“I can’t wear those jeans!”
“No, I won’t eat mashed potatoes!”
“Agh, don’t make me touch that!”
These statements and tantrums are often how Sensory Processing Disorder shows itself in a child. Sensory processing is the brain’s recognition of receptor (eyes, nose, skin, taste, vestibular, etc.) driven input, and the interpretation, integration, and prioritizing of the information. The brain then outputs a response. If the brain interprets all input as equally important and doesn’t prioritize it, under processes it, or over processes it, you can imagine the potential “traffic jam” this creates, and the messy output (reaction) that follows in a child. Sensory processing “traffic jams” are present in most children with autism, high-functioning autism and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
From the receptors, to nerves, to spinal cord, to brain stem, then onto the thalamus (sensory relay station), and into the limbic system (emotional centers), is the path the input takes. Before the input ever hits the conscious brain, the autonomic/involuntary nervous system creates a response to the input. Processing input from the environment can cause a child’s heart rate to go up, sweating and other features of the fight or flight response to bloom.
There are two parts to the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic (fight or flight system) and the parasympathetic (the rest and digest system). Studies show that children with SPD and autism are more ruled by the fight or flight response system and the higher brain centers have trouble making the rest and digest response system dominate like it should. This can be why you see, for example, a child gets very reactive over that tag touching their skin.
In order to do its job the brain must be vertically integrated (information flows well from bottom to top and top to bottom), as well as horizontally integrated (information easily and quickly exchanged between the left and right hemispheres). This not only regulates the autonomic nervous system to keep a child calm, but also assures a smoother more organized flow of sensory input and output.
Therefore the goal of any intervention to help a child with sensory processing difficulties should include:
- Decreasing the sympathetic response (fight or flight) and increasing the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response in a child.
- Improving every processing function that a child is low in, and working on every processing skill at the same time. It has been known for decades that “neurons that fire together wire together” (Donald Hebb 1949), so working skills in isolation is a very slow process, compared to an integrated approach.
- Promoting growth (myelination) in the area of the brain that is lowest in processing, so that it can sync up with the rest of the brain.
- Grow the upstairs brain (frontal cortex) through physical and cognitive stimulation of all types at once. This will give the upstairs brain, that controls, prioritizes and inhibits what the downstairs brain is doing, more speed and skill.
These are the four goals for every child in the Brain Balance Program. The vast majority of children with autism, ADHD and other neurobehavioral challenges struggle with sensory processing skills. Children perform a variety of activities at their Brain Balance Center to mature their function in gross motor, fine motor, rhythm and timing, vestibular, proprioception, oculomotor, visual and auditory processing, touch processing and cognitive skills. All activities a child performs in their sensory motor sessions and academic sessions are designed to increase function towards age level in the slower processing hemisphere.
Intensity, repetition and fun are also important components of any effective sensory integration approach for children. That is why parents of Brain Balance students, perform daily eye, core muscle, as well as primitive (infant) reflex remediation exercises. Children come three times each week for an hour of intense in-center activities and stimulation. Parents are also coached on nutrition and behavior strategies. Teachers working with the student in a school setting are also recruited to be part of the child’s team.
It is tough to replicate the intensity and consistency of a Brain Balance Program but parents can go a long way towards increasing their child’s sensory processing ability (along with a lot of other functions) by making sure their child gets brain training daily or every other day. The book Disconnected Kids by Dr. Robert Melillo, gives parents tools to assess their child and to design some activities that are specific to their child’s needs. Suggestions of activities that will improve touch, visual, auditory and olfactory processing are included, as well as specific activities to stimulate overall brain growth and development.
Every child can improve their ability to process sensory input and to produce appropriate output. It is all a matter of brain maturity, which can be fostered through targeting all of a child’s deficit areas at once. A bottom up approach to addressing the sensory processing skills that are low in a child can then make top down approaches like tutoring, ABA and behavior modification systems much more effective for a child.
This article was featured in Issue 37 – Making Educational Strides