Sensory Processing - "Rules of Thumb"

Posted by Dianne Saunders on April 26, 2014 at 9:15 PM

Sensory processing is important in everyone's successful day to day living. We are constantly bombarded by sensory input and our brain needs to be able to screen, sort and assign importance to all that is coming in. And it is something that many people never need to think about. Well, at least not all of the time…..

Sensory processing difficulties need to be addressed when they affect one's quality of life, that is, when they interfere with what you want or need to be able to do.

Sensory processing difficulties can affect anyone and are not just experienced by individuals who are on the autism spectrum. I like to think of sensory processing as being on a continuum that may be impacted by other factors including autism spectrum disorders, learning differences, mental health issues, or difficulties with sensory processing and regulation itself. As you progress across the sensory processing continuum, the impact on daily life tends to increase proportionally. For those who have well integrated sensory processing, you may have a difficult time understanding someone with sensory difficulties because for you, sensory processing usually happens at an automatic and almost subconscious level.


It wasn’t until I started attending workshops in the early 90’s that I learned that I have sensory processing difficulties that impact on my day to day living. This was an “ah hah” moment and helped me to understand why I couldn’t tolerate crowds, busy or noisy environments and why I usually only wore cotton clothing. What this meant for me was that I was not only learning how to treat others with sensory challenges but that I was also able to use this information to treat myself. My own experience with sensory processing difficulties has been invaluable in my practice as an OT.


I am not an "expert" but I do have many years of experience and training from which to draw upon. I have had many wonderful teachers including Bonnie Hanschu, Winnie Dunn, Patricia Wilbarger, Diana Henry and Laura Barker. My greatest teachers are the children and families that I work with and who I still learn from every day.


Sensory processing is a huge topic that cannot be covered in one short blog piece. There are so many things that I would like to write about but thought that it might be helpful to start with some basic premises.


Some Rules of Thumb:

1. You know your child the best! Always listen to your gut when it comes to therapy or interventions for your child. A good therapist will listen and learn from you and your child. Keep communication open and honest and remember that it may take a while for you and your therapist to "get it right". Therapy should be a two way street.


2. Sensory processing difficulties are unique to each individual. This is not a "one size fits all" concept or approach. Individual needs and preferences, consideration of family resources and daily life demands need to be taken into account. Professionals can sometimes make blanket recommendations that don't work for you for various reasons. Other times, no matter what you seem to do, life just gets in the way and all you can do is try your best to keep your head above water.


3. Sensory strategies or diets need to be part of the natural routine to be effective. Implementing strategies throughout the day will be most effective in achieving and maintaining a “just right state”. Don't wait until your child’s arousal level escalates to try and calm him. Usually by that time it is too late! You will still need to have strategies in place for meltdowns but when regular organizing sensory inputs are provided, you can decrease the frequency and/or duration of meltdowns. A brain that is in a just right state is more likely to stay or return to that state as compared to a brain that is in a constant state of stress.


4. Stress chemistry takes a long time to be cleared out of the nervous system and stress chemicals are still circulating long after a meltdown ends. To decrease stress levels, use pressure touch to enhance relaxed brain chemistry. Bear hugs, pillow squishes, hand hugs and massage are example of pressure touch. For most children, light touch such as tickling should be avoided as it stimulates a protective touch response (flight/fright/fight response) and increases stress.


5. Keep it simple! Adding on too many extra activities or pieces of equipment can sometimes increase stress in situations that are already too stressful. I usually try to recommend strategies that require little or no equipment and that can be done as part of your daily routine before going the equipment route. If life gets busy and you forget the weighted vest at home, what are you going to do to help your child maintain a just right level of arousal? There may be times when special equipment or devices are needed but for most children it is better to try less invasive or cumbersome strategies first.


6. Sensory needs change over time and strategies will need to be adjusted accordingly. What worked last week may not have the same impact today. It is helpful to be knowledgeable of the effects that different sensory inputs have on the central nervous system.


A thorough assessment along with letting the therapist take time to get to know your child will enable you to provide the most natural and effective interventions. Sensory inputs can enhance brain function and regulation but when done without understanding, they can be very disorganizing to the brain. Sensory strategies work – I know from my own experiences as well hearing from parents of the children that I have worked with.


For more information, please check out this handout that I have written on sensory processing:


If readers would like more information about specific strategies for sensory challenges, please feel free to comment or ask questions








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