Children dealing with sensory issues can find everyday activities and situations challenging. Find out what treatments for children with sensory issues are available.

If you want to find out if your child may have sensory issues. Check out our article on helping kids with sensory issues.

For some children certain situations are over-stimulating leading to ‘hyper’ behaviour and anxiety.

Under-stimulated children can fall into an unresponsive state, or go seeking out sensations in inappropriate ways – chewing objects, touching, moving and getting in other people’s personal space.

Paediatric occupational therapists and psychologists have a range of strategies they can use to help children with sensory issues, which parents can also learn and implement.

One of the most effective is using sensory activities to ‘calm down’ over-stimulated children or ‘wake up’ under-responsive children. Sensory seeking children are often given a ‘sensory diet’ of regular activities to fill their appetite for extra information.

Using sensory activities for helping kids with sensory issues 

Hyper or over-stimulated children are described as being in a state of ‘high alert’ by occupational therapists, while under-responsive children are in ‘low alert’. Parents and therapists can help children move into the ‘just right’ zone which is considered the optimal state of mind for learning and daily activities.

Throughout the day different sensations and experiences cause people to move through different levels of alertness.   Most people on waking are in the low alert zone, moving into the just right zone after breakfast and a coffee. Later an argument with someone could push them into high alert and they fall back into just right after a work out at the gym.

While certain activities are considered generally either alerting or calming, it does vary between individuals. So when working out how to help your child you need to understand what causes them to change zones. What sensory input, experiences or environments move them from ‘just right’ to ‘high’? What pushes them from ‘low’ to ‘just right’, or from ‘high’ back to ‘just right’? This information will help you know what sensory activities are calming or alerting for your child.

Calming and alerting activities for helping kids with sensory issues

helping kids with sensory issues

Calming Alerting
Mouth sensations

 

 

 

 

 

Drinking thick milkshake through straw

Sucking on a lollipop

Blowing

Sweet or bland flavours

 

Eating ‘crunchy’ food – carrot sticks, ice cubes, crackers

Sucking on a lemon

Spicy or salty flavours

 

 

 

Movement (proprioceptive and vestibular)

 

 

 

 

 

Rocking

Swinging

Slow rhythmic movements

Carrying or pushing heavy things

Jumping on a trampoline alone

 

Irregular movements

Light touch

Spinning

Bouncing and jumping

Chasing games

Rapid changes of direction

Jumping on a trampoline with others

Touch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deep pressure

Cuddles

Massage

Squeezy toys

Soft and silky materials

Tight clothes

 

 

Light touch

Baggy clothes

Wind on skin

Rough textures

Labels in clothes

Messy play – sand, water, finger painting

Hair and nail cutting

 

Visual

 

 

 

 

 

Dim lights

Pastel colours

Uncluttered, organized spaces

Familiar environments

Regular light source

Bright lights and colours

Flashing lights

Cluttered environments

Unfamiliar environments

Patterns

Sound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quiet places

Soft music

Regular or rhythmical sounds, music

Background noise, white noise

Classical music

Low tones

Irregular noise

Unexpected noise

Loud sounds

A variety of sounds

High pitch

 

 

 

The key principle to keep in mind is that physical activity is calming. Anything that uses the muscles – exercise, chewing crunchy food, ripping up paper for recycling or squeezing your hands together will work to stimulate the right parts of the brain to release calming chemicals. It is important to choose activities that are not tiring, but rather will ‘activate’ the body and brain. If the job is too tiring it could instead cause stress and fatigue.

Another important factor to consider is you don’t have to address one sensory problem with the same sensory system. For example if noisy environments cause your child to move into ‘high alert’, this does not necessarily need to be addressed with head phones (a sound solution), you could instead use deep pressure like a cuddle or squeezing the child’s hand.

Parents can use calming activities to help a hyper child calm down. Calming activities can also be used to help prepare the child for events that are generally stressful, like bath time or a visit to the mall.   It is important to get professional advice before using ‘alerting’ activities in a child’s daily routine, as you want to make sure they are in the ‘low alert’ zone and not in ‘shut down’ mode, when they are so over-stimulated they have stopped taking in sensory information.

For sensory-seeking children regular bursts of alerting activities can be used throughout the day as a ‘sensory diet’. Regular and predictable amounts of sensory input will help children to regulate their behaviour so they don’t feel the need to ‘over indulge’ in inappropriate sensory activities.

Dealing with avoidance behaviours

Helping kids with sensory issues

Children who are overwhelmed by certain sensations will often try to avoid the sensation they fear.   Avoidance can be obvious – the child with their hands over their ears screaming “It’s too loud” or less obvious, for example, trying to avoid playgroup because they find the noise levels there overwhelming.

Desensitisation is a strategy that works by gradually exposing the child to the sensation they want to avoid and building confidence that they can manage it.

This strategy takes children through a series of steps from an easy starting point to the end goal. Parents or therapists guide children through each step, going at the child’s pace. Children may be offered some kind of reward to motivate them to try each new step, and lots of praise should follow successes. Rewards do not need to be food treats or new toys. Anything motivating for the child can work; tablet time, reading a favourite book with a parent, or a special outing.

An example of a series of steps for the face washing issue might be:

  • Allow the child to put drops of water (an eye dropper could be used to give child control of quantity of water) on the parent’s face or a bath toy
  • Get to child to put a drop of water on their arm or drops from their arm to their shoulder
  • Get the child to put a drop of water on their cheek
  • Get the child to put a drop of water on each cheek
  • Get the child to make raindrops using the eye dropper on their face
  • Get the child to wipe away the raindrops with a warm wet fannel on a small part of the face
  • Wash off the raindrops with a fannel from a larger part of the face
  • Use the flannel to wash the raindrops off the whole face.

Desensitisation could take months or it could progress more quickly depending on the child’s level of anxiety. Parents need to follow their child’s cues and use their imaginations to come up with ideas that will appeal to their child. It is important to give the child some choice and control of the situation (For example: Do you want to put the rain drop on your knee or arm?).

Dealing with sensory-seeking behaviours

Sensory-seeking children often display inappropriate behaviours that can cause embarrassment for the child and annoy others. Thumb and finger sucking is a common calming behaviour that becomes embarrassing as children grow older.

The basic rule when helping kids deal with sensory issues is to ‘fill the gap’. If you remove a calming behavior, you need to offer the child another calming strategy. If you don’t, the sensory need will remain and children will find their own, perhaps less appropriate, solution. For example thumb sucking could be replaced by a squeezy toy or type of material they like to touch. The replacement item could live in their pocket (or be sewn in) to be held or squeezed if needed. Ranges of sensory products that can help ‘fill the gap’ are available at:

www.sensorycorner.co.nz

www.solutionsnz.com

Social stories: Stories are powerful and can be used to teach children about appropriate behaviour in situations they find difficult. Social stories are often used in treating children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) but they can help any child to change inappropriate behaviour. A social story is a short story that advises children about a specific social situation, such as ‘how to behave at the doctor’s surgery’. It describes the situation and offers advice on what the child can do. Writing it for your own child allows you to tailor the content to their situation, personality and interests.

More information about social stories can be found at:

http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/strategies-and-approaches/social-stories-and-comic-strip-conversations/how-to-write-a-social-story.aspx

This article is based on information from the course ‘Solving Sensory Issues’ provided by Hutt Valley DHB’s Child Development Team.

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Charlotte Lee-Smith is a mum of two who once upon a time worked in journalism and public relations but now writes occasionally on topics that interest her. After watching her younger child struggle with a language delay she was motivated to write something that might help parents and children facing these challenges.

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Helen

Hello can any one tell me how to cope with a 13 year old boy who is on medication for ADHD since he has started school and two years was diagnosed with sensory disorder. He is causing havoc at school and dislikes his teacher aide and has told the school he would be happy if they expelled him so he could stay home. Sadly he has no friends but mixes and gets on very well with his cousins of the same age. The kids at school have called him a retard and a waste of space and i am sure… Read more »

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