Let’s start by talking about what exactly sensory processing is.
Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into responses. Our senses provide information to our brain (and nervous system) – so we can do our best to stay alive but also so we can learn and develop.
The information from our senses tells us what is happening with our own body and what is happening in the environment around us.
We are often taught that there are only 5 senses, but in fact there are more. The first 5 we all would be familiar with – it’s the last 2 that catch many by surprise, so I’ll briefly describe these two.
Let’s expand a little on these two ‘new’ senses, Vestibular and Proprioception. They are often forgotten but are by no means less important in our day to day lives. You will be surprised where they come into play!
The job of the Vestibular Sensory system is to tell us where we are and provide information vital to balance, movement and orientation. Our head position is critical to the vestibular sensory system. How fast we are moving and how gravity is impacting also play pivotal roles. Another job of the vestibular system is to coordinate eye movements, especially as we move.
The Vestibular system is considered to be the most influential sensory system in terms of its impact on daily function.
Examples of the vestibular system in action are:
- maintaining balance when learning to walk
- being able to walk along a balance beam
- not having to turn our whole body to look at something (we can move just our head or just our eyes to follow movement)
- knowing we are going up (or down) in an elevator despite standing still
- a toddler keeping their core steady when learning to sit
The job of the Proprioceptive Sensory system is to tell us where our body is (all of our body including outer limbs) without having to look e.g. being aware of where our outer extremities are such as our hands and feet.
Examples of the proprioceptive system in action are:
- being able to clap our hands together with our eyes closed
- moving through a narrow space without scraping or bumping into the wall with our hands, feet, shoulders
- walking past someone else without bumping into them or treading on their feet
We constantly process the information from our senses, and make decisions (mostly subconsciously) as to how we will respond. Well, most of us do. Sometimes people have difficulty processing sensory information, leading to OVER or UNDER sensitivity – this is a useful but simplified explanation of Sensory Processing Disorder.
Keep in mind children can be “over” with some senses and “under” with others, and be quite inconsistent from day to day with their sensory response.
Recognising sensory processing disorders
For most of us, common isues are not always obvious when it comes to sensory processing, especially when we are used to an individuals personality. They just seem like ‘them’.
We’ve put together a few lists that we hope make it a bit easier to recognise some of the tell tale traits of being under or over sensitive to each sense.
Strategies to cope with Sensory Processing disorders
Deep Pressure – Deep Pressure Stimulation (DPS) is firm but gentle squeezing, hugs, or holding that relaxes the nervous system. This pressure can be applied with the hands, special massage tools, or products that your child can wear or wrap around themselves to provide pressure. Done properly, this therapy triggers a chain reaction in the body that releases an overall sense of calm and peace.
Weighted Items – Weighted products are used to diffuse tension and help promote a sense of calmness and comfort. Things like weighted blankets are perfect for promoting relaxation and sensory feedback while being able to bundle up! Weighted toys provide a similar sensation.
Fidgets – Squishy, soft, textured, vibrating, sound, light. There are all sorts of fidget toys, and many can have dual or multiple functions. This means that a fidget potentially could either work favourably with a child’s sensory profile or alternatively work against it. Some children are avid chewers, in which case you may need to select fidget toys that are safe for oral use.
Vibration – Vibration tools can be calming for those who need more sensory feedback or help train those who are hypersensitive to tolerate more sensations. Give the ‘Senseez Vibrating Turtle Cushion‘ a go! The gentle vibration of this cushion is also a great way to introduce vibration to children with sensory processing issues. Find it here!
Chews and ‘chewlery’ – there is a variety of items specifically made for kids that chew. Some are made to be worn (around the neck or the wrist), some are hand-held and some are tools that can be chewed (like a pencil top!).
There is a lot on offer and I’ll write a separate blog post on it, as this topic and what is available is huge. For now, head over to our website to discover what’s on offer! We think the range of chews from ‘Ark’ are just great. We especially love the way they are disguised into everyday items like necklaces and hairbands. Click here to view more.
Vibrating oral tools – The Z Vibe Grabber Vibrating Chew Tool is an innovative tool that has all the benefits of the Z-Vibe with a bonus chewable grabber loop attached to the Z-Vibe handle. This can provide additional oral input and-or be used to hold onto or grasp.
TheZ Vibe Grabber Vibrating Chew Tool and accessories are innovative tools for speech, feeding and sensory development. Check it out here!
Products are great, but try giving a few of these activities a go too…
- Keeping a log of food responses
- Snake taste – kids just use their tongue to quickly taste a food
- Present foods in new ways
- Introduce new foods over time
- Involve children in the food purchasing/selection and preparation where possible
- Removing scents from eating environment
Perfumes/deodorants – Be mindful of certain perfumes and other hygene products such a desodrants. They can sometimes be the casue of stress to those with sensory processing disorder.
The same applies for certain laundry products and detergents. If you can’t seem to identify the cause of upset, consider looking into changing your preferred washing powder or fabric conditioner.
Aromatherapy – Smells have a biochemical effect on the brain. Smell travels directly into the limbic system, which is the centre of our emotions, memory, pleasure, and learning. Certain essential oils have been proven to have profound effects on the body and mind. It is a great source of therapy for those with any form of sensory processing disorder.
Scented toys – Any kind of toy that has fragrance or scent is a great source of sensory stimulation for those that struggle with it. You must be careful to get the strength right though. If it is too powerful it can have the opposite affect and can end up causing stress rather than be therapeutic. Our scented products are specifically designed to accommodate SPD.
Products like scented marker pens or scratch and sniff stickers are perfect everyday items and can have huge benefits to those dealing with lower sensitivity to smell.
Headphones – Headphones are a great way of blocking out continuous background noise that can become stressful very quickly. We have some great headphones designed for children called Kids Ear Defenders. Lots of families use these in loud environments such as festivals, concerts, assembly. You can get them in lots of colours and they are generally not expensive.
Calming music – Not only are head phones and ear buds great from blocking out noise, you can also use them to play relaxing music or any kind of sound that helps promote calmness. Allowing them to have access to volume control is also very important. They can control how loud or soft the want it, or if they want sound at all.
Dark Den – Dark Dens are perfect for children that can become easily overwhelmed. They provide a quieter, dark, enclosed space for them to relax and have time to regulate their sensory system. You can purchase them purpose built or even better, make your own!
Avoid fluorescent lighting – Certain types of lighting, specifically fluorescent lighting, has been shown to have a particularly negative affect on those which sensory processing disorders. Try and avoid them where possible, perhaps not entering certain supermarkets etc.
Calming lamps – Children’s moods are strongly affected by lighting. For some it provides a calming, soothing effect and for others it acts as a stimulant. Lamps can be great for creating a calm atmosphere, especially when you can chose the type pf light i.e. warm/cold or coloured.
Flickering, humming lights can be very distracting and sometimes painful. It’s often advised to use adjustable lighting in order to create a calming effect.
Weighted activities – Ask your child to do heavy weight tasks (carrying garbage out, lifting things, setting up chairs and tables)
Exercise Bands – try providing Exercise Bands for chairs when sitting at the table/desk. The best ones are the loops, as you don’t have to tie knots and they won’t come apart. Check out the one we have here.
Movin’ Step – This is great for kids who need to move, it can help them stay seated for longer periods of time and give them the movement they need at the same time.
Wobble cushion – These are very popular and effective for some children. You can have the tactile side up or the smooth side, inflate or deflate (how wobbly or how much movement the cushion has) depending on their sensory needs. Click here to see ours!
Even more great ideas can include…
- Dancing/games (especially with repetitive movements) – hopscotch, hokey pokey etc.
- Line walking
- Equipment play (like hanging upside down and climbing)
Stress balls – Consider what material the stress ball is made from (you can make them yourself with a balloon and cornflour but they don’t last long and when they split they make a mess). Go for quality and also think about how much “resistance” your child needs.
Ball games – that involve kicking ball, throwing, catching, hitting with bat/racquet. Using a weighted ball or a ball with bells, or a spiky ball, or balls made from a variety of materials can be options as well.
Songs and Games – Head shoulders knees and toes and other action songs that focus on body awareness are fab!
Lycra tunnels/Body socks – Lycra, especially good quality lycra, gives a lot of pressure “feedback” – when you push or pull against the fabric “it” pushes back. Lycra tunnels and body socks can be used in lots of different ways to give proprioceptive feedback to a child’s body.
Body awareness activities – I love this one from Integrated Learning Strategies. It has lots go good ideas which are simply and clearly presented. Click here.
Sensory information overload?
Don’t worry if what you have just read seems a little daunting. There’s an awful lot of information up there. The crazy thing is, everything above barely scratches the surface.
Sensory processing disorders, like many things, are so unique to each individual. We hope this has provided a guide, but the reality is that the complexity of sensory processing is extremely hard to sum up in just one blog.
We will aim to release more blogs covering more specifics of SPD’s so we can all try and understand more about just what exactly Sensory Processing is. And how we can tackle it together.
Love Team Starfish x