Thanks for this excellent, insightful article goes to pediatric occupational therapist, Keri Wilmot, who has combined her many years of experience working with infants and young children and their families with her talent for finding developmental toys that promote a child’s educational skills. Keri and her husband, Derek, (with a little help from  their toddler, Gavin!) created The Toy Queen, a resource for parents.

What makes us individuals in this world, as both children and adults, is that we all have unique preferences in terms of what smells we prefer, what types of tastes we enjoy, how different fabric feels between our fingertips, what type of musical beats and tunes engage us, to even the kind of movement experiences we prefer in life, ranging  from bungee jumping to simply being a couch potato. This causes numerous possibilities of interests and preferences. However, in the end, despite these preferences, we are able to navigate the challenges of life with minimal difficulties. But —

– What if the smell of a certain odor was so noxious to you that you could not conceive of eating in a restaurant because you felt like you might get sick?

– What if fireworks or the unexpected sound of a train passing by was so loud and scary that it caused you to run in panic?

– What if the way a certain fabric felt against your body made it almost painful to wear certain clothing like undergarments or jeans?

– What if you are a child in a classroom and the ticking of the clock or the tapping of another child’s pencil is so loud to you that you missed all the teacher’s instructions?

– What if you refuse to participate in childhood experiences that are typical of peers that include playing with play-doh or finger painting?

-What if your child has a pain tolerance that is so extreme that they could be seriously injured, but rarely ever cry?

– What if you are child who won’t play at a playground because movement makes you fearful when your feet leave the ground?

– What if the look of food, or the way food feels inside your mouth, causes you to feel so negative about it that you stop eating, or eat a very limited diet?

– What if you are child that loves sensory experiences like running, jumping, climbing and crashing into people and things that it is difficult to settle yourself down to pay attention and learn skills typical of your age group?

– What if you are child who appears lethargic and sluggish most of the day and this impacts your ability to participate and learn at the same rate as your peers?

Many of the above characteristics in varying shapes and forms describe Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).  As Occupational Therapists, we often evaluate the presence of this disorder by observing children at home, school, on the playground and at community locations like playgroups. We interview parents, teachers, and caregivers and by using a combination of standardized tests and checklists, we are trained to determine whether SPD could be impacting a child’s ability to learn and participate effectively at school and in the community.

SPD can occur by itself, but it can also be found in conjunction with other diagnoses typically given in childhood such as Autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We have also seen sensory processing difficulties present in children who were born prematurely, before certain senses had time to develop in utero or with children who might have been adopted from countries or homes where they received minimal interaction and stimulation.

If you picture a traffic cop inside your brain, information comes into your brain from the world through how we see, smell, touch, hear, taste, and move our muscles and joints.  Well, what if that traffic cop didn’t do his job of directing traffic appropriately? Then you might pay too much attention to one type of sensory input and not enough to another.  This can lead to some very frightening and frustrating experiences for both children and adults. Though we are all sensory people and have different likes and dislikes, if the reactions are so extreme that they are impacting a child’s ability to function and participate like their peers, than evaluation and treatment by an Occupational Therapist might be helpful to determine whether there are enough concerns that a child would be demonstrating a Sensory Processing Disorder.

As Occupational Therapists we look at how a child functions by their successful participation in childhood activities without significant difficulty or overreaction. Signs that your child is functioning appropriately for their age would include:

– leaving the home to enjoy going to places like a restaurant, the mall, supermarket, or community playground

– interacting appropriately with children of the same age at school and following the general routine at structured playgroups like gymnastics or music class

– attending family events or children’s birthday parties without distress or overstimulation

– getting dressed without reactions to particular textures of clothing, tolerating a variety or food tastes and textures, as well as being generally compliant with toothbrushing, hair cutting, and fingernail cutting

– ability to demonstrate appropriate sleep/wake cycles to sleep through the night and nap consistently

– they feel pain and cry appropriately

– the ability to self-calm within a reasonable time frame after a tantrum

– displaying good attention to childhood activities as evidenced by learning and communicating with peers and teachers

Please keep in mind that at certain phases of development it is normal for children to want to demonstrate more independence, causing them to tantrum and/or exhibit food and clothing preferences. That is why evaluation by an Occupational Therapist can be helpful to determining if your child has enough preferences or concerns for it to be warranted as a disorder that might require intervention. As parents, you most likely will have an underlying feeling that “something isn’t quite right.”  Children who are exhibiting sensory reactions are often displaying similar reactions most children would exhibit, but in a more extreme or intense way.  Their behaviors can be inconsistent, but most parents can report that they know first thing in the morning whether “a day will be good or bad.”  Families often turn down activities like going to a restaurant, mall or community groups for fear of embarrassment that they might have to leave a place due to a tantrum or meltdown if their child becomes overstimulated. It is common for children with sensory processing difficulties to also be inconsistent with how they function at both school and home.

If sensory processing difficulties exist, an Occupational Therapist might help your family by designing a “sensory diet,” which could include participating in structured obstacle courses regularly throughout the day to help organize a child’s state. At school, a child might be encouraged to take part in a quick break to help the teacher pass out materials or re-arrange furniture. The key is to find out what sensory system is not functioning appropriately and through the use of these specially designed activities, it can help a child attend and learn better, resulting in more success in their world.

If parents, teachers and caregivers follow through on the suggested accommodations, children can make a lot of progress leading to more successful interactions and experiences. Contact your pediatrician or insurance company to locate an Occupational Therapist in your area if you are concerned about your child’s functioning, as these therapeutic services may be covered short term under your health insurance plan.