More than a melt down. Real info on Sensory Processing: What you need to know!

This blog post was originally printed in Child Guide Magazine’s Spring Issue. You can find more about all that Child Guide has to offer HERE


We’ve all been there. Watching the child melting down in the food court of the mall, sympathizing for the parent who is trying so hard to control the child and the situation but is not getting very far.  As much as we may sympathize for the situation and the parent, somewhere inside us we hear that inner voice that questions and judges…”If that was my child, I would…”


We’ve all been there, but have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, that child does not PHYSICALLY have the ability to “get it together,” and that no amount of spanking, time out, or reasoning by that tired parent will prove to be effective?  There are a growing number of children in our country who are suffering from some degree of Sensory Processing Disorder, and these outbursts are often associated with this disorder.


The term sensory processing disorder or any variation is becoming more mainstream, particularly with growing awareness of Autism, but many people do not actually know what these words imply. Sensory Processing and the disorders associated with it can be quite complex, but there are simple ways to make basic sense of sensory integration.


Each of us has a nervous system that takes in input from our senses all day long.  These senses include the five main sense of taste, touch, sound, smell, and sight but also include the sensations of vestibular movement (balance and sense of movement) and proprioception (the sense of knowing the body’s position in space).  As our nervous systems take in information from these senses, the brain sends messages to the body to respond appropriately to the environment.  In doing this, the nervous system cues the body either to heighten input or lessen output as needed.  Take this example.  If you are sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture and starting to lose your focus, you may tap your finger or your foot, or change positioning in your chair without even noticing the adaptation.  Your body heightens input to “wake up” your nervous system and keep you focused on the lecture.


We ALL have sensory processing occurring in our bodies.  Some of us are naturally sensory seekers while others are sensory avoiders. Do you enjoy roller coasters, tight hugs, walking without shoes and socks? If so, you are likely a sensory seeker.  Your body seeks out sensory input to stay regulated most of the time. Do you avoid massages, riding on swings, or certain textured foods? If so, you are likely a sensory avoider.  The truth is, while most of us lean toward seeking or avoiding sensory input most of the time, we experience a healthy mixture of both, an adaptation necessary to function properly in our daily lives.


Difficulties arise when a child or adult has a nervous system that doesn’t automatically adjust as needed. According to Lucy Jane Miller, PHD-OTR the author of Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children With Sensory Processing Disorder, clinical studies prove that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in people with sensory processing disorders do not function typically. For most of us, if we were working on a project and a train went by outside, we would have the ability to automatically lessen the auditory input to stay focused. For an individual with sensory processing disorder, not only might there be difficulty with lessening the auditory input, but it might possibly be amplified.  The train might sound like it is passing right by that person’s ears, making concentrating difficult.


The same can be said for other sensory experiences.  A child may need lots of deep pressure, found through jumping, stomping, climbing, in order to pay attention. Can you see how sitting at a desk for four hours straight without physical activity might make attention to school tasks a challenge for this child?   In contrast, another child might be over stimulated with what is occurring in that same classroom.  The noises, lights, and movements might be too much.  That child might need 5 minutes of quiet time in a rocking chair to lessen the output of their world in order to focus.


Sensory Processing Disorders are more common in children who fall somewhere on the Autism Spectrum or have Asperger’s Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, ADHD, or in children who are gifted, but they can also occur in individuals who do not have a diagnoses. In fact, according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, one in twenty Americans is affected by Sensory Processing Disorder to some degree. Individuals with sensory processing disorder may experience varying degrees of frustration. The tough news is that discovering what sensory experiences are not properly integrated by the nervous system and how they are affecting daily routines can take awhile and is often not an exact science.  Trial and error through different approaches help therapists and parents working with children with sensory processing disorders identify these needs.   The good news is that once identified, providing a child with sensory strategies is often very helpful in making their daily routines and learning processes more effective. Parents and teachers will report that children’s behavior and ability to learn are frequently changed dramatically when sensory needs are met.


How do you determine whether your child has some degree of sensory processing disorder?  Skilled Occupational Therapist, Leslie Bowman, MS-OTR-L, who woks with both West Virginia Birth To Three and Infant & Toddler Connection in VA offers this advice: “One way to help determine if your child may be struggling with some degree of SPD is looking at how they respond to how they move or what they feel, see, taste, smell or hear and ask yourself ‘does this seem extreme’?  Children with Sensory Processing Disorder often have behaviors that would be considered either ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ for their age.  For example, are they very ‘busy’-always moving and never seem to stay still?  What about seeming extra clumsy or overly cautious of movement for their age?  Is getting your child dressed stressful because they have to have their clothing ‘just right’ or you avoid particular clothing (ex. tags, long sleeves, socks) because you know your child cries/becomes upset when they wear them?  Or are you constantly reminding your child to keep their hands to themselves-they are touching, tasting, smelling things beyond what would be considered normal exploration?  What about only eating certain textures of foods and gagging on others, or at every meal over stuffing their mouths so much they cough?  We all have our own unique sensory preferences-but if your child’s sensory preferences seem to be impacting their ability to learn, interact, play and move they may be having trouble processing sensory information.” In addition, a symptom checklist can be found at and shared with your pediatrician if you are having concerns about sensory processing disorder for your child.


A therapist skilled in sensory integration can help identify areas where sensory processing may be a challenge and prescribe a sensory diet.  No, this does not include any type of food! A sensory diet may include something as simple as taking a shower in the morning vs. at night to heighten the nervous system before school.  It may include something more specific like allowing a child to leave the classroom for five minutes to perform 20 jumps in place, 30 bounces on a large exercise ball, and two laps of heel walking down the hall prior to a 90 minute reading block. Sensory diets can include activities during times when a child must focus, such as providing something to chew on while listening to a lecture, a ball to squeeze during story time, or headphones to cancel excess noise during a writing center.   It is important to note that utilizing a skilled therapist in this area is essential.  Random experimenting with sensory activities with an individual with Sensory Processing Disorder can be detrimental. It is also important to note that sensory needs can change as a person grows or new environments are introduced.


While not every child may have sensory processing disorder, parents should know that every child (and adult) has sensory needs.  Outdoor or physical play is the most natural way that we can regulate sensory systems. Swinging, climbing, jumping, and running provide natural sensations to “feed” the nervous system what it needs.  For this reason, and many others, outdoor recess and time each day for free play should be protected for our children.  A good teacher will quickly figure out that the “fidgety child” will continue to fidget if removing recess is used as a punishment. A vicious cycle begins when this occurs. An insightful teacher will use these principles to enhance learning.  Sitting on exercise balls vs. chairs, tracing letters in sand, allowing children to make shapes with their bodies on the carpet, or using a ball toss game while practicing math facts are not only examples of learning in context but also learning through sensory experiences, which prove to be more effective strategies.  The same holds true for infants and toddlers. Babies need the sensory experiences found through free play on the floor vs. being contained in a seat or saucer. Spending time in front of a screen will not provide needed sensory experiences.



So the next time you see that child “melting down” at the food court, keep this information in mind. Instead of staring or mentally criticizing, offer a smile or a helping hand.  And keep in mind that sensory play and the ability to regulate sensory stimulation is not only important, but essential to effective learning for you and your child.

On 4/9/13, we participated in a tweet chat sponsored by Treatment Diaries about Autism.  For a script of this conversation with parents, experts, and advocates, please click HERE.


Nicole M. Sergent, MPT is a pediatric Physical Therapist (and sensory seeker) and Lacy Morise, MS CCC-SLP is a pediatric Speech Language Pathologist.  Together they co-authored  1-2-3 Just Play With Me.  Read more about how sensory play affects development at and learn how 1-2-3 Just Play With Me can help with ideas for sensory play and learning and recognizing early signs of delay.


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