You finally get a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder and you immediately want to know how to treat it! Every parent wants to eliminate anything that makes life harder for their child.
Or, you might wonder if this is just something they will grow out of. But understanding the treatment of sensory processing disorder starts by understanding that it’s a brain-based difference in how the brain and body work together to take in and understand information from the senses. The neurons are different. Much like everyone has a different personality.
Since it is a neurological difference, a sensory processing disorder and not something you grow out of or can fix with medication.
However, just because there isn’t a magical cure, doesn’t mean daily life has to be full of sensory meltdowns, clothing battles, or lackluster school performance.
A smoother, happier daily life is possible for those with sensory processing disorder (and their families) by knowing exactly what to do to successfully navigate life with a sensory processing disorder. In a nutshell, treating sensory processing disorder involves a combination of specially targeted interventions and life adjustments to account for a sensory system that works differently.
Professionals Who Treat Sensory Processing Disorder
The most commonly recommended professional for treating sensory processing disorder is an occupational therapist. The goal of an occupational therapist is to help clients understand, address, and set up strategies for managing daily life with a sensory processing disorder.
Other professionals you might work with include:
- Psychologist to talk through feelings such as depression, anxiety, or frustration
- Neuropsychologist to diagnose concurrent diagnoses such as autism or ADHD
- Physical therapist to work on coordination or balance
- Speech therapist to work on feeding challenges or coordination of the mouth
That might seem like a lot of people but finding the experts with the right knowledge can make a lifetime of difference.
Nervous System Retraining
While there is no “cure” for sensory processing disorder, there are techniques to change the nervous system that can be really helpful. Through carefully selected activities, the sensory system can be retrained and better regulated.
Interventions designed to directly impact the sensory system:
- Sensory Integration Therapy provides sensory experiences which teach the sensory system to tolerate different sensations without getting overwhelmed. This could mean messy play or doing obstacle courses with swings, jumping into ball pits, and crawling through tunnels.
- Integrated Listening uses multisensory music and movement programs to regulate the brain and nervous system. It can be used under the direction of the therapist both in the clinic and the home.
- Craniosacral Integration Therapy a hands-on technique in which the therapist gently massages the soft tissues around the brain and spinal cord to improve nervous system communication and promote calm.
Many of these advanced treatment options are available through specialty-trained occupational therapists. When looking for an occupational therapist to address sensory processing, ask about their experience and whether they’ve done advanced training in any of the above treatment options.
An occupational therapist who is a good fit will likely have a combination of knowledge in these advanced techniques as well as ideas for modifying your child’s routine and environment.
Sensory Diet for Creating a Lifestyle that Meets Sensory Needs
Many occupational therapists will start by developing what is called a sensory diet. A sensory diet combines all the different pieces of treatment together. It’s the right supplies, environment, and routine to meet sensory needs. It matches sensory needs with your child’s daily routine to pre-empt sensory-based problems and help daily life flow more easily.
Possible elements of a sensory diet:
- Heavy work like moving objects – pushing or pulling helps the sensory system get organized
- Soothing activities like slow rhythmic rocking or swinging
- Use soft sensory brushing protocol over the body to decrease touch hypersensitivity
- Movement – sitting on an exercise ball or an inflatable cushion, or standing while learning
A sensory diet is different for every child because it takes into account their specific challenges and daily routine. Once set up in collaboration with your occupational therapist, you’ll know what to do and check in periodically for adjustments.
Change the Environment
In many cases, it’s easier to change things outside of a person – like an environment, routine, or available supplies – than it is to change the person.
You’ll be surprised by how much happier, calmer, or focused your child is at home or school with some of these relatively simple adjustments.
Think of it this way. Some people get cold easily. That’s just a difference in how they feel. They can do things to make everyday life more comfortable, like wearing a sweater or turning up the heat, but no amount of asking them to “not be cold” is going to modify how they experience the world.
Be a detective and look for ways the home or classroom environment might be changed to better meet your child’s needs. There could be lighting, sound, or texture things you barely notice that make a big difference for someone with a hypersensitive or unresponsive sensory system. Changing the lighting at dinner or turning off the fan while showering might seem like small adjustments but they could make a big difference in reducing the sensory overload for your child.
Make Needed Items Easy to Use
There are a whole range of products that support sensory needs. These can range from items like headphones, weighted blankets, comfortable clothing, fidgets, swings, and sensory toys.
The key to picking the right products is matching your child’s needs to the purpose of a product. And also taking into account your child or teen’s preferences including color, interests, and influence of peers.
Along the same lines, keep supplies close at hand, whether that’s keeping in their line of sight or remembering to pack in their backpack.
Create a Sensory-Friendly Routine
Managing an over-sensitive or under-sensitive sensory system is easier with a seamless routine that naturally incorporates opportunities to re-calibrate or prepare the sensory system.
Simple steps can have a major impact. This could be giving advanced warning of what to expect before entering a busy store or providing time for movement activities to unwind from the demands of school.
When you start combining the sensory diet into the daily routine, you really start setting your child or teen up for success with a day that flows according to their needs.
Mutual Understanding is the Biggest Part of Treatment!
When you understand sensory processing disorder, a lightbulb goes off. Instead of seeing certain behaviors as being disruptive or misbehavior, you see daily life struggles as your child or teen trying to communicate their sensory needs. That’s why comprehensive treatment starts by educating parents who then are able to educate teachers and caregivers.
This new shared understanding can be life-changing for your child or teen with a sensory processing disorder. Mutual understanding stops the ineffective blame game and jumps into finding positive and supportive solutions.
It’s that everyone’s goal anyway? To live a full and beautiful life in a way that doesn’t feel hard or overwhelming.