Sensory processing, or sensory integration, refers to the way our nervous system interprets sensory messages and turns them into the appropriate physical responses.
Your body processes sensory input whether you’re eating or reading, but some children have a condition that jumbles up sensory signals and makes day-to-day tasks become troublesome hurdles. This condition is referred to as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Occupational therapists can help create a sensory menu—or list of individualized sensory activities—that help kids with sensory processing disorder behave more functionally.
Proprioception is the sense of knowing where your body is positioned in relation to other body parts without needing to look at it. Proprioception activities that an occupational therapist recommends for a sensory diet depends on the patient. For instance, the therapist may recommend that you help your toddler practice pushing a stroller, or that you roll your toddler up with a blanket (à la burrito). However, for an older child, jumping on a trampoline or pushing a heavier object such as a vacuum may be recommended.
Your tactile sense allows you to detect light and deep pressure, vibrations, an object’s temperature, pain, and texture. Tactile activities for a child may involve simple activities such as playing with soap and sand, doing arts and crafts, baking pastries and tasting foods with different textures and temperatures. A child may also benefit from picking up a hobby with a variety of tactile stimulation such as gardening, scrapbooking, or sewing.
Your vestibular system uses organs in your inner ear to give you a sense of balance, help you sense movement, and keep you upright, according to Brain Training Associates, Inc. Movements such as swinging, hanging, and spinning provide your body with the longest-lasting input, though any movement should stimulate your vestibular receptors. Some examples of vestibular activities are swinging on a swing set, rolling down a grassy hill, dancing to music, and doing jumping jacks.
Visual input may overwhelm you if you have sensory integration dysfunction. Stringing beads, engaging in object-finding picture games, and playing card-matching games may help a child with visual system problems. Playing flashlight games with your child, such as asking her to move a flashlight on the wall to follow your flashlight’s movements, may also enhance her visual system. An occupational therapist may recommend that you limit visual stimuli surrounding your child to avoid overwhelming the system. It’s important to consult your therapist about how much stimulation is good for your child. In some cases, a reduction in extraneous stimulation could include clearing a classroom of clutter and asking the teacher to place her at the front where there are less distractions.
Hearing and Listening Activities
Your child’s occupational therapist may recommend that you help improve your child’s auditory system by playing sound-centric games such as imitating drum rhythms with a stick, or asking your child to guess where certain sounds are coming from. Some other simple listening activities include: listening to favorite songs, going to the beach to listen to sounds of the ocean, or taking a hike to listen for other nature sounds. Additionally, there are several products available to purchase that can help create a multi-sensory therapy experience at home. An example is music and movement-based program by Soundsory, which uses specialized headphones and a forty-day program to improve sensory processing, emotional regulation, and development of cognitive skills.
Tasting and Smelling Activities
Your child’s sense of smell and taste are closely linked and should allow the ability to enjoy positive flavors and scents, or react poorly to unpleasant or dangerous ones. Your child’s occupational therapist will specify the tasting and smelling activities that she thinks will help your child’s unique condition. For instance, if your child lacks sensitivity to smelling and tasting, the therapist may recommend that you ask him to guess the smell of certain scratch-and-sniff stickers or play a blindfolded food-guessing game. If your child is extra sensitive to certain flavors, the occupational therapist may recommend that you slowly incorporate new flavors into foods they like.
Children with SPD may benefit from specialized sensory-stimulating activities during therapy, and with a solid home program. An occupational therapist who is well-trained in how to manage SPD can help teach you the activities that are best for your child so to live their happiest, fullest life. If you care for a child with SPD, talk to their doctor or therapist for more information about how you can help.