Some people have a harder time processing and regulating sensory input. When the ability to process and regulate input is unbalanced, it is called a sensory processing disorder (SPD). Sensory processing disorder and autism spectrum disorder commonly come together, but you can have SPD without autism.
When children with sensory processing disorder are overwhelmed with too many sensory stimuli, they have a tendency to collapse and do what is known as a meltdown or a shutdown. These situations resemble temper tantrums but are more difficult to manage.
In this post, we will describe the different aspects of SPD. We will give you some special needs parenting tips on managing sensory processing disorder and autism.
What is Sensory Processing and Regulation
Sensory processing and regulation refer to how we perceive stimuli, process them, and produce a response after applying our adaptability skills.
Let’s take the stimulation of sunlight as an example. It enters the eyes and then we blink or shield our eyes as a behavior that helps us adapt to the glare.
If we learn to recognize when our children are dealing with a sensory processing disorder we can prevent more collapsing.
Each of us has a sensory profile unique to us. By identifying the child’s sensory profile, we can work more effectively.
What Happens When Stimulation is Extremely Unbearable?
The sensory regulation ability is divided into 3 types:
- The normal type – for most people, the stimuli cause a reasonable response.
- The hypersensitive type – many stimuli are processed as too strong. Strong stimuli cause a physiological response that is interpreted as an unpleasant disturbance to the person experiencing them. Over-reactive.
- The hypo-sensitive type – stimuli may be too weak or not processed at all. Under-reactive.
Both over-reactivity and under-reactivity can cause a significant physiological or emotional-psychological feeling. The body’s reaction can be interpreted as painful, itchy, too blinding, and more.
Any stimulus may cause a significant response or no response when it is expected. For example, what most of us would consider very painful might go without a reaction from others.
The Sensory Regulation System in Babies
It takes time for the sensory regulation system to mature after a baby’s birth. We use several tactics to help the baby cope with the immature sensory regulation:
- Wrap babies in thin, tight blankets to create slight pressure on the skin
- Rock them when they cry
- Make quiet noises for them (white noise)
- Feed them food with a smooth texture and more
Little by little the babies ‘learn’ how to regulate themselves. Towards the age of one, they naturally learn to self-regulate with less and less help.
However, when a baby is neurodiverse, (which can happen for a variety of reasons), a sensory regulation disorder may arise. The sensory regulation does not mature properly, and it is more difficult to put such a baby to sleep.
If we recognize that the sensory regulation is not balanced, this may be a preliminary sign of autism. Be vigilant. In such a case, go to the child development center and start a diagnostic process.
How to recognize a sensory processing disorder
What we see from outside is only the reaction to the processing of the stimulus. The big challenge is to understand what the stimulus was that caused the reaction. How is this stimulus experienced? And what can be done to balance it.
For instance, when a small child puts his hands firmly over his ears while staying in the kindergarten. It may be the child’s attempt to balance the unpleasant level of environmental noise. You can, for example, try to solve this difficulty with noise-cancelling headphones. With their help, coping in the kindergarten space might improve.
**It is important to note that a person can respond to different domains of stimulation with overreactivity and others with underreactivity.
Domains of Sensory Stimulation
We perceive information from the environment with the help of our senses. The brain has the ability to incorrectly process the input that comes from any of our senses. When this processing is incorrect, we get a sensory processing disorder.
It will be worthwhile to map out situations where our children have difficulty processing input. By making observations, we can map the sensory profile of our children.
We can use the sensory profile to avoid situations that can lead to a crash.
It is also a tool for working on reducing the lack of regulation.
The Visual Domain
The visual domain refers to data processed through the sense of sight. In this domain we will characterize and refer to light (sun and artificial lighting), and to colors (the color of the wall or the textiles in the room).
Pay attention to the child’s reaction. Children who really suffer from bright lighting (especially if it is reasonable in our eyes) may need softer lighting. Equip them with sunglasses. Glasses should have photochromatic lenses that change color in the sunlight.
Some children will suffer if they enter a room with multiple colors. To accomodate children who have difficulty finding their way around such rooms:
- Make sure the walls in the house are a uniform color.
- Bedding should be a soothing and uniform color – no patterns.
- No curtains in strong colors.
These tips can reduce irritation and help overcome this extra sensitivity.
In 2022 we move to a new apartment. This time we hired an interior designer, with experience with people with special needs. Her experience was especially important when choosing textures and colors that will be calm enough for our children’s senses.
The Auditory Domain
The auditory domain refers to sensitivity to sounds. In this domain, it could be more simple to spot over-reactivity or under-reactivity.
Children with over-reactivity will suffer from almost any kind of noise. A child may seem to ‘not find himself’ in the reasonable noise area. For example, the kindergarten yard or the shopping mall. Such a child needs silence. When talking to him, you should speak in a clear voice and one person at a time.
Provide a child who is over-reactive to noise with noise-canceling headphones. The type factory workers use works well. You should try them yourself at the store before buying. See that the background noise is muffled. Consider that speech from a person standing close will be reasonably heard. Children take longer to adapt to using headphones.
Children with under-reactive to noise will show us that they are not excited even by a lot of noise. They may be able to concentrate even in the noise. Some of them even need it. You should consider giving providing music headphones to help them concentrate.
The Oral Domain
The oral domain – the sense of taste and sensitivity to textures.
I’m not officially diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder, but I am personally hypersensitive to textures. For example, cooked onion irritates my mouth with a very unpleasant feeling. Brushing my teeth sometimes causes me pain. This is not because of sensitivity due to an illness. My sensory regulation in the oral domain is not regulated well.
On the other hand, you may see a child who does not feel when he eats something too hot or very spicy food. Such a child has under-reactive in the oral domain.
For example, Dolev is under-reactive in the oral domain. He is always looking for flavors and strong sensations in the mouth. He adds salt in commercial quantities and must be watched over. Always chewing things. He loves crunchy cool popsicles and plain ice.
Sensory regulation in the oral domain can lead to very significant in eating disorders such as hyper-pickiness in children and adults. You need to get to know your child’s individual difficulty in order to build a healthy menu when they have difficulty in oral sensory regulation.
Sense of Smell
The sense of smell is a complex domain. When exposed to an unpleasant smell for a long time we usually get used to it. Over time we are able to continue working as usual despite bad smells.
However, with a sensory processing disorder, we may see strong responses even to subtle smells. We also see that the child does not get used to it after a long time.
To help a child deal with smells, you must work on desensitization consistently. Desensitization is a slow and controlled exposure to a challenging factor.
The Tactile Domain – Sense of Touch
You may have heard the term deep pressure – this is a really strong massage-like touch. This kind of touch is suitable for under-reactive children, these children sometimes ‘store’ tension in their limbs and need a little pressure to let go.
Accordingly, in order to be regulated, they need a sense of gravity. You can help with this feeling with tight vests and heavy sleeping blankets.
How do you know the child is like that? He will already show you. Do you know the children of the hands? The ones that only fall asleep on your hands? Need endless hugs? These are the children.
In contrast, children who suffer from a over-sensitivity will avoid touching things or being touched. They will behave in a preventative manner. They are not snobs. It’s just not pleasant for them. Leave them alone and respect their personal space.
When touch is necessary, try to ask for permission in advance! Ask what bothers them the least and keep contact to a minimum. Tactile sensitivity includes any substance that comes into contact with our body. You may notice children who are unable to wear certain clothing or clothing tags. Or children who are unable to wear clothes at all. And those who refuse to walk in clothes that are not long.
If we recognize the textures that are more or less pleasant to touch, we can help our children achieve independence in areas where it is critical for them. For example independent dressing or feminine hygiene.
Some refuse to cover themselves with a blanket or alternatively ask to walk with a soft blanket all day. Many children are not ready to apply body lotion or wash their heads, etc… In fact, this is the broadest field of sensory regulation.
The Movement Domain
Movement is used to soothe both hyper-sensory and hypo-sensory children. The shape in which they move varies between the types of SPD.
Watch your child. Write down what increases mobility and what reduces it. According to your observations, you can test what may help your child.
Some children will find swinging on the swing or jumping on the trampoline helpful, some need a stay in the water to relax, etc…
Mapping the Sensory Profile
How can you tell what the child in front of you is like? Ask and observe. If they can’t explain, then observations are the only way.
Take a pen and paper and sit in front of the child. Write to yourself about how the child reacts in different situations.
How do they react to sunlight when leaving the house in the morning? How do they respond to different types of sound stimuli? Are there any types of food that they absolutely refuse to touch? How do they react when you try to touch them?
Don’t forget to ask your children how they feel, if they are verbal and cooperative!
Collect information over time about the different sensory domains and map the sensory profile. If you are not sure an occupational therapist is the professional to ask.
If, for example, your child has difficulty sleeping quality sleep – the sensory profile can help you decide how to provide sensory support in the night routine.
And if your child is a picky eater, the sensory profile can help you build an action plan toward the final goal of a healthy menu.
You discovered that a child has a sensory processing disorder. Sit down and think about what can make it easier for them and what should be avoided.
This is an important part of learning how to parent children with a sensory processing disorder and autism.
You can also try desensitization – a treatment with gradual and long exposure to irritants. This should be done with professional assistance from an occupational therapist.
Sensory regulation is a broad field and is valid for every person. We are all sensitive in certain domains and under-sensitive in others. It is fitting that in every upbringing of any child, we learn these sensitivities.
For special needs children, adults with various disabilities, and even the elderly who suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia, this area should be part of their treatment. The treatment plan must include a reference to these areas.
*Everything written on the website is written based on personal experiences only and is not meant to replace the assistance of professionals.
It takes a village to raise a child
I recommend looking for support groups with experienced special needs parents. For this purpose, we have opened another Facebook group for parenting skills. This is in addition to our Stem cell therapy support group for families looking for information about the treatment based on umbilical cord blood or stem cells. Both of these groups are mainly for Hebrew speakers but you are welcome to join if you think it can benefit you.
For those who are not active on Facebook, join our silent WhatsApp group, where you will receive notifications about events we organize. Again most of these will be in Hebrew, but you can catch the odd English lectures. You can find recordings of these on our youtube channel.
There are many experienced parents in social media groups. You are also welcome to contact us of course for parental guidance or any of our other services.
The Autism Essentials Israel blog is written by Hagai and Shira Reiner, two parents of children with special needs – autism, epilepsy, and more. We focus on the essentials of raising special needs children in Israel, but much of our content will be relevant globally
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