It’s not uncommon for any of us to feel overwhelmed by noise, movement etc, but for children with sensory processing difficulties, this can impact their ability to function, focus, and learn. When we refer to sensory processing, we don’t only mean visual, auditory, smell, taste and touch, it also includes vestibular (head movement), proprioception (sensations from muscles and joints) among others.
Autistic children and those with ADHD often have additional sensory needs, however, children without any additional diagnosis can struggle with sensory processing too. What can be tricky, is how they manifest in various ways, are unique to each individual and can change over time.
Some children are over-responsive - taking in too much information and some under-responsive - not receiving enough. Some are a combination of both and some of the ‘behaviours’ we might see are: purposely or accidentally banging and crashing into people/objects, struggling to focus, displaying aggression towards themselves and others, withdrawing from activities, seeming to be constantly lethargic among countless others.
Always seek expert assessment and guidance to find out more about sensory processing and ways to help individual children. However, the best and most accurate learning always comes from the child alongside guidance from an Occupational Therapist and parents.
Here are my Top 10 Tips for helping children and young people who do or might have sensory processing difficulties.
1. Look for triggers. You could try keeping a diary of events. Note down what you are seeing but also take note of what is happening around the child.
What is the environment like? Is it noisy? Lots of visual input?
What has just happened? Have they recently been active/calm?
What is about to happen? Are there changes coming up?
Once you’ve collected this information, study it to see if any patterns emerge.
2. The environment is key! Reducing sensory input and providing specific support can really help. I always think of a reception classroom when I mention this because it has pretty much every 'sensory' area covered! Displays everywhere, things hanging from the ceiling, lots of children moving about, noise, movement etc. If the child needs to focus on structured tasks, think about removing as much as you can from the environment, or providing a separate space free from additional sensory input. This could be a bare workstation or a pop-up tent.
3. Some children crave certain noises and might cover their ears at others. This is
because it is often its specific noise they crave or that they can only cope with noise which they have control over, or which they are making. Children who are oversensitive to sound, often benefit from ear defenders. However, if they don't like wearing them, you could try in-ear headphones with quiet music playing. It can really help them to focus too.
4. We are all unique individuals. What works for one child might not work for another and can make things worse. For example, weight can help calm senses if the child is over-responsive, but weight for a child who is under-responsive can make their ability to engage, reduce. Vibration works in a similar way, in that it could help an under-responsive child become more alert, but for an over-responsive child, it could make it even harder for them to engage. Thorough assessment and personalisation are key.
5. Occupational Therapists often recommend joint compressions and body brushing. This might sound alarming to some people, but I can assure you if the children need this input, they soon learn it helps and ask for more! It’s a way of allowing them to know ‘where their body is’. That might sound odd, but if you imagine having a numb leg, you possibly instinctively stamp your foot until you feel it in a normal way again. Although this isn’t about numbness, it’s similar in that you might find these children bumping into people or objects, hitting themselves, recoiling from touch among numerous other things in order to gain the information their body needs.
6. You could encourage the child to try doing self-joint compressions. Wall push-ups, lifting themselves off their chair with their hands whilst seated, hugging themselves, putting their hands palm to palm and pushing as hard as possible 5-10 times are all things which might help.
7. It isn’t always helpful to recommend ‘running off spare energy’ because sometimes, children with sensory processing difficulties are already overstimulated in which case, they will need a reduction in sensory input and calming. That's not to say structured exercise doesn’t help. Sensory circuits are brilliant, but they need to be carried out in full. They involve an ‘alerting’ activity, then an ‘organising’ activity, finally a ‘calming’ activity. Although time is often an issue, sometimes children need to carry out sensory circuits at specific times of the day. Be led by the child, get to know what works for them. There is more information about sensory circuits and ideas for activities online if you search ‘sensory circuit ideas’.
8. Consider what you ‘see’ to be a communication and a clue as to what the child needs. For example, if the child is struggling to listen to instructions or to sit still, they may be looking for a way to alert or calm their sensory system and ‘deep pressure’ activities could help. The OT might recommend joint compressions or brushing (as above) but also things such as using a hug-jacket or weight. If you don’t have access to these, you could try putting a heavy book in a rucksack on their back or lap, or you could try asking them to carry heavy items from one place to another.
Sleep is a common issue, but strategies can be included in night time routines to help. Nice smelling baths, soft lighting, different coloured light bulbs (UV ones are fab!) Rolling them up in their towel to provide deep pressure, tight PJ’s, etc.
Many children don’t want to feel ‘different’, so they might avoid or refuse support. You could try disguising support as ‘helpful tasks’ such as pushing a heavy box across the floor, carrying the shopping bags in, doing the hoovering or other housework tasks. Cycling, climbing, running etc are helpful. Provide them with a rough sponge to shower with in the morning and/or a rough towel to dry themselves on. This will get a form of body brushing into their day. Buy them tight vests to wear under their clothes. The key is to work out what calms and what alerts the individual child and it won’t always be ‘typical’ or what you might think! Also to be creative and follow their lead.
9. Have fun! Try using songs or rhymes along with joint compressions or brushing. Set targets/goals in sensory circuits to make them more motivating. Do the activities with them and/or in groups so they don’t feel singled out. Let them try them out on you first if they're anxious. Allow them to be in control at all times. If they don’t want to try something, get creative and think of other ways to provide the same input. Tooth brushing used to be a big battle and not one which can be avoided, but you can make it fun. Try sitting in front of a mirror so the child can see what's happening. Also, if the child has difficulties with body awareness, the mirror can really help. It can also help with a feeling of control.
Sing a silly tooth brushing song and take turns for 5 seconds saying, ‘your turn, my turn’. Try an electric toothbrush and various kinds of toothpaste. The flavour can be a big no-no for some! Clothes can cause big problems, so take them shopping with you, or order a few choices online to try at home. Let them feel the textures and try them on (if possible). Buy seamless socks and be prepared to cut all labels out of clothes.
10. Sensory processing differences morph, and this can happen a lot! Just when you think you have it nailed, their needs change and something they loved last month, is now the root of all evil! (Which is the exact terminology my son used to describe his *very expensive* vibrating cushion, just 1 month after he begged for one 'just like the one at school'). This is why I wouldn’t suggest spending lots of money on various sensory equipment unless recommended by a professional of course. There are ways to make or use cheap alternatives and still get the same input and outcome.
You can create a box of sensory goodies from everyday things. Cut strips of old clothes, cushions, fabrics of different textures. Plastic bottles filled with rice, pasta, beads, etc. Zip up plastic folders/bags with foam, slime or paint inside. You could also add beads, glitter or something else! These can allow children who are reluctant to touch or use paint to engage and be included in activities and could also act as a step towards desensitising and being ready to try new things.
We used to fill an old foot spa machine with a cheap bubble bath and a tiny amount of water. This created bubble mountains bigger than the children and they loved it! I also remember having an old office chair with one wheel missing which was earmarked for the tip. The children had other plans though! They used to love lying over it and spinning around up and down. It was an excellent way of providing vestibular input and lots of fun!
Although I appreciate that using an old chair might not be appropriate for use in schools! try to be creative and if you can’t afford expensive equipment, look around and re-think and re-imagine objects and resources which you already have.