All children can benefit from appropriate sensory experiences. There is much research available demonstrating the benefits of sensory rich environments for animals and the same appears to be true for humans. For children who have atypical reactions to the sensory environment, the world can be a scary and challenging place.
Many aspects of home and family life may be affected when living with a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). As a parent of a child with SPD, you know how hectic and chaotic it can be at home. Any activity suggestions must fit easily into typical home routines or they will not be utilized. Therefore, the following suggestions are organized around typical daily household tasks wherever possible.
Before attempting any of these activities, it is important that you understand some basic principles.
- Any activity list available on the Internet cannot possibly be individualized for a child and therefore some activities may not be appropriate for your child.
- Some children may be over sensitive to sensations and will be fearful or withdraw from certain activities or sensations. Other children may be sensory seeking and find many of these activities enjoyable. You must carefully observe your child’s reactions and respect them.
- A child who is indicating fear or distress should not be forced to participate. The child’s fear and discomfort is based on his or her nervous system’s reaction to sensation and is real, and not under his or her control.
- Many children fluctuate between sensory sensitivity and sensory seeking behaviors, and others may be sensitive to certain sensations but seek other ones. Each child’s patterns may be highly unique and individual, and it is not uncommon for those patterns to change depending upon the context the child is in (where, when, what is going on, etc.).
- Sensory seekers tend to be very active children, who are on the go. They often respond positively to very intense forms of sensory stimulation and look for ways to move, jump, fall, crash, kick, push, etc. Creating ways to incorporate these needs into safe and fun activities that provide the desired intensity may allow your child to come to a calm and focused place. Think about ways your child can safely push, pull, kick, hang, jump, and lift. (For example, bowling, playground monkey bars, trampolines, pushing a “heavy bag” back and forth with you, pulling a heavy wagon.)
- Children who are sensitive to certain sensations (sounds, lights, smells) may like activities that provide intense deep pressure to the skin, resistance to the muscles, and input to the joints. In general, these inputs are calming for the system.
- Lastly, watch for signs that your child is becoming overly silly, unsafe, extremely over-active, or inattentive. Also watch for sudden yawning, hiccoughing, burping, or changes in skin color. If you note these things, stop the activity immediately and if necessary find something calming for your child (wrapping up in a blanket, very slow rocking, big bear hug, snuggling in a big comfy chair, warm bath or shower).
The best way to approach these activities is to present some ideas to your child and allow their preferences to guide you. You may also find other similar ideas to add to your child’s list of personal favorites.
Incorporating Sensory Input into Daily Activities
- Bath time: Scrub with washcloth or bath brush, try a variety of soaps and lotions for bathing, play on the wall with shaving cream or bathing foam, rub body with lotion after bath time (deep massage), sprinkle powder onto body and brush or rub into skin.
- Meal preparation or baking: Let your child mix ingredients, especially the thick ones that will really work those muscles. Let child mix and roll dough and push flat. Allow child to help you carry pots and pans, bowls of water or ingredients (with supervision, of course). Let your child tenderize meat with the meat mallet.
- Grocery shopping: Have your child push the heavy cart (as long as the weight is within their capability). Let your child help carry heavy groceries and help put them away.
- Mealtime: Encourage eating of chewy foods and drinking out of a straw. Try having your child sit on an air cushion to allow some movement. A weighted lap blanket may be helpful as well.
- Household chores: Allow the child to help with the vacuuming or moving the furniture. Let the child help carry the laundry basket or the detergent. Let the child help with digging for gardening or landscaping.
- Play time: Reading books in a rocking chair or bean-bag chair may be beneficial. You can help your child make up obstacle courses in the house or yard using crawling, jumping, hopping, skipping, rolling, etc. Listen to soft music. Play the sandwich game (child lies in between two pillows and pretends to be the sandwich, while you provide pressure to the top pillow to the child’s desired amount). Ask them “harder or softer?” as you push on the pillow. Some children will like much more pressure than you would expect. You can also go for a neighborhood walk with a wagon and have your child pull it (make it semi-heavy by loading it with something the child would like to pull around). You can do the same with a baby-doll carriage. Swimming in a pool is a wonderful activity if you have that available, as are horseback riding and bowling. Mini or full-size trampolines are excellent for providing sensory input as well. Make sure the child is using them safely. Sandboxes, or big containers of beans or popcorn kernels can be fun play-boxes. too, if you add small cars, shovels, cups, etc.
- Errands and appointments: Before visiting the dentist or hairdresser try deep massage to the head or scalp (if tolerated), or try having your child wear a weighted hat. Try chewy foods or vibration to the mouth with an electric toothbrush. Let your child wear a heavy backpack (weighted to their liking with books and with the straps padded as needed). Be sure to give the child ample warning before any changes in routine or any unscheduled trips or errands. Many children with SPD need predictability.
Other General Guidelines For The Home
- Keep routines and possessions organized.
- Be consistent with rules and consequences.
- Keep an activity schedule or calendar posted.
- Create specific routines for troublesome times of day (bedtime or getting ready for school).
- Discuss upcoming anticipated changes in routine at a point in time that is beneficial for your child. You will have to experiment with how early the child “needs to know.”
- Try to indirectly use your child’s sensory preferences for fun rewards to help you handle behavior. For example, having your child work towards an extra trip to go bowling or horseback riding may be helpful. However, try not to restrict movement activities when your child is being disciplined. For example, taking away recess time or playground time for not sitting at the table appropriately during dinner may not be the most effective way to deal with these issues. Your child may need that movement time, and by removing it, his or her behavior may actually become more difficult later.
About the author:
Heather Miller-Kuhaneck currently teaches in the graduate occupational therapy program at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. She has practiced in pediatrics for years, and has specialized in school-based practice and outpatient occupational therapy using Ayres’ sensory integrative approach. She has edited a book on occupational therapy for children with autism, and has been the quarterly editor for AOTA’s School System Special Interest Section. She is currently developing an assessment tool to examine behaviors indicative of sensory integration dysfunction in the school setting. She can be reached at Hmillerot@yahoo.comor firstname.lastname@example.org.