As kids, we learn about our five senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. These sensations are how we regulate and interact with the world around us. Though it seems pretty straightforward, the sensory system is actually quite complex, especially if a child has a sensory processing disorder (SPD), which could be related to learning difficulties, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or the autism spectrum, just to name a few.
The Four Patterns of SPD
Sensory processing disorders can include any combination of these patterns:
- Sensory registration helps me capture and respond to sensory information. If I’m not good at this I might look like a “bystander” or unapproachable.
- Sensory seeking behavior helps me explore the world around me and offers me unique opportunities and sensory experiences when I need to regulate.
- Sensory avoidance is an active pattern of limiting stimulation so that I don’t become overwhelmed.
- Sensory sensitivity is a passive pattern of reacting too easily to sensory experiences in my environment.
“The brain organizes and regulates sensory input,” explains Claudia Meyer, SaintA Occupational Therapist. “We all have different patterns for how much – or how little – sensation we can handle and still feel regulated.”
As adults, we learn to cope or set boundaries. For example, you may prefer to work in total silence while someone else thrives in a noisy environment. Likewise, you may know someone who twirls their pen or picks up any knick-knack they can find to keep their hands busy while they listen or talk.
What is my Child Trying to Tell Me?
Regulation is more difficult for children, especially babies who aren’t yet talking or kids who aren’t very verbal. “Almost any unregulated behavior or verbalized discomfort means your child is trying to communicate that something isn’t feeling right for them,” says Melissa (Missy) Dombrowski-Boling, Regional Director of SaintA Treatment Foster Care. “Is it the noise level? Is there too much activity? Maybe there is not enough stimulation. Even a clothing tag could be rubbing their skin the wrong way.” Any of these sensations can cause distractions – or worse, contribute to developmental concerns.
Claudia and Missy recommend paying attention to behaviors and what a child is “saying,” even if they’re not saying it. “Kids always tell us what they need,” says Claudia. “Behavior is their communication, whether that’s crying when they are hungry or tired or sneaking off to a quiet corner when they are overwhelmed.” The trick is for parents and other caregivers to be able to interpret what’s needed and then have the tools to help regulate the child.
How Can I help My Child Regulate?
This is where sensory toys may be useful. “Pay attention. Is there a change in regulation when a child is allowed to interact with a toy or in a particular situation,” asks Claudia. “When given the right frequency, intensity and duration, there will be a shift in a child’s behavior.” She also recommends taking note of which toys a child plays with and which ones they don’t. If you buy a doll that just sits in the corner while the child draws and paints, that’s a clue as to what satisfies that child’s senses and provides an opportunity to reinforce self-regulation.
If the child is older or a teenager, Missy says, “Ask them what is helpful and relaxing for them. Every child is different and some teens may feel regulated by music or soft lighting while others could benefit from a weighted blanket or another sensory tool.”
Getting Into the “Just Right” Zone
In their work with treatment foster care children and families, Claudia and Missy help people find their “Just Right” Zone, a place of regulation in order to think and perform at their best.
It all comes back to the five senses we learned about as children. “We don’t do anything without our senses,” says Claudia. “Our senses tell us what state we’re in and are always helping us adapt to our environment.” It makes sense, then, that some common self-regulation tips fall into these categories:
To calm, find a soothing rhythm, nature sounds or a quiet area; to activate, vary noise levels, increase the pace or vary the beat.
Use soft, low lighting to calm the senses; use bright lights or flashing lights to alert the senses.
Touch soft materials, pet a dog or cat or snuggle in blankets to calm the senses; to alert them, take a cold shower, touch rough textures or snap rubber bands.
To calm, chew gum, suck on a sucker, take in soothing scents or drink something warm; bite into a popsicle, eat something minty, hot or sour or whistle to alert the senses.
Color or stencil, do yoga, swing on a swing, take a leisurely walk or swim to calm the senses; to alert them, take a power walk, do aerobics or play Jacks.
Those are just a few easy-to-do activities for your child. If you’re interested in finding sensory toys for your children, please read Claudia’s blog post, “15 OT-Recommended Sensory Toys.”