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Understanding Sensory Processing in Children: The Role of Occupational Therapy





Sensory Processing Issues (SPI) refer to a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing and responding to information received through the senses. This can manifest in various ways, such as being overly sensitive to certain stimuli (e.g. loud noises or bright lights) or not responding appropriately to stimuli (e.g. not noticing when something is too hot or cold). Sensory regulation is how an individual's brain organizes and interprets sensory information and responds appropriately. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may have difficulty with sensory regulation, leading to difficulties with daily activities such as self-care, play, and learning.


Types of Sensory Processing Issues


Several types of SPI include sensory modulation disorder, sensory discrimination disorder, and sensory-based motor disorder. Sensory modulation disorder refers to difficulties regulating responses to sensory input, such as being easily overwhelmed by loud noises or bright lights. Sensory discrimination disorder refers to difficulties distinguishing between different sensations, such as the inability to identify objects by touch. Sensory-based motor disorder refers to difficulties with coordination and movement due to difficulties processing sensory information.


Impact of Sensory Processing Issues on Daily Life


SPI can significantly impact a child's ability to function in their daily life. For example, a child with a sensitivity to loud noises may have difficulty in a classroom setting, or a child with difficulty coordinating their movements may have trouble participating in physical activities. According to Ayres (1972), children with SPD may also have difficulty with self-care, play, and learning. These difficulties can lead to frustration, anxiety, and behavioural problems.


Treatment Options and the Role of Occupational Therapy


There are various treatment options available for children with SPI. Occupational therapy (OT) is one of the most common approaches and can help children improve their ability to process and respond to sensory information. OT may involve activities such as playing with sensory toys, participating in movement activities, and practicing activities of daily living (such as dressing and eating). According to Miller, Coll, & Schoen (2007), occupational therapy can effectively improve children's ability to attend to and engage in activities and participate in everyday life.




Another treatment option for SPI is sensory integration therapy, based on the idea that the brain can be retrained to process sensory information more effectively. This therapy may involve activities such as swinging, jumping, and other movements that provide a variety of sensory experiences. According to Parham & Mailloux (2010), sensory integration therapy effectively improves children's ability to attend to and engage in activities and participate in everyday life.




A Detailed Look at Sensory Regulation


Sensory regulation or self-regulation is how an individual's brain organizes and interprets sensory information and responds appropriately. The individual can filter, attend, respond and adapt to the environment and its demands. This includes filtering out irrelevant information, focusing on important information, and adapting to environmental changes.


There are different levels of sensory regulation, which include: hypo-regulation, where an individual is under-responsive to sensory input and may be described as "spacey" or "disconnected," hyper-regulation where an individual is over-responsive to sensory input and may be described as "sensitive" or "overly reactive," and finally, optimal regulation where an individual can respond appropriately to sensory input.


Children with difficulty with sensory regulation often have trouble with self-regulation, meaning they have difficulty managing their behaviour, emotions and attention. This can lead to difficulties with daily activities such as self-care, play, and learning.




It is important to note that sensory regulation is not a fixed characteristic and can be improved with different therapeutic interventions and environmental changes. Occupational therapy, as previously mentioned, is one of the most common approaches to addressing sensory regulation issues and can help children improve their ability to process and respond to sensory information.


Occupational therapists can help children develop sensory regulation skills, and several different strategies or programs are available. Let's take a look at a couple.


The Zones of Regulation Program


The Zones of Regulation program is a curriculum-based program that was created to teach children how to recognize and regulate their own emotions and behaviours. The program is based on the Zoned of Regulation framework. It teaches children how to identify when they are in different emotional states and provides strategies to help them move into a more regulated state. The program is designed for children with emotional regulation difficulties, such as ADHD, autism, or other developmental disorders.

The Zones of Regulation program typically includes:

  • Lessons on the four zones (red, yellow, green, blue) and what emotions and behaviours are associated with each zone.

  • Activities and exercises to help children learn how to identify their own emotions and behaviours and understand how they relate to different zones.

  • Strategies and tools can help children regulate their emotions and behaviours, such as deep breathing, counting to ten, or using positive self-talk.

  • Social stories and role-playing activities help children practice appropriate behaviours in different situations.

The program is typically delivered by an occupational therapist, school counsellor, or special education teacher. It is usually used in a group setting but can also be used individually. The program can also be used with other interventions, such as speech therapy or applied behaviour analysis.


It is important to note that the Zone of Regulation program is not a one-size-fits-all intervention and may not be appropriate for every child. A professional evaluation by an occupational therapist or other healthcare professional trained in emotional regulation is necessary to determine if the program is appropriate for a child and will effectively address the child's specific needs.


Additional Treatment Methods


Another approach used in OT is sensory diet, which is a structured daily plan of activities that are tailored to meet the individual's specific sensory needs. A sensory diet may include deep pressure, vestibular input, and proprioceptive input.


OT may also teach children with SPD how to use sensory strategies to help them regulate their responses to sensory input. This may include teaching children how to use deep pressure, vibration, or other sensory input to help them calm down when they are feeling overwhelmed.


The Importance of Parent and Caregiver Support


It is also essential for parents and caregivers to understand and support children with SPI. This may include making accommodations at home and school, such as creating a quiet space for a child who is sensitive to noise or providing a child with additional support during physical activities. According to Smith, Schoen, & Miller (2011), parental involvement is crucial to treatment success for children with SPD.


In conclusion, Sensory Processing Issues (SPI) is a conditions in which the brain has difficulty processing and responding to information received through the senses, leading to difficulties in daily activities. Treatment options such as occupational and sensory integration therapy are available to help children with SPI. It is also essential for parents and caregivers to understand and support children with SPI.


References



Ayres, A. J. (1972). Sensory integration and learning disorders. Western Psychological Services.


Miller, L. J., Coll, J. R., & Schoen, S. A. (2007). Handbook of sensory integration.


Parham, L. D., & Mailloux, Z. (2010). Sensory integration: theory and practice. F.A. Davis.


Smith, R. O., Schoen, S. A., & Miller, L. J. (2011). Sensory processing in children with autism: a review of research. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 31(1), 48-69.


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