processing issues, it’s clear that parents need more awareness and information.
By completing a simple online checklist, you can find out if your child may need a bit of extra help integrating their senses.
For some families, receiving help and a diagnosis can be tricky. In Canada, where I live, it seems doctors and therapists shy away from the official diagnosis of “sensory processing disorder," and many doctors have little knowledge of sensory issues, some brushing it off as typical childhood behavior.
It wasn’t until my husband and I connected with a pediatric occupational therapist that we really became knowledgeable about the condition itself, and found resources to help our child.
One of the ways that we have been encouraged to help our daughter integrate her senses is by introducing various sensory activities into her daily life.
Truthfully, all of us can benefit from sensory activities to either calm or energize us, depending on what we need.
Patricia Wilbarger, an innovative occupational therapist, coined the term “sensory diet." The concept of a sensory diet is that, similar to our unique nutritional requirements, some of us also require a specialized sensory activity plan. The goal for this daily plan is to help children and adults remain focused and organized throughout the day. Sensory diets are created for children with SPD, autism, and even adults with dementia.
Our daughter doesn’t require a “strict” sensory diet, however she has benefited from regular sensory activities to encourage sensory integration. We have noticed when we encourage her to engage in sensory play, she experiences a calmer and more fluid day.
I encourage you to try out some of these activities, and pay attention to your child’s behavior and response.
Experience a smoother transition from activities when involving your child in physical sensory tasks that help them to move from one activity to the next. These are called “proprioception” activities, which help children in a variety of ways, including understanding their daily schedule, or soothing them at night.
Some of the ways that you can do this is by having your child help to set the table before dinner, carrying an armful of books to their room for story time, and laying on the couch with heavy weighted blankets for quiet time.
Throughout our day we touch a variety of objects with many different textures. Over time we become accustomed to these sensory experiences, and hardly notice them as we get older. For children with sensory processing difficulties, something as simple as picking up a wet grape can be challenging and overwhelming.
Involve children in regular daily sensory activities to integrate these senses. This includes having them help you wash and dry their dishes, giving them daily sensory activities like playing with playdough, sand, and sensory bins, and having them help with food prep.
A common challenge for parents whose children struggle with sensory issues is trying new foods. In fact, most parents around the world can relate to “picky eaters," and most would benefit from researching sensory input and gentle ways to introduce new foods.
Instead of force feeding, consider challenging children to try out new flavors and tastes.
Many occupational therapists believe that allowing a child a small sip of a bubbly drink, like water with a bit of seltzer, will help to wake up the senses in their mouth.
Afterwards, offer your child a mix of new and familiar foods, and encourage them to touch, smell, and lick the food. Even if they don’t bite and chew the new food being introduced, consider it a victory if they have some kind of interaction with it.
One way that we have helped our daughter introduce new foods into her diet is through food chaining. By identifying a type of food that your child really enjoys, and finding different versions of that food, you are able to open a child up to new textures and food experiences.
For example, our daughter loves whole wheat bread. We try to offer her whole grain crackers, pitas, tortillas, chips, and rice cakes. Having her branch out and try new foods that are similar to her comfort food gives her courage to continue to branch out and try new things.
Spending time identifying and exploring different smells with your children helps to encourage the integration of their olfactory system.
Try going on a walk and smelling flowers that you pass by, or having children smell different foods and spices in the kitchen. Looking for new smells will encourage a sense of exploration in their young minds.
Help them to identify smells that may seem foreign to them, like the scent of a distant campfire, or the earthy scent of the air after a night of rain.
Regardless of whether or not your child has sensory processing disorder, or difficulty integrating their senses, all children can benefit from a daily schedule that involves different sensory inputs.
Try some of these activities at home, and let us know if you noticed a difference in your child’s sensory integration!