Sensory Processing Challenges and the Role of Occupational Therapy

Wooden staircase

I write this article in honor of Sensory Processing Disorder Awareness Month (October). As a mother of a child who has sensory processing challenges, I thought it would be appropriate to bring to light an often misunderstood and “invisible” challenge that many youngsters face. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) often is mistaken for ADD/ADHD, “bad” behavior, “bad” parenting, etc., in which a child may exhibit sensory-seeking behaviors (such as crashing into people or objects), distractibility, impulse-control issues, sensory sensitivity (such as lights or sounds that are too bright or too loud), or balance and coordination challenges, among many others. SPD is not the child’s nor the parents’ fault.

According to the SPD Foundation website, “Sensory processing (sometimes called sensory integration, or SI) is a term that refers to the way that the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Whether you are biting into an apple, riding a bicycle, or reading a book, your successful completion of the activity requires processing the activity or ‘sensory integration.’ Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses.”

SPD affects up to one in six children, according to some studies. It is thought to be inherited, although birth/prenatal trauma may also have some impact as it relates to developing SPD. The condition is chronic and lifelong, but can be managed through treatment such as occupational therapy and a “sensory diet,” exercise, good nutrition, and good “sleep hygiene.”

Individuals can have one sense affected or more than one (such as touch and sound sensitivity). Severity of the impairment ranges from mild to severe, affecting life domains such as educational, social, and work settings. Some individuals also have co-occurring challenges, such as learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, and/or autism. SPD often is confused with ADD/ADHD because sometimes the symptoms look a lot alike—sensory-seeking behaviors can mimic hyperactivity or create distractibility—and many providers are not trained in assessment for SPD.

The brain of a child with SPD is hard-wired differently than a “typical” youngster. However, most children with SPD are just as intelligent as their peers. With treatment and early intervention, SPD is very manageable. Thus, there is reason to be hopeful if you have a child whom you suspect may have SPD. The key is obtaining an assessment from a qualified professional as soon as you suspect SPD. In many cases, this assessment can be generated through your child’s school district (in California, for example, a parent can ask for an individualized education plan as early as age 3 and utilize early childhood intervention programs). If your child qualifies for special education services, he or she will be eligible to receive occupational therapy, the predominant means of treating SPD.

Occupational therapy can take place in education, clinic, and home settings—ideally in sensory-rich environments. Activities are designed by a specialist (occupational therapist) who helps the child receive a “sensory diet” that nourishes the senses. For example, a child with an underdeveloped vestibular/proprioceptive system may need swinging and gentle pressure activities that help the child experience his or her body’s movement in space. Specialized gym equipment can help with this process.

The occupational therapist can talk with parents and teachers about methods that can help a child get his or her sensory needs met in different settings. For example, if Johnny is a “sensory-seeker” and needs proprioceptive input so he can focus at school, he may be allowed to squeeze a fidget toy at his desk, which in turn helps him focus on his work. At home, Johnny may jump for 30 minutes on a trampoline before he starts his homework. A “sensory diet” is a critical part of managing SPD. The therapist has specialized training in setting this up for your child. My son has benefited significantly from many compassionate occupational therapists who have helped him be successful in school and social settings.

The topic of sensory integration and occupational therapy is so broad that truly expounding upon the subject would require an encyclopedia. I have barely scratched the surface in this article, but I’ll list a few books and websites that have been incredibly helpful for my family in managing SPD:

Recommended websites:

  • (SPD Foundation)
  • (social network for parents)
  • (for learning disabilities, SPD, ADD/ADHD, autism)
  • (resources, support, advocacy, stigma reduction)

Recommended books:

  • The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping With Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Kranowicz (2005)
  • Growing an In-Sync Child: Simple, Fun Activities to Help Every Child Develop, Learn, and Grow by Carol Kranowicz (2010)
  • Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Disorder by Nancy Peske (2009)
  • Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder by Lucy Jane Miller (2007)

I hope these are helpful to you.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Schneider, LCSW, Learning Difficulties Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • bonnie b

    October 11th, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    I guess I am not 100% certain what occupational therapy is all about…

    Is this where people are taught things like life skills and how to make all of that mesh with something like sensory challenges that they may have?

  • lenny

    October 11th, 2012 at 11:32 PM

    sounds like a terrible thing for a child.and the parents must feel helpless too..from what I understand,these exercises would tune the child’s sensory processing systems and make them better,is that right?and are there any particular reasons for this disorder?seeing that it can be helped by such exercises,could the parents also be given a little guidance to come up with on the spot customized exercises with everyday objects to help their children?

  • Candi

    October 12th, 2012 at 4:08 AM

    Thanks for pointing out the websites where you can get more information about this. I have a cousin who has a child with SI issues and I think that she has been been pretty frustrated with the lack of information that hse has found avaailable for her and her family. As always, you seem to have your finger on the pulse of the issues that so many of us are dealing with but don’t really know where to get help.

  • Andrea Schneider

    October 12th, 2012 at 9:01 AM

    @Bonnie…as relates specifically to SPD in the article above, as I mentioned, occupational therapists can assists those with SPD to obtain a “sensory diet” of activities that balances out how their brains take in/perceive the world around them…it can also include adaptive skills like fine motor for those who needs it…O.T. is very specific to the individual…see the recommended websites for more in depth information on O.T…it’s a very broad category…:) Hope that helps

  • Andrea Schneider

    October 12th, 2012 at 9:34 AM

    @Lenny–well, it’s a challenge that can be worked through…that’s the good news…and many adults have sensory challenges too :) 1 in 6 children have SPD…and we are becoming more and more aware of how to manage it…with the blessing of occupational therapy and a “sensory diet”…great progress can be had. :)Lots of reasons to be optimistic.

  • Andrea Schneider

    October 12th, 2012 at 9:38 AM

    @Lenny–the cause is not well understood but there is a strong genetic component….it’s just that children with SPD don’t fit “into the box”…their brains are hard-wired a little differently…and it makes it hard to fit into traditional classroom environments where you need to “sit still” and “focus” for several hours at a time…but, there are definitely adaptations that can be made, working with the O.T. and the teacher to assist the child to be successful in environments that challenge their sensory systems…

  • cindy kaye

    October 13th, 2012 at 9:18 AM

    If this is a challenge that a child has do you think that it is more appropriate to either home school or find a school that specializes in these kinds of issues, or is it better for parents and the child to go through the public school system demanding the specialized services to which these families are entitled? Have you seen more success with one option or the other?

  • Chassity

    November 9th, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    As a mother of a 9 yr girl with SPD, which took years to be diagnosed, I personally think fighting for the school system to provide the most resources they have would be the best option, considering they are able to provide the proper treatment and learning styles for my child. Even though I know what she needs it can be very over whelming to not only teach the every day life lessons and getting her to do her work “even though she’s incredibly intelligent” just as well dealing with SPD she gets just as frustrated as I do.

  • Andrea

    October 13th, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    @Cindy–to answer your question, the choice of homeschool or public school really depends on the child and his/her family and the resources available to them…also whether or not the parent(s) are trained/wanting to teach…it’s a very individualized, personal decision …. Ideally, all public schools would be equipped to provide high quality education for special needs kids….A….

  • cindy kaye

    October 15th, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. But sometimes I have to remind myself that we just don’t live in that ideal world, you know? I have watched some of my friends who have children in the school system who just need some kind of simple modification to their child’s day, like a quieter place for a test, or maybe an oral test over a written one, and it is like pulling teeth to make sure that they are given what they need to be a success. I can only imagine when you are dealing with an even bigger and often misunderstood challenge like this that it only gets more difficult to make sure that the child gets all that the school systems should be offering to him and the families.

  • Andrea Schneider

    October 15th, 2012 at 12:59 PM

    @Cindy–in CA, there is something called a 504 plan that enables the student to have accommodations in the school setting…also, if a child qualifies for special education, they will have what’s called an IEP in place so that the child receives the appropriate support for academic learning to be successful…I have had great experiences thus far w public school special education — but, it’s not for everyone…again, each situation is unique…

  • Jessica

    October 7th, 2013 at 7:24 PM

    Thank you! My 6 yr old son was diagnosed with SPD last week after several years of searching for an answer. He is intellectually gifted and such a sweet boy, but has been mislabeled with all of it: ADHD, Asberger’s, bad behavior, immaturity, the list goes on and on! We are thankful for an answer and are working towards helping him grow, cope, and improve. We just bought a trampoline yesterday and are hoping it helps too! Thanks for increasing awareness of this issue.

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