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Sensory Processing Disorder, Dysregulation & Strategies

Maybe you've heard words like sensory processing or a child is dysregulated. These words are becoming more and more prominent as more services become available and there is more of an understanding of the complexity of kiddos.

"Symptoms are not the problem but rather the child's solution to the underlying problem ... we have to ask, why does the child come to this solution? - Melvin Kaplan"

Try replacing the word "symptom" with "behavior".


Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD involves how we can become dysregulated by various sensory stimuli from within our environment. It can be physical or emotional.


There are seven basic sensory systems:

  • Proprioceptive - body awareness

  • Vestibular - balance

  • Tactile - touch

  • Auditory - sound

  • Visual - sight

  • Olfactory - smell

  • Gustatory - oral

Proprioceptive


This is a major one as it involves so many muscles and joints in the body - it tells us about our own movement or body position, where our body parts begin and end, and how they relate to each other (without using eyes). Do they bump into things? Do they like tight hugs? Loves jumping or rocking?


Dysfunction looks like: balance or coordination problems, fearful of feet leaving the ground, stumbling when moving across an uneven surface, difficulty learning something new, too much or too little force with buttons, pencils, spoons.


Some things to do: animal walks (running will actually dysregulate) or wheelbarrow walks, lotion massage, trampoline jumps (no more than 30 jumps), any activity that involves a lot of heavy work (pushing, pulling, carrying, lifting). The input is unique in that it tends to calm when the child is aroused and arouse when the child is calm.


Vestibular


The movement sense. Responsible for the body's movement through space (balance and equilibrium) and change in head position. Scared of small places? Loves to spin or rock? Doesn't like to be upside down or have feet off ground?


If a child is high-energy then they need to be calmed: slow, linear, rhythmic movements (have child push off with feet or hands, wagon rides). If the child is low energy then they need to be alerted: fast, varied, jerky (obstacle course, throwing objects at a target).


Dysfunction looks like: extreme fearfulness of their body moving in space or change in body positions, doesn't appear to get dizzy, craves or seeks out movement, poor judgment in starting or stopping movements.


Tactile


Tactile relates to touch, things like hair brushing, tags or seams on clothes, texture, pain, hot or cold temperatures, even the dentist.


Regulating items include: fuzzy animals, shaving cream, water beads, finger paints, water bucket, lotion, putty, kinetic sand, floam, objects in rice or beans, dirt, walk barefoot on various textures (bubble wrap, sand, tile).


Firm pressure will calm a high-energy child while light pressure will alert a low-energy child.


Auditory


Does the child cover their ears? Are they calmed by music? Ignore you when there is a lot of other sound going on? They can hear things you might not be able to.

Play with the volume of your voice or environment. Headphones are good for loud noises, you can offer even if you think it's not that loud. Music can be very calming.


Visual


Is it bright out? Are lights flickering? Is something distracting, like colors or clutter?

Sunglasses can be helpful outside or inside stores. A glitter bottle to look at (instructions on Pinterest), this can double as a timer. Imitating building. Tidying up an environment, if possible. The child's gaze can be blocked if they are too distracted.


Making a visual schedule can be extremely helpful to assist with transitions. Pictures can be found on the internet or there are apps to download (sorry I don't have a resource for that, I just used a table in Word and made my own). "Check your schedule, what is next?" If you put the printout in a plastic sleeve you can use a dry erase marker. This same concept can be handled with grocery shopping. Make a list, have them use the marker to check it off.


Simple sign language is good for visual learners. More, all done, stop, now, potty, eat, their favorite foods, sit, stand, and wait are good basics to start with.


Oral


Does the child grind teeth, bite nails, chew on clothes?


A "chewy" is helpful, this can be a rubber material or a necklace type. Gum or other chewy foods gives deep pressure to the mouth. Drink thicker things like applesauce through a straw, or use a curly straw for general drinking.


Smell


Do things like strong perfumes, flowers or foods bother your child?


To calm a high-energy child use vanilla or lavender.

To alert a low-energy child use mint.


Strategies


A child must be regulated in order to access their capacities. When a child becomes dysregulated, behaviors are likely to increase. In order to start anywhere ask yourself ... Is my child regulated? Dysregulation exasperates already existing challenges that we see through behavior.


Timers are a must. You have two more minutes, one more minute, we are counting to five and we are all done. (use your fingers and count down). The "Time Timer" is a great visual. Or a wall clock with numbers, not hands.


Words like, "It's a little deal if (we don't get the blue chair,)" or "you look very frustrated, how do you feel" can be helpful with consistency.


Some other things my son liked: a bean bag for calming or crashes, blowing bubbles, using fingers as candles and blow out candles, the egg chair from Ikea, a swing, peanut ball to roll or bounce on, weighted vest or blanket, head squeezes, hand squeezes, fill a sock with sand and use as lap buddy.


Making the environment as predictable as possible can help lessen behaviors and teach foundational skills as they get older. Most of these kiddos have a skill scatter so they will learn at a different rate, which can be challenging. Sometimes the memory retention is not there making consistency and repetition highly important.


Keep a journal of when the child is most dysregulated. Is it while shopping, an unexpected stop, not knowing the schedule, needing additional processing time, are they tired or hungry, hot or cold, etc. It takes some investigative work, discovery, trial and error to figure it out. Hang in there, it's all worth it.


Seeking out resources like Pacer in MN who offers free classes can be very helpful.

Professional resources such as an Occupational Therapist or ABA can be helpful.

If in school, ask the school to do an OT evaluation, those hours can be written into the IEP.


We go through a lot for our kids, do not forget to take care of yourself too.


Don't tell a special needs parent that they look tired, they already know that. Tell them that they are doing a great job, they might not know that.
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