Claire had received numerous phone calls from Luke’s preschool teacher about his frequent tantrums, triggered by normal events like the class singing a nursery song or a classmate touching his hair.
If not crying inconsolably for hours, Luke would hide in the corner or duck under the table, refusing to talk to anyone or to engage in school activities. Upon the prodding of Luke’s teacher, Claire brought her son to a pediatric neurologist, where he was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD).
According to studies, up to 15 percent of children in Western families may be affected by this condition. Unfortunately, not all health and educational professionals understand the disorder, let alone know how to identify it, resulting in a number of undiagnosed cases.
If you’re a parent of a child with special needs, this article is for you.
What is the sensory system?
Our sensory system is composed of neural pathways, sensory receptors and other parts of the brain involved in sensory perception.
We may be familiar with the five commonly known sensory systems (visual, olfactory, tactile, gustatory, and auditory), but there are three lesser-known sensory systems:
- Interoception – This allows you to understand and feel what is happening in your body, based on physiological feedback. For instance, knowing that you’re hungry based on the signals from your stomach, or noticing you’re nervous because your heart is racing.
- Proprioception – Ever wonder how you can wear shoes without looking at your feet? That’s because of our body’s awareness and the ability to move around one’s environment, courtesy of this sensory system.
Proprioception is responsible for posture and motor control, telling an individual how their movements are occupying space. Sensory feedback is provided through muscles, joints and ligaments.
- Vestibular – This sensory system allows for balance and motor coordination, as it refers to inner ear spatial recognition. Movement direction is forwarded to the brain, which signals the body in moving in different directions and maintaining balance.
What are sensory issues?
It may look like they are throwing tantrums randomly, but children with SPD suffer from a neurophysiological condition in which the misinterpretation of sensory stimuli from their body or the environment occurs, leading to preternatural responses.
American educational psychologist and occupational therapist Dr. Anna Jean Ayres first recognized SPD in the 1970s, raising the idea that specific types of people have difficulties processing the information coming from various sensory systems.
Previous studies showed SPD was present in 80 to 90 percent of children with autism, 60 percent in those with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and 49 percent in those with Down syndrome.
Recent research, however, shows that SPD can also occur to those who do not have other disorders.
What are the symptoms of sensory processing issues?
Individuals with sensory processing challenges can either be easily stimulated (hypersensitive), or have fewer sensations (hyposensitive), or both. Hypersensitive children are sensory-avoiding because they find it overwhelming, while hyposensitive children are sensory-seeking, craving for more stimulation.
A hypersensitive child may display extreme responses to noises that most people consider inoffensive. They might avoid or get anxious performing activities that require a good sense of balance, such as riding a bike. The following behaviours may be observed from a child who’s hypersensitive:
- Low pain threshold
- Avoids touching or hugging
- Reacts adversely to smell and texture
- Often feels everything is too loud, too bright or too noisy
- Frequently covers their eyes and ears
- Avoids trying unfamiliar things
- Sticks to routine and gets upset about small changes
If a child is hyposensitive, they will have trouble sensing the amount of force they’re applying, and may appear clumsy because they could forcefully slam the door, or rip the paper when erasing.
Because hyposensitive children want more sensory input, they will likely have the following characteristics:
- High pain tolerance
- Plays rough
- Invades personal space
- Often bumps or crashes into things or people
- Experiences minor injuries or accidents frequently
- Overly touchy, sometimes inappropriately
What causes sensory issues in children?
Reasons why children develop sensory issues are not fully established. Researchers, however, were able to outline possible risk factors, which include premature birth or low birth weight, prenatal complications, maternal stress, and illness. The study also cited that SPD may be passed on genetically.
It seems most of the risks are internal in nature, but poor sensory stimulation and high exposure to chemicals in childhood are additional factors that could lead to sensory processing challenges.
How are sensory issues diagnosed?
Being unofficially recognized as a condition, SPD does not have formal criteria for a diagnosis. Medical professionals such as a neuropsychologist, a pediatric neurologist, or a developmental pediatrician can help confirm SPD suspicions in your child.
Health care providers usually rely on parent interviews and clinical assessment tools such as the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT), the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM), Miller Function and Participation Scales (MFUN) and the Sensory Profiling (SP).
Determining your child’s sensory sensitivities
As children with sensory issues may either be sensory avoidant or sensory seeking, it is important for a parent or caregiver to know the specific sensory inputs affecting the child. How do they react with sensory stimuli? Which sights, sound, smell, movement, and tactile sensations elicit positive and negative responses?
Once you are attuned to the sensory triggers in your child, you can make parenting a child with SPD less of a struggle.
Sensory play and how ice packs can help
Sensory play refers to any activity that stimulates the senses. It encourages exploratory learning for children and helps improve their gross motor, language and social skills.
For instance, having a child define and communicate his ongoing experience while manipulating small objects—anything from coloured, soft or hard items that could stimulate them—can pique their brain and improve sensory processing systems.
Sensory stimulation is also highly encouraged among patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, mainly to improve their overall wellbeing and to avoid anxiety and depression.
How to use ice packs on children with sensory issues
One of the most common and easiest tools to make are sensory bags or squishy bags. By having the following materials, you’ll be able to assemble one: Ziploc bag, glitters, hair gel, food coloring, stickers, buttons and packing tape.
- Sensory bags – If you do not have enough time to make a DIY squishy bag, use these ice packs for children to provide a sense of security and to help your child relax.
Textured gel packs can help children with sensory issues with these benefits:
- Provide calm and relaxation
- Aid in focus and concentration
- Improve tactile hypersensitivity
- Help a child tolerate different sensations
- Teach temperature sensitivity
- Fulfill his sensory craving – If your child is hyposensitive and craves warmth, place a warm gel pack in their bedding. If they want coolness, let them hold ice packs for up to 15 minutes or place their clothes briefly in the fridge before letting him wear them.
- Teach temperature sensitivity – Teaching temperature sensitivity might help your child with sensory issues to tell you that the ice pack on their forehead, for instance, is being too warm or too cold.
Do note that adult supervision is needed when a child, whether with or without SPD, is using ice packs.
How to teach temperature sensitivity to a child with sensory issues
A study showed that adults, with or without autism, have the same level of threshold for identifying light touch, sensations of warmth or coldness and reported the same level of the pleasantness of texture.
The difference lies in the fact that those with sensory issues find it hard to process these because of the way their brains are wired, and their difficulties in expressing pain and sensations, being that they lack social skills and are not always adept at expressing themselves or how they feel.
You can help your child become more aware of the varieties in temperature by setting up bowls that contain water for your child to identify hot, cold, warm and freezing temperatures. Better yet, warm the children’s ice packs in the microwave or pop it in the freezer to make teaching more effective.
Conduct experiments to answer questions such as “What happens when you put warm water inside a freezer?” or “What happens when you take out ice from the freezer?”
What treatments are available for children with sensory issues?
Correct diagnosis, for instance, in identifying whether a child is hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sensory stimuli, and which senses are affected, should be done before you can discuss a tailored treatment plan with professionals.
One of the treatments for children with sensory issues focuses on highly-customized coping strategies or in learning to do activities that they normally avoid due to sensory challenges. This is usually done by a trained occupational therapist.
- Sensory diet – Contrary to a food diet, this approach involves creating a set of custom-made activities aimed at satiating your child’s sensory input cravings. For instance, a hyperactive and sensory seeking child may be asked to run in place, push the shopping cart, carry the grocery bags from the car and so on.
- Sensory integration – The key to this approach is to create a set of activities in a controlled and stimulating environment and to help children respond appropriately. It aims to expose children with sensory issues to various stimuli and develop coping skills as a response. Over time, these coping mechanisms will become a standard response to specific sensory information and they will be applied in their daily activities and in various settings.
Please be advised that these new sensory issue treatments are part of on-going discussions and research in the scientific community. We highly recommend for you to consult an expert before trying out these treatments on your child.
Other effective SPD treatment approaches will depend on the senses affected, which could be physical, vision, listening, psychotherapy or speech and language therapies.
Children with SPD have aberrant reactions to specific sensory stimuli. With patience and care, parents of children with SPD can work with specialists and professionals to become more attuned to their child’s triggers and to create a customised treatment plan.
Can you think of additional tips on the non traditional uses of ice packs for children? We’ll be happy to hear from you. Contact us here.