What is Sensory Processing?
Many children with Asperger’s syndrome experience sensory processing difficulties or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Sensory processing is the neurological processing and interpretation of sensation within one’s own body and from the environment. In short, it is the brain’s organization and interpretation of the sensory input from everyday use. This is a complex interrelationship of processes, hence the term: sensory integration. Modulation is a term you may hear describing the neurological process which the child’s central nervous system appropriately regulates (continually adjusts) behavior responses to continually changing external and internal sensory stimuli. If this modulation is not working well the child may seem under responsive, over responsive (seeking stimuli), or both, or may be overwhelmed to sensory stimuli. When this behavior interferes with a child’s “occupation” in life (social, emotional, play, school, attention, body mechanics, self-care, etc.), then it is termed a disorder, hence sensory processing/integration disorder. It is important to note that anyone and everyone has some sensory processing or integration problems from time to time because any kind of sensory stimuli can temporarily disrupt a person’s normal functioning. The three main sensory systems we are referring to are tactile/touch (influencing motor control and emotional development), proprioception (sense obtain through one’s own muscles, ligaments, deep pressure to the skin – therefore giving a sense of body position, organization, and calibration of movement), and vestibular (sense of movement and gravity specifically postural control, muscle tone, coordinated use of both sides of the body, coordinating eye movements, etc.). Other sensory systems include olfactory (smell), auditory, visual, and gustatory (taste).
Common Processing Symptoms
SPD and sensory processing difficulties are individual to each child. Some may be mildly affected while others have greater difficulty functioning in life. It is important to note that symptoms vary and not all are present. Also it is a marker of neurological dysfunction that a child may show symptoms one day or with one activity and not the next. The main type of therapy for SPD, with a trained Sensory Certified Occupational Therapist, includes a safe and challenging level of sensory stimulation encouraging movement to focus the child on tolerating and integrating sensory input, which is driven by the child’s interests and the “occupation” of play. Other therapy focuses on making environmental adaptations (such as in the home and school).
Common symptoms of SPD include: clumsiness (tripping, bumping, falling); poor fine motor skills; delayed self-care skills; poor muscle tone; difficulty initiating tasks; poor timing; poor posture; poor hand-eye coordination; learning disabilities; poor handwriting; poor organization skills; becomes easily frustrated; difficulty with social relations; constantly touching objects; doesn’t like to be groomed (hair, teeth, etc.); difficulty with clothing seams, socks, waistbands; seeks only soft clothes; likes tight clothing, small spaces, weight of blankets; opposed to being touched, would rather be the one to touch; hates being tickled or cuddled; often touches people or objects too hard; difficulty with eye contact; often smells objects; poor attention skills; picky eater; stuffing food or objects into mouth; difficulty with transitioning; hypersensitive to noise (things are too loud); hyposensitive to noise (doesn’t seem to notice); Hypersensitive to touch (certain fabrics, surfaces, etc.); little awareness to pain and temperature; hyposensitive to touch (may not notice when clothes are twisted or on improperly); hypersensitive to light; movement produces an anxious reaction (swinging, roller coasters, bike riding, spinning, rolling); over-seeks movement (swinging, spinning, rolling); takes excessive risks in movement, extreme activity levels; walking on tiptoes.
Dressing for Success!
As mentioned above, making adaptations within the child’s everyday life is also a part of understanding the child. Every child deserves to feel comfortable and adorable in their clothing. What if that same clothing could offer qualities that address sensory discomfort and therapeutic input? The child’s image of themselves and how they feel in their environment can enhance the social and emotional quality of life when that child feels organized and calm. We all have sensory qualities that make us who we are. However, when these neurological qualities interrupt our participation in life in a negative way, it should be recognized and accommodated. There are many children with an array of diagnoses that are subject to sensory hyper – or hypo-sensitivities, motor difficulties, and social differences including autism and Asperger’s, ADHD, sensory processing disabilities, anxiety, and many other developmental disabilities. Why not make their clothing possess some of the very neuroscience qualities that could help enhance their social and emotional well-being? As a mother of a child who suffered from SPD and as a long time Sensory Pediatric Occupational Therapist and advocate, I know firsthand it is not easy for our children.
Parents, therapists, and educators often express to me the benefits of weighed garments, chew objects, compression garments, and a child’s desire for soft materials. However, they frequently state that what is offered to them is too “therapeutic looking” and therefore stigmatizing. It’s hard to use many of these garments throughout “normal” life.
When a garment is being constructed to address children who suffer sensory processing difficulties, specific consideration should be made to address ease of function, tactile sensitivity, relevant design, safety, consistency in design for spatial orientation, and proprioceptive input (the unconscious awareness of sensations coming from receptor’s in one’s joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments). This helps promote independence as well as organization, alertness, and simplicity where quickness of dressing is often expected throughout the child’s day. When choosing a weighted vest or blanket for instance, it is significant to hear the child ask specifically for the “soft one,” the “cool one,” or the “nice one.” It is as significant to give their parents beautiful, easy to use, and superior fabrics that are relevant and stylish. It is the right of the child and their parents to have non-stigmatizing products. Just as important is the idea of play, and accommodating products should express the darling nature of children.
Respect, pleasure, playfulness, comfort, and a feeling of security are aspects that can be inherent in children’s clothing. As the design of the child’s apparel and play products are considered, it is important that as many of their personal characteristics are taken into consideration, in addition to the ability for children to take some therapeutic qualities along with them anywhere all day long.
There are so many strategies that help a child with SPD. Considering the aspects in their clothing is just another way a parent can simply use a non-invasive strategy aimed at helping their child and letting the child know that you understand and accept what they are feeling!
Susan Donohoe, OTR/L is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist with certification in Sensory Integration and SIPT Testing, and an advocate for children with special needs. Susan graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has been practicing OT for 33 years. Through many years of active practice and working closely with educators, therapists, manufacturers, nursing, and experts in Design founded Kozie Clothes (www.kozieclothes.com) as a way to incorporate Neuroscience Principles into relevant designed apparel for children with special needs.
This article was featured in Issue 32 – Striving for Independence