“What is a sensory processing disorder?” It is a condition in which an individual has difficulty processing the information coming in from the various systems. With a sensory processing disorder, one, two, or all three of the following sensory systems might be involved (as well as any of the other senses), leading to sensory modulation problems. Sensory modulation is the ability to regulate sensory input from the various sensory systems so that a person can orient, attention can be focused, and an alert and a relaxed state can be maintained during daily routines. To better understand sensory modulation, you need to know about the following sensory systems.
Tactile System: The tactile system is the sense of touch. This is the sensory system that helps us learn about our bodies and our environment. It is important in the development of a child’s body scheme (the internal map of our body and how we use our body to interact with the world around us). This system is composed of two subsystems: (1) discriminatory- allows us to know where we are being touched, (2) protective- lets us know if we are in contact with something dangerous. Tactile input is very important for the development of fine-motor skills, visual perception skills, and articulation of sounds.
The Vestibular System: The vestibular system is the sensory system that responds to accelerated and decelerated movement. It is through the vestibular system that we learn directions and are aware of our body position in space. This input helps us to form a basic reference for all sensory experiences. This system has interconnections with many parts of the body and influences many different functions, for example, muscle tone, postural control, balance, eye and neck muscles.
The Proprioceptive System: Proprioceptive information is sensations from muscles and joints. Proprioceptive input tells the brain when and how muscles are contracting and stretching and how joints are being compressed or stretched. It helps us to know where our bodies are in space and how they are moving. Proprioceptive input provides a calming effect. It works along with the vestibular system.
An experienced therapist can evaluate and determine which systems are involved, allowing for more specific treatment planning, which leads to more effective treatment! In my next entry, I’ll share a variety of sensory activities that are alerting, calming, etc.
Photo by David Castillo Dominici @ freedigitalphotos.net
Help! My child is sensitive to touch! In this entry, I’m going to share a little about sensory defensiveness, specifically tactile defensiveness. A child with general sensory defensiveness is overly sensitive to certain types of input from the environment, such as touch, textures (including food textures), sounds, lights (usually fluorescent), smells, and movement. When someone reacts negatively to touch in particular, that is called tactile defensiveness. Remember in the last post how I briefly explained the tactile system? Well, just imagine if this system was not functioning efficiently. All sorts of problems can present themselves!
There are five sensory nerve receptors in the skin that let the central nervous system know what’s going on in the environment. These receptors are light touch (top of the skin), deep pressure, temperature (hot & cold) and pain. It is likely for one type of receptor to be overly sensitive and the other to not have a problem, which explains why some children may tolerate firm hugs, and then freak out when touched lightly. Here are some signs and symptoms that you might see with a child who is dealing with tactile defensiveness.
Frequently resists being held or cuddled by unfamiliar people
Dislikes water splashing or bath-time
Difficulty falling into a regular sleep/wake schedule
Dislikes being moved quickly such as being tipped in the air, swung around, bounced, or rocked suddenly
Difficulty with sucking, chewing, or swallowing new textures
Does not tolerate new foods or food textures – diet is limited
Exaggerated separation anxiety
Sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, crowds
Dislikes hands or face to be dirty
Uncomfortable around strangers or unfamiliar people
Late with milestones such as talking, walking, sleeping through the night, etc.
Problems with reflux or allergies to foods
Must be in a familiar environment to fall asleep
Prefers to be swaddled tightly, likes weight and deep pressure
Dislikes shoes and socks
Does not crawl before walking
Craves movement such as swinging, rocking or bouncing
If a child has tactile sensitivity, here are some activities to try. Any child’s sensory system will benefit from these activities, defensive or not. Just be sure and remember to start slowly, and DO NOT force any input that your child resists. If your little one is extremely resistant, it’s probably time to consult your pediatrician and ask about the possibility of occupational therapy. There are more advanced treatments that can only be carried out under the supervision of a therapist.
Spend a few extra minutes after bath time to vigorously rub the child with a towel, or guide them in doing so.
Rub lotion or powder on the legs, hands and arms while singing (for distraction purposes). Let them also rub the lotion or powder on you, especially if they won’t tolerate it on their own extremities.
Pretend face washing or shaving- with different textures of cloth or towels.
Use a variety of textured materials such as corduroy, fur, terry cloth, etc. and rub on your child’s back, arms and legs.
Put textured mittens or puppets on child’s hands and let him or her take them off.
Encourage your child to play in binds of sand, rice, beans or popcorn. Hide items and have the child locate them, guessing what they are while still covered. If your child won’t touch the textures, provide cups and shovels for play.
Have the child roll up in a blanket or sheet, then play hot dog – press on mustard, relish, etc., and then have them roll out.
Put shaving cream, lotion, or pudding on a large piece of aluminum foil and have the child draw a picture or write spelling words. Be sure to get both hands messy!
Finger painting or body painting with water-based paints.
Play in play dough or putty. Pulling, squeezing, rolling, etc.
Draw numbers/letters on the child’s back, arms, lets, etc. and have him identify. You can make it a multiple choice or yes-no question – Is this a 2 or a 5?
Provide activities that provide tactile input on the child’s entire body, such as a kid pool full of styrofoam, big soft pillows, or balls.
Games with physical contact are good – bear hugs, piggyback rides, wrestling, back rubs, petting animals.
Identifying objects with eyes closed – keys, comb, marble, block, coins, shapes, etc.
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Fine motor skills are the way that we use our fingers and hands to manipulate small objects. They are very important when we go to school and it’s time to work with pencils, crayons, and scissors. However, fine motor skills begin to develop long before school age. At around 3 months old, babies begin to use their hands to grasp objects and their arms to swipe. Between 9 and 12 months of age, most infants can pick up a small object with the thumb and index finger, which is called a pincer grasp.
At two years of age, a little one can color with whole arm movement and holds a crayon in a fisted position with the thumb facing upward. By age 4, most children can imitate a cross and trace a diamond and a triangle, and by age 5 they can hold a pencil with 3 fingers, which is called a tripod grasp. This is the optimal grasp to have when writing, although there are others that are acceptable. Hand dominance is typically established by this age as well.