Children's Sensory

Understanding Sensory Challenges and How Occupational Therapy Can Help

As a parent, watching your child struggle with sensory challenges can be a difficult and emotional experience. 

You may have noticed that your child seems to face significant challenges with grooming tasks like haircuts and brushing teeth, that they seem particularly sensitive to loud noises, or that they seem to melt down where there is just “too much” going on. These are all signs of sensory challenges.

You may also find that your child has very strong preferences or aversions to certain types of clothing – for example, buttons, zippers, seams, and fabrics. As one Westside parent told us, “My child isn’t scared of monsters! He’s scared of buttons!

Over time, these sensory challenges may cause you to avoid experiences like going out to eat with your child, going on family vacations, or taking them to birthday parties or swimming lessons.

Sensory challenges can affect a child’s ability to process and respond to everyday sensory stimuli. These challenges can have a significant impact on their daily life, including their ability to participate in school, socialize with others, and complete everyday tasks. 

Fortunately, Occupational Therapy (OT) can help children develop the skills they need to navigate the world around them. 

In this blog article, we will explore the benefits of OT for children with sensory challenges. At Westside, we believe that you and your child should be able to enjoy both everyday and special experiences together without sensory issues getting in the way. We also believe that with the right support, every child can thrive in school, home, and other settings.

What Are Sensory Challenges or Sensory Processing Issues?

Sensory challenges refer to difficulties in processing and responding to sensory information from the environment. For some, sensory challenges may cause them to be over-responsive or hypersensitive to sensory stimuli, while for others, they may be under-responsive or hyposensitive.

For example, a child who is hypersensitive to sound may be easily overwhelmed by loud noises such as a vacuum cleaner or a fire alarm, while a child who is hyposensitive to sound may not respond when their name is called, or may enjoy sound-producing activities (like that drum set in your basement…).

All humans have a “sensory profile”, and we all have sensory preferences and aversions. You may not like the smell of fish or the sound of nails on a chalkboard. These are part of your sensory profile. A child is considered to have “sensory challenges” or “sensory processing dysfunction” when these preferences and aversions are so strong that they impact daily life, affecting your child’s ability to learn, play, and socialize with others.

Sensory challenges can affect any or all of the eight senses. 

What Are the 8 Senses?

You may be thinking, “What? I thought there were 5!

There are actually eight senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, as well as the three lesser-known senses – vestibular, proprioception, and interoception. Though these last three senses are not talked about much, they can have a profound impact on a child’s functioning. 

The vestibular system is housed in the inner ear, and it tells us which way is up, which way is down, and which way we are moving. A child with vestibular processing issues may struggle with balance, sitting up straight, tracking objects, and hyperactivity. These children may show strong preferences or aversions towards moving objects, like swings, rides, escalators, and elevators.

The proprioceptive system tells us where our body is in space, where our body parts are, and which muscles we need to use to move in certain ways. A child may have proprioceptive dysfunction if they display sensory-seeking behaviors like crashing, jumping, or stomping. They may have difficulty knowing their own strength – perhaps they write so lightly that you can’t see the mark, or they push down so hard that the pencil or crayon breaks.

The interoceptive system is the body’s awareness of its own internal sensations – the mind-body connection. Your child’s interoceptive system sends signals to the brain when he or she is hungry, tired, hot, or cold. Children with interoceptive dysfunction may struggle with potty training, feeding, and emotional regulation.

Common Signs of Sensory Challenges in Children

Here are 10 common signs of sensory challenges in children:

  1. Difficulty with transitions or changes in routine
  2. Avoidance or sensitivity to certain textures, such as certain fabrics or food textures
  3. Over or underreacting to sounds or noises, such as covering their ears or not responding to their name being called
  4. Sensitivity to bright lights or certain types of lighting
  5. Difficulties with balance, coordination, or fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil or buttoning clothes
  6. Avoidance of certain types of play or activities, such as climbing or swinging
  7. Difficulty with tolerating self-care activities, such as brushing teeth, washing hands, haircuts, fingernail clipping, bath/shower
  8. Difficulty with social interaction, such as difficulty making eye contact or difficulty understanding social cues
  9. Intense or frequent tantrums or meltdowns
  10. Avoidance of physical touch or affection from others

If your child exhibits any of these symptoms, he or she may be experiencing sensory challenges.

How Can Occupational Therapy Help with Sensory Integration?

Pediatric occupational therapy is designed to help children with the activities of daily life as well as play and leisure activities. Sensory challenges are treated in OT.

At Westside, all OT is 1:1 between child and therapist and is tailored to meet the needs of each individual child. Part of our occupational therapy evaluation is a sensory profile questionnaire, completed by the parent(s). The therapist scores this to gain an understanding and a baseline of the child’s sensory profile. 

OT sessions may include these types of interventions:

  • Sensory Integration focuses on helping children to integrate and process sensory information from their environment. It involves fun and engaging play activities that stimulate different senses, such as touch, movement, and sound, to help them learn to tolerate and process sensory input more effectively.
  • Environmental Modifications can assist in meeting a child’s sensory needs. For example, noise-canceling headphones may be offered in noisy settings.  A quiet space may be created at home for the child to retreat to when they become overwhelmed.
  • Fine Motor Skills: Sensory challenges can impact a child’s ability to perform fine motor tasks such as handwriting or using utensils. Occupational Therapists can work with children to develop their fine motor skills through activities such as drawing, tracing, or using manipulative toys.
  • Self-Regulation Techniques: Children with sensory challenges may struggle with self-regulation, such as managing their emotions or calming themselves down when they become overwhelmed. Occupational Therapists teach self-regulation techniques like deep breathing and mindfulness and use sensory-based strategies such as using a weighted blanket.

Benefits of Occupational Therapy for Children with Sensory Challenges

There are many benefits to OT for children with sensory challenges, including improved sensory processing, behavior and attention, social skills, and daily living skills. We also see improvements in emotional control and regulation, handwriting, and the ability to tolerate transitions well.

We use play-based techniques to help a child’s sensory system integrate all of the different stimuli that they may need to process throughout the day. We incorporate all of these strategies in-clinic, in our state-of-the-art sensory gyms. To the kids, it feels like a really fun gym class – they will be climbing, jumping into a foam pit, going down slides, swinging, and playing games. Throughout these fun activities, our highly trained Occupational Therapists are incorporating sensory integration strategies, building fine motor strength, and working on each child’s individual goals. 

How to Sign Up for Occupational Therapy

To begin Pediatric Occupational Therapy at Westside, simply follow the link below or call us at (815) 469-1500 and our team will guide you through the process.