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Occupational Therapy for Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Written By: Giulia Vitolo, Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Sensory Processing Disorder is described as inefficiencies with processing and modulation of sensory input. Therefore, the nervous system requires an increased amount of input and sensory experiences throughout the day to help maintain a calm and organized state. Occupational therapy provides skilled intervention to decrease a child’s need to seek input in ways that disrupt participation in daily tasks, which is different compared to physical therapy.

Typical areas affecting a child’s occupational performance include basic and instrumental activities of daily living, leisure/play, sleep, education, and social interaction. When completing everyday hygiene, such as bathing, scrubbing, hair brushing, washing, pressure, and temperature of the water may trigger dysregulation. Dressing for varied seasons may be difficult if different textures of clothing, wet bathing suits, bare feet, or hats cannot be tolerated.

Children with SPD are often picky eaters and have difficulties consuming different tastes and textures of foods, which can affect nutrition and poor tolerance for messy hands during mealtimes can limit participation in self-feeding. This may present as only eating certain foods, preventing foods from touching each other on their plate, unable to tolerate crunchy versus soft foods, resulting in gagging or rigidity in using specific utensils and kitchenware for mealtimes.

Children with SPD may become distracted by background noises that others do not seem to hear because of a heightened defense of their sensory system. They may be overly fearful of swings and playground equipment. Poor sensory organization affects the child’s ability to regulate their emotional being, resulting in extreme meltdowns when overwhelmed, or running off/elope to get away from the stimulus that is affecting them.

Individuals with SPD may be oversensitive or undersensitive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds. They have social/emotional challenges, activity level that is unusually high or low, impulsive, or lack self-control. Children with SPD may be easily distracted, and have difficulty transitioning from one task or environment to another.

Inability to unwind or calm themselves, the noise level at night, lighting in the bedroom, and texture of sheets can affect sleep patterns, which further impacts arousal and regulation for basic functions. Neuromuscular abilities may be involved, such as delays in motor skills including posture, mobility, coordination, strength, effort, and energy. Motor difficulties impact participation in age-level play skills with frequent bumping into objects, clumsy appearance, and difficulties sensing the amount of force they are applying.

Occupational therapy uses sensory intervention to improve the integration of visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory, oral, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems. Through movement and heavy work experiences like pushing, pulling, carrying, and climbing, OT helps regulate your child’s internal being for improved attention and control of their own body. OT uses gross and fine motor activities to develop a strong sense of midline to provide a reference point from which the child can move freely.

OT helps to desensitize and increase exposure to incoming sensory information for improved participation in daily roles and routines. OT helps provide nighttime activities and structure to improve your child’s sleep for overall function throughout the day. It gives the child the opportunity to better organize their body and implement strategies to self-calm and regulate their own emotions for appropriate engagement with peers/siblings.

Through skilled intervention, the overall goal is to function in a safe environment to promote exploration, play, learning, and social interaction for improved independence and participation in valued areas of the child and families’ lives. To learn more about the pediatric occupational therapy services offered at SportsCare to aid with SPD in your child, follow this link.

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