Early Intervention and Sensory Disorders in Children

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Over the past 10 years, the term “Sensory Processing Disorder” (SPD) has become more familiar as health care professionals have helped parents understand more about sensory issues.  While SPD is not a clinically recognized disorder or diagnosis, the term does serve as an umbrella over a cluster of recognizable symptoms, which aides therapists and other professionals in tailoring effective treatments for clients who exhibit the symptoms of SPD.

While often associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder, not all children with sensory processing difficulties are on the Autism spectrum. Most importantly, there is mounting evidence regarding the benefits of reaching young children through Early Intervention if sensory processing issues are suspected.

What is a sensory disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder occurs when the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. One or more of the senses may be affected, which makes the child either oversensitive or under sensitive to sound, touch, light, taste or smell.  “We all experience our senses and react differently to the environment around us,” notes Alex Beschorner, a teli Occupational Therapist. “For children with Sensory Processing Disorder, their ability to adapt to the situation and react within a typical range, is difficult.”
Unfortunately, if not addressed early, SPD can prevent children from engaging in typical life experiences depending on the senses affected. “Receiving a hug from another child in a play group could be troublesome; playing in the park in the bright sunshine or engaging in a family dinner at a noisy restaurant may result in overstimulation,” explains Alex.  “But with Early Intervention support, there is definitely help available.”

What are the behaviors to look for if you suspect sensory processing disorder?

Over her many years of experience in Early Intervention, Alex has worked with families who have had questions about their child’s over sensitive or under sensitive reactions that may result in negative behavior. “We work with families to help to understand what exactly is causing the child’s behavior,” notes Alex. “There can be more than one of the five senses impacted and we must understand the “triggers” for a child’s reaction.” The following are some of the reactions which may indicate Sensory Processing Disorder.

  • Touch – A child who pulls away from a light touch or a child who seeks intense physical pressure to the point where running into things is not painful to him or her.
  • Taste/Oral Sensation – A child who reacts negatively to the introduction to new textures of food or a child who always seeking out things to chew on including his or her fingers, hands, and other non-food objects. A child could also be very sensitive to flavors, decreasing his or her willingness to try new foods, or under sensitive to taste, requiring high flavor, spice, or seasoning in order to experience a flavor.
  • Sight – A child who demonstrated an oversensitivity to light by covering his or her eyes in brightly lit environments or an under sensitivity by seeking out very bright lights, fast moving screens, or bright colors and busy patterns.
  • Sound – A child who may react strongly to an outdoor noise such as a mower or street traffic by covering his or her ears, crying, or trying to escape from the sound. Alternatively, a child may not attend to a parent calling his or her name or may not seem to hear startling or loud noises.
  • Smell – A child who has a heightened sense of smell and reacts negatively to any new smell or the intensity of a smell. A child with a diminished sense of smell may require very strong odors to register their presence.

How can I help my child deal with their sensory issues?

There are three major strategies that Alex employs when working with children with sensory issues:

  • Remove the trigger –  Dependent on the sense affected, removing the cause of your child’s reaction can be a first step. For example, for hypersensitivity to touch, consider tagless shirts or closefitting clothing that reduces the rubbing of the cloth against his or her body.  If smell is an issue, remove the smell to which your child has a negative reaction.     
  • Gradual exposure therapy – Introducing sights, sounds, tastes, and textures gradually and on a repetitive basis helps the brain begin to adapt and the child to process the sensations more comfortably. Consider introducing Playdough to a child who is sensitive to touch and allow them to touch it and poke it, followed by a transition to shaving cream, and ultimately new food textures. Tone down or gently brighten lighting to begin to help your child tolerate modifications.
  • Provide safe ways to satisfy a sensitive need. – Identify a safe place with blankets and pillows for a child who craves touch. Consider a special “smell” jar which contains a calming smell for those children with intense sensitivity to smell. For a child with an oral craving, a chewy tube can satisfy their urge to chew.

Where can I get help for my child if I suspect a sensory disorder?

If you have concerns regarding your child, you should first have a conversation with your pediatrician to discuss the symptoms you are observing.  A recommendation for Early Intervention would begin with an assessment to understand the root cause for the over or under sensitivity and identify any red flags for consideration when determining the correct therapy.
“As Occupational therapists at teli, we engage children in special physical activities that are designed to regulate their sensory systems, to make them feel more comfortable, secure, and able to focus,” notes Alex.  “The important thing is getting your child help early so that strategic solutions can help them function at the highest level possible.”

To learn more about teli’s Early Intervention Services and how we can help, call us at 412-922-8322.

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