We often run across wonderful, informative graphics like this one from Melissa Zacherl and think, “YES! That is my child” and we wonder how to handle those behaviors.
As an occupational therapist with years of experience working with children with sensory issues, I would like to offer 3 simple areas to encourage play at home that will positively impact your child’s sensory development. When children I work with participate in these activities, parents report an increased ability to sit still, decreased anxiety, improved listening skills and better behavior at home and school. I encourage you to try these at home for one month and note the changes you see in your child!
Symptom: “My child can’t sit still.”
As with most symptoms, I always tell parents to look at what the child is seeking. In this case, your child is seeking movement to stimulate his/her vestibular system, or movement sense. Although the vestibular system is less well known than the visual, auditory or tactile system, it is actually one of the first systems to develop in utero; and therefore the foundation for all the other senses. The vestibular labyrinth is a balance/hearing mechanism and part of the inner ear, so closely related to auditory function. If there is a deficit in the vestibular sense, then the other senses will be affected. When we move, our vestibular system is stimulated.
Swinging, swinging on stomach on tire swing, sliding, hanging upside down over couch, rocking, log rolling, somersaults, jumping, spinning, riding tricycle/bicycle, sit n spin, climbing, balancing, etc.
Symptom: “My child plays too rough.”
This is often related to our sense of proprioception. Proprioception is the awareness of our body responding to joints, muscles and tendons. Ironically, proprioception is closely related to the vestibular sense. Children, who play rough, often are seeking deep pressure input. You can encourage play activities that will meet this need, so your child does not need to seek it out on his own, possibly hurting siblings or friends.
Hanging from trapeze bar, deep pressure hugs, jumping, rolling exercise ball over child’s body, wearing compression shirts, weighted blankets, child punching bags/gloves, wrestling/rough housing with dad, pillow fights, squishing between couch cushions…but always in a safe and supervised environment!
Symptom: “My child does not tolerate touch, bright lights or loud/unexpected sounds.”
This is often related to our startle reflex, which you typically see in newborn babies. When a newborn is over stimulated or startled, they will noticeably “startle” and enter into a fight or flight state. Their eyes close, heart rate speeds up, breathing increases and they begin crying. This “startle” response can happen in older children too and they typically run away or hide. Children with sensory processing disorder are often “stuck” in this developmental phase and it can affect attention, arousal, emotional stability and cognitive processing.
These activities encourage being pro-active, instead of reactive. If you can learn to read your child’s facial responses/behavior, you can often anticipate when he/she is likely to encounter an anxiety-producing situation.
Sunglasses, clothes without tags, headphones, calming music, essential oils, deep pressure input, compression shirts, and weighted blankets are all helpful. Try to identify/avoid triggers by observing a child’s signs and avoid large and loud crowds like birthday parties for little ones. Prepare a backpack/bin with sensory/tactile items, like playdough or a koosh ball. Homemade tents with blankets and pillows are always favorites, as are beanbag chairs, rocking chairs and swings.
***Most importantly, 9 out of 10 children I treat with sensory issues also have significant fine and/or gross motor delays. This surprises most parents; as their child is running, jumping and climbing! But, when you ask the child to stand still on a balance beam, stand on one foot, do jumping jacks or skip, they are unable. The motor cortex of the brain is directly linked to the sensory cortex. Can you imagine trying to sit still if your body feels like a noodle? Once we begin to see improvements in motor development, the sensory symptoms usually diminish!
***Therefore, it’s highly recommended that you seek out early intervention services or a developmental screening to evaluate your child’s motor skills. If you try the activities and would like to share your experience via email, I would love to hear about it!
Debbie O’Connor, MPH, OTR/L
Pediatric Occupational Therapy, LLC Stronger Bodies, Brighter Minds, Happier Lives!