Parents and educators and other professionals are dedicated to facilitating growth and development in children. If a neurotypical child needs something, he or she simply asks, and an adult is able to respond to the child’s needs. But what happens if a child has challenges processing sensory input? This child may have difficulty articulating exactly what he or she is feeling or expressing what type of help he or she needs.
Occupational therapists who work with children with sensory processing challenges and/or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) know that sometimes by using different methods and strategies to “listen to a child”, we are better able to understand and provide exactly what that child is seeking.
Here are some unique ways to listen to your child:
(1) Listen With Your Eyes
When OT‘s are working with children with Sensory Processing Disorder and are first getting to know the child, we watch what activities the child seeks out. We observe what types of movements and activities the child gravitates towards (or avoids) and then “interpret” these reactions by connecting what the child is doing with what the child is seeking or avoiding. A child who is rolling around on the floor may be seeking deep pressure input. A child who withdraws from light touch or who becomes angry when he or she has been touched may be sensitive to tactile input. A child who covers his or her ears or eyes in busy loud environments may be over sensitive to auditory stimuli (sounds) or visual stimuli (sights). Oftentimes, a child who “reacts” with less than desirable behaviors is merely reacting to challenges processing sensory information in his or her environment. Once we are able to observe these reactions with “interpretive eyes”, we are better able to understand where these reactions are coming from and what we can do to teach the child to navigate, understand and interpret his or her environment.
(2) Listen With Your Intuition
If you know your child is not intentionally displaying behaviors to hurt other children or to just be disruptive- follow your intuition! Children are inherently innocent, kind learners who are trying to make sense of their physical and sensory environment. If you take your child to the grocery store, or the mall, or a birthday party and you observe your child crying, tantruming, hiding from others OR on the flip side- running around uncontrollably, invading other children’s personal space, needing to touch everyone and everything, you may ask yourself WHY is my child doing this!? Reframe your thinking to ponder “WHAT is my child seeking or avoiding” or “WHAT will help my child to better tolerate this busy, overstimulating environment”. Trust your intuition when you see your child displaying behaviors and ask yourself where are these behaviors TRULY stemming from.
(3) Listen With Your Ears But Read Between The Lines
As OTs, we hear children utter insightful statements in treatment all the time. “I’m so happy right now “ (Child swinging in a spandex swing). “Can I please do that exercise again (Child flipping heavy tires). “Can I wear the adventure vest all day (Child wearing a weighted vest). “Ahhh” (Child laying in a ball pit). Children with sensory processing challenges often know exactly what they need- they just may not be able to use their words to articulate these needs clearly! Children with sensory seeking tendencies especially, although they may not seek their input out in the most appropriate ways on their own, are seeking movements and activities because they NEED this input to understand their world. If your child has sensory processing challenges, recruit the help of an occupational therapist to help you figure out exactly which types of movements and sensory inputs are going to facilitate calm and focus in your child. Listen to your child when those particular activities create the desired level of calm, and help your child to recreate those activities on a daily basis.
(4) Listen With Your Heart And Act With Empathy
Raising and teaching a child with sensory processing challenges is not always easy. Sensory diets and sensory-based strategies can often be a continual trail and error process to find lasting, successful strategies. However, reminding yourself how hard your child is working and how much your child benefits from the strategies you are implementing is the key to staying the course. Your child’s occupational therapist, your child’s teacher, and yourself as a parent create a powerful group support system for your child. Collaboration, patience, and empathy will guide you as a parent, and your child’s OT is a constant resource and a lifeline during more challenging sensory fluctuations. Remember that not only is your child is counting on you, but he or she trusts you and loves you unconditionally.
(5) Listen Through Action
If your child needs heavy work, provide it. If your child needs lower stimulation settings, create it. If your child needs a sensory diet, implement it. Remember that you are never alone and your child’s team is on your side. Recruit a support team. Create a support team. Surround yourself with other parents who understand where you are coming from. Teachers, OT’s and parents are collaborating together will achieve a common goal of helping a child with sensory processing challenges to live up to his or her full potential, to thrive and to be happy. And through it all, remember that your child is a child, who, along with therapy and strategies, needs you as a constant- to embrace him or her as the unique, amazing child who he or she is.
Written by Amy Wheadon, MS, OTR/L, OTD-S
Owner of KidSHINE LLC Ipswich MA