SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER: THE SCIENCE BEHIND BEING AN EMPATH

I knew all my life that I was “sensitive” and could pick up on things that others did not.  I also knew that my body didn’t handle sensory stimuli the same way other bodies did.  I could easily become overwhelmed by itchy clothes, too much noise or strange smells.  High emotion in a room could send me over the edge.

Sometimes if too much input came at me all at once, it would send me into a full blown panic attack. But it wasn’t until I began studying Sensory Processing Disorder that I really came to understand that being a “empath” isn’t just some woo-woo label that New Agers made up to make themselves feel special. I learned that my nervous system is actually wired differently than most humans.  Yes, it’s actually a scientific reality.

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I like to think of Sensory Processing Disorder as science’s explanation for what’s been known by mystics as the “Empath”.  In this space, science and mysticism come together beautifully.

Revolutionary occupational therapist, psychologist, and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., explained Sensory Processing Disorder as a “traffic jam” within the brain.  This traffic jam keeps parts of the brain from receiving and interpreting sensory information properly.

Someone with SPD receives sensory stimuli just like other people do: smelling, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, balance, and the sense of where the body is in space, but when the sensory signals reach the brain, they get scrambled.  Not only does the brain interpret information differently, but the person with SPD may in fact actually be accessing MORE information than the average person. 

3 Simple Tips for Actually Enjoying the Holidays with SPD Kids

Holidays can be a stressful time in general, but particularly for children with sensory processing disorder. All of the hyped up energy and excitement is multiplied by ten for them, and it can be really difficult to handle.

I have seen how the holidays can overwhelm Mr. C without any sort of sensory challenges or autism, but for a child with sensory processing disorder the sights, sounds, smells, and large crowds can send them into a stage four meltdown before you can say “Merry Christmas”.

But we want to make sure that our children are enjoying their holidays, despite their challenges. It would be easy to hide away at home, avoid the holiday chaos, and come back to real life after New Years, but that really isn’t fair to you, your neurotypical children, or your children with special needs. We need to celebrate our holidays, but we can do them in our own way!

3 Simple Tips for Actually Enjoying the Holidays with SPD Kids

Great tips to help kids with sensory processing disorder truly enjoy their holidays without getting overwhelmed and melting down!

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

There are a lot of things to worry about with your children, but their fear of loud noises or their overreaction to the way a food feels isn’t, right? I mean, kids will be kids and their pickiness and particulars know no bounds. But at some point, you may be wondering what is sensory processing disorder, and you may be wondering if your child’s aversion to certain things has something to do with it.

According to the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, sensory processing disorder, or SPD, exists when your child’s sensory signals are either not detected or not organized into appropriate responses. Simply put, the nervous system receives messages from the senses any time they are used, whether it’s taste from biting into an apple or sound from hearing loud fireworks. But, when there is no evidence of a sensory processing disorder, your nervous system turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. With SPD, it’s incredibly difficult for someone to process and act upon the information they receive from their senses, leading to problems completing every day tasks like going to school, brushing their teeth, and more.

According to Parents, the outbursts over transitioning from one activity to another or trying to introduce a peanut butter and jelly sandwich may sound like typical toddler and little kid attitudes. I mean, children aren’t known for being rational, are they? But when they happen more often than usual and in situations you would never expect, it could mean your little one is suffering from sensory processing disorder.

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But SPD doesn’t just mean your child overreacts in certain situations. The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder noted that a child could also under-respond to certain situations and show little to no reaction to even extreme circumstances, like something feeling very hot or very cold. Some kids may even crave stimulation and it could lead to a diagnosis of ADHD when really what they are suffering from is an SPD that makes them seem addicted to a lot of intense stimulation.

According to the Child Mind Institute, these sensory processing issues are now considered a symptom of autism, but that doesn’t mean every child who has SPD is on the spectrum. In fact, most aren’t, but many children with autism do suffer from SPD.

Sensory Smart Parent noted that one in 20 children have sensory processing disorder — a fairly large number when you consider how many kids are in a day care, an elementary school, and even a sports team. If you think your child has SPD, you should reach out to your pediatrician to talk about your issues so you can determine if your child is simply two or if there’s more going on in their brain than you can tell.

What sensory processing disorder says about autism by john hopkins

Some children are highly sensitive to sound, sight or touch, whereas others seem almost numb. Exploring the differences may offer insights into autism.

Jack Craven has superpowers. When his mother, Lori, misplaces an item in the house, she asks the 12-year-old to “look in your head,” through the rich catalog of visual information he seems to assemble without effort. Jack always finds the lost object. His astonishing memory for faces enables him to pick out someone he’s seen only once or twice before from a sea of strangers in a crowded school gymnasium. His sharp hearing makes him an excellent vocal mimic. Request that he sing a Beatles tune and he’ll ask if you want it sung in the style of Lennon or McCartney.

But great powers, as any superhero narrative goes, come with great challenges. He endures, rather than enjoys, the arcade birthday parties popular among tween boys in suburban Atlanta where he lives. They’re just too noisy, too busy, too overstimulating. Jack’s hearing is so sensitive that he can’t always eat at the table with his family, because the sound and sight of them chewing might make him throw up. As an infant, he never slept for more than four hours at a stretch, and had to be held upright the whole time, his stomach pressed against his mother’s chest and her palm pressed atop his head.

Jack has sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition that includes people who are overly sensitive to what they feel and see and hear, but also those who are undersensitive, and still others who have trouble integrating information from multiple senses at once. SPD is not an official diagnosis. It isn’t included in the newest edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5). Still, it is widely used as a catch-all by clinicians, and some studies suggest that it may affect  between 5 and 15 percent of school-age children. Children with the clinical label SPD also have a lot in common with children diagnosed with autism, up to 90 percent of whom also have sensory difficulties.

Jack doesn’t have autism, but Ari Young, who lives a few hundred miles away in North Carolina, has both SPD and autism. And Ari, too, has certain impressive abilities, thanks to his super-sensitive senses. His acute visual memory allows him to recite articles from Wikipedia nearly verbatim — although, unless the article is on a history- or science-related topic he’s particularly interested in, he may be able to recall the information only in the order in which he learned it. Ari’s mother, Heather McDanel, says his sensory peculiarities and his autism are all bound up together. With many of his idiosyncrasies, “I don’t know if that’s the autism or if that’s sensory, or a combination of the two,” she says.

Like Jack, Ari also had sleep-related quirks as an infant: He could drift off only while rocking in a baby swing to a recording of birds chirping, and his bleary parents had to restart it every 15 minutes throughout the night. A speech therapist first mentioned SPD when Ari was not yet 2 years old; the autism diagnosis came later, when he was 2 and a half.

Even today, at age 9, Ari tends to hum to himself either when it’s too quiet or to drown out noise. He attends third grade in a mainstream classroom, but his sensitivities sometimes make school a struggle. A few months ago, when an unexpected announcement that class would be dismissed early caused his fellow students to erupt into happy chaos, the hubbub sent Ari running, sobbing with confusion and surprise, to the front office.

Sensory problems can not only disrupt a child’s ability to learn in school and form friendships, but upend the lives of whole families. “These are really challenging kinds of problems for children, whether they’re diagnosed with something or not,” says Grace Baranek, professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And for families, it can be difficult to get help.

Yet SPD also offers an opportunity: Studying people who have sensory problems with or without an autism diagnosis could help these children and provide insight into the relationship between sensory problems and the core social and communication problems seen in autism. It’s easy to imagine that a young child who hardly registers the sights and sounds of the surrounding world may not tune in to her father’s games of peekaboo, and may miss out on these formative moments of communication. Meanwhile, a child for whom those sights and sounds are unusually intense may be too overwhelmed to focus on his mother’s attempts to catch his attention and never learn some of the subtleties of the social world.

In the past several years, the advent of more precise, objective ways to measure sensory responses and behavior, coupled with imaging techniques that pinpoint how the brain processes sensations, are providing a window into how this process goes awry — and perhaps, ultimately, how to get it back on track.

“She’s not afraid of bears or afraid of dying,” Linda told the pediatrician. “She’s afraid of socks.”

Forgotten history:

Sensory differences were part of the first descriptions of autism, but were ignored for many years. Leo Kanner’s 1943 paper first introducing the concept of autism opens with an account of one boy’s precocious singing skills, remarkable memory for faces, and aversion to ordinary childhood pleasures such as riding a tricycle or sliding down a slide. Kanner and other researchers also noticed that many children with autism were hypersensitive to loud noises or seemed indifferent to pain.

But in the early decades, research on these aspects of autism was mostly descriptive and speculative. Few researchers were gathering empirical evidence about how children with the condition experienced the world. By the 1980s, interest in this area had fizzled.

Meanwhile, outside the context of autism research, an occupational therapist and neuroscientist named A. Jean Ayres was developing the theory that processing and integrating basic sensory information underlies many daily living skills. “It’s hard to imagine now, but people didn’t understand that when a child was having some difficulty moving their hands to button their coat, or to do some kind of school activity, that this could be related to brain function,” says Roseann Schaaf, professor of occupational therapy and neuroscience at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the early 1970s, Ayres first described ‘sensory integration dysfunction,’ in reference to these difficulties with everyday activities. As researchers learned more about the brain mechanisms involved, the term ‘processing’ replaced ‘integration’ and the condition became known as SPD. Ayres developed tests for identifying these troubles, such as asking a person to identify which finger has been touched without looking. She also created sensory integration therapy, which involves activities that engage multiple senses simultaneously, such as finding objects hidden in sand or a bin of beans, or sitting on a swing while batting at a suspended ball.

Ayres’ work became enormously influential among occupational therapists — healthcare professionals who help people with everyday life skills. These days, occupational therapists are primed to consider sensory explanations for a child’s difficulties with, say, handwriting or teeth-brushing. And many occupational therapists still use Ayres’ therapy or something similar to help with these problems.

By the early 2000s, autism researchers began to rediscover sensory processing, thanks to new tools in brain imaging and psychophysics, the precise measurement of the brain’s electrical responses to stimuli. There has also been a growing appreciation that sensory difficulties are a big part of what makes autism so difficult to cope with. Today, they’re such a widely recognized aspect of autism that they are included in the diagnostic criteria for the condition.

Still, many child psychiatrists do not see SPD as a distinct diagnostic label. They say the symptoms are too diverse and there’s too much uncertainty about what SPD is and how to distinguish it from other conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anxiety. “We know that sensory issues are important in a variety of kids with a variety of different diagnostic labels,” says Carissa Cascio, assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Those who have sensory problems without any of the other conditions are rare, she says.

But some parents say this doesn’t jibe with their experience, and that their children’s problems are fundamentally perceptual in nature. Linda, the mother of a child with SPD, recalls that her daughter had always been very particular, almost obsessive, about what clothes she would wear. But these quirks morphed into a full-blown terror of going to school once she entered first grade; she worried about having to go to an assembly, or having to use the bathroom with its loud, unpredictably flushing toilets. (Linda asked that we withhold her last name to protect her daughter’s privacy.) A pediatrician gave an anxiety screening questionnaire to see if Linda’s daughter might qualify for that diagnosis, but initially the label just didn’t seem to fit, Linda says. “She’s not afraid of bears or afraid of dying,” Linda told the pediatrician. “She’s afraid of socks; she’s afraid of hats.”

In fact, a 2012 twin study found that just over half of children with sensory sensitivities do not qualify for diagnoses such as anxiety, depression or ADHD (the study did not consider autism).

Meanwhile, the million-dollar question remains: What’s the difference between children who have autism and the perceptual processing problems that usually accompany it, and those who have the problems alone? Why does Ari have an accepted condition — autism — that includes being easily overwhelmed by noise, whereas Jack has similar struggles but no such diagnosis? Looking carefully at the differences between children like them may help answer these questions. “An approach like that is incredibly useful because it can give us a compare-and-contrast view of what’s specific to autism and what’s more general to sensory differences in a broader sense,” Cascio says.

How it feels:

The controversy over SPD has created a conundrum in pursuing that research, however. “It’s very hard to get funding for research on something that doesn’t exist,” says Lucy Miller, an occupational therapist and founder of the SPD Foundation, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. And, of course, it’s difficult to establish whether SPD should be considered a stand-alone condition without studying people who have it. “These are kids that aren’t necessarily being referred to studies because they don’t have a disorder” as defined by diagnostic manuals, says Elysa Marco, director of the Sensory Neurodevelopment and Autism Program at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s sort of a round robin.” Her group is running a crowdfunding campaign to support their SPD research.

A handful of researchers have been able to investigate SPD as a separate entity, and their findings are advancing the argument that it deserves its own diagnosis. Some children who don’t fit any recognized condition nonetheless have atypical sensory systems, these studies find. Researchers in one study used electrodes placed on the skin to show that children who have this informal clinical label react more strongly to everyday stimuli, such as the sound of a siren or the stroke of a feather across the face, than do either controls or children with ADHD. Another study showed that the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and breathing, is less active in people with sensory processing problems than it is in controls.

The most compelling evidence that SPD has a distinct neurological basis comes from a 2013 study that found that boys with SPD have atypical white matter(long nerve fibers) connecting regions related to sensory processing. “They have real, measurable brain connectivity differences,” says Marco, who worked on the study. A follow-up study published earlier this year adds to the picture: Brain connections are altered in girls with SPD as well, and the more severe a child’s difficulties with processing sound, the more pronounced his or her white-matter alterations.

These studies also show some intriguing parallels between children with autism and those with sensory difficulties but no formal diagnosis. For example, children with autism show dampened parasympathetic nervous system activity similar to that seen in children who’ve been described as having SPD. And children with autism, just like those with SPD, have abnormalities in white-matter pathways involved in processing sensations.

“It’s a possibility that these groups started out very similarly and there’s some sort of protective factor that keeps people with sensory processing differences from becoming kids with autism,” Cascio says. But so far, that’s just speculation.

There are also differences between sensory problems in autism, SPD and other conditions, and these are only beginning to be mapped out. Children with autism have disruptions in brain connectivity along social and emotional pathways, whereas those pathways are intact in children with SPD alone. Children with SPD tend to have more problems with touch than do those with autism, whereas children with autism struggle more with sound processing. This may explain why language and communication problems are characteristic of autism.

Whether a child is oversensitive or undersensitive may also play some role in what diagnosis she winds up with. Dampened responses to a new sight, sound or touch are more common in autism than they are in children with SPD orother conditions, whereas a sensory system that is dialed all the way up is seen across autism, ADHD and anxiety alike. As toddlers, children with autism also tend to have more profound sensory abnormalities than do those with developmental delays.

The notion that sensory problems underlie autism symptoms makes sense, but has yet to be tested, says Sophie Molholm, associate professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “I wouldn’t even want to say that the sensory processing issues are causal,” she says. “We don’t know that at all. We just know that these are symptoms that we frequently see in these disorders.”

It could also be that how perceptual problems relate to autism depends on the child. “I think this is part of the conundrum of autism,” Marco says. “Are kids simply not showing [social] awareness and interest … because they are so sensitive that they have shut it out completely? Or are they really, truly at their base just not interested?”

“These are really challenging kinds of problems for children, whether they’re diagnosed with something or not.” Grace Baranek

Sense and sensitivity:

These questions matter because children who are chronically flooded with sensations, or are distant from the world around them, need help — whether they have autism or not.

Many of the day-to-day struggles of people with autism have to do with perceptions gone haywire, such as being overcome by sounds, or feeling a revulsion toward certain foods. This home truth may often go unnoticed and unaddressed by clinicians, but it has a powerful impact on family life.

Some parents of children with autism are big fans of sensory integration and similar therapies. They say the interventions help soothe the most disruptive problems of everyday life. Jennifer, the mother of a teenage boy with autism andfragile X syndrome, a related condition, says the occupational therapy her son began around age 3 was transformative. He was nonverbal at the time, and thanks to this therapy, she finally understood that her son’s senses were wired in a way to make some things soothing and others bothersome to him. “We realized that’s why he likes his hands rubbed so much, and his arms squeezed,” says Jennifer. (She asked that her last name be withheld to protect her son’s privacy.) It helped her grasp why her son demanded tight pajamas, and would only wear one particular pair of shoes. “It started making sense to us,” she says — and made it easier for her to meet his needs.

Until a few years ago, the evidence supporting sensory integration therapy for children with autism or other conditions was relatively thin.  And some practices of therapies that focus on sensation, such as working with playdough, hanging upside-down, or brushing a child’s skin to desensitize him to touch, can seem unscientific or even downright bizarre. The approach is also difficult to study because it tends to be ad-hoc. Clinicians “come up with treatment plans that are highly individualized, and that’s another challenge for really rigorous scientific study,” says Cascio. “It becomes really difficult figuring out what the relevant outcomes are, how are you going to measure them, how you measure improvement.” And in the past, the field was generally more focused on therapeutic practice than on creating standardized interventions.

Some families of children who lack an official diagnostic label struggle to get any help at all. “There are a lot of people who suffer from this kind of difficulty, and they’re not able to access services or get the kinds of accommodations they need in schools, or early intervention, without the diagnostic label,” says Baranek.

Lori Craven is homeschooling her son Jack because she says it was too difficult to get the public school system to accommodate him. Because Jack doesn’t have hearing loss, he wasn’t eligible for an assistive technology that amplifies his teacher’s voice to help him focus. Because he doesn’t have vision impairments, the school balked at providing enlarged, simple-looking versions of worksheets, or even allowing Lori to prepare them. “I just realized I was spending so much time fighting the school — I was trying to do it for them, and it was too much to ask,” Lori says.

Savvy parents of children with SPD often seek out an additional diagnosis such as anxiety or ADHD — or embrace one when it is offered. Linda says that in the end, it was her daughter’s anxiety label that helped the family arrange an individualized education plan for her daughter. The anxiety diagnosis “seemed to be the language that the school understood best,” she says.

This fancy footwork around labels and diagnoses may become a thing of the past as researchers pursue the ultimate goal: figuring out which treatments for sensory problems are effective. They hypothesize that the right treatments will work whether a child has autism, anxiety, ADHD or no diagnosis at all, as long as the underlying problem, such as being too sensitive to touch, is the same. “You’re trying to establish what the commonalities are,” Baranek says. “And looking to see if those interventions actually help in similar ways despite the different diagnoses.”

That means tailoring the treatment to the child rather than to the diagnosis. “I think [occupational] therapists do this on the fly,” says Alison Lane, associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of Newcastle in Australia. “But we don’t have a systematic way of saying, ‘This child with this particular pattern of behavior and sensory features will respond best to this type of approach.’”

Lane and others have begun defining sensory subtypes within the autism spectrum, in an effort to more systematically match symptoms to treatment. She plans to use this framework to guide therapy in a pilot study later this year.

A precisely defined procedure for choosing sensory therapies in autism will also help make studies in this area more rigorous, says Schaaf, the Philadelphia-based occupational therapist and neuroscientist who led the development of such an approach. She is using it to test whether sensory therapy or a more standard autism treatment is better at boosting the ability of people with autism to integrate auditory and visual information.

A small pilot study of this approach found that sensory therapy in children with autism improves not only their perceptual difficulties but also their social skills. “That was unexpected,” says Schaaf. “We didn’t hypothesize that at all.” In their follow-up, the researchers are collaborating with Molholm’s team to track the children’s sensory integration abilities through electroencephalography to observe brain activity, as well as monitoring how they are doing in daily life. The study, slated to run for five years and involve 200 children, began enrolling participants in February.

Researchers are also applying neurobiology findings to treatment studies of SPD. Marco is collaborating with the SPD Foundation on a pilot study to scan the brains of children with SPD before and after occupational therapy, in order to determine whether the intervention improves brain connectivity.

In the meantime, Ari Young has come up with his own way of managing his highly attuned brain, on top of the therapies he gets for autism. He often wears headphones at school to block out distracting or distressing noises, but he has noticed that most other kids don’t wear them. “I used to feel like wearing headphones would just kind of pin me out of the rest of the group, make me look like I was not paying attention,” he says. They also make it more difficult for him to hear what his teacher is saying.

So Ari has been conducting a sort of informal sensory therapy, challenging himself to briefly take his headphones off during events such as school assemblies and performances. “Sometimes there are quiet moments at loud concerts, when … I decide to peek open the headphones a little bit,” he says. “And then when the next loud part comes, I snap them back on as fast as I can.”

I JUST WANT TO BE MY SON’S MOM, NOT HIS PRIVATE IEP CASE MANAGER (SPD)

I was on the phone with my editor when the email came through from my teenage son’s school. Glancing at it, I had an immediate reaction. Before I could think, I blurted out an honest, but very rude, remark.

Ironically, that’s what the email said my son had done.

Luckily, my editor knows me well enough to realize my outburst wasn’t directed at her and wasn’t personal. My son’s teachers should know that about him, too. But that hasn’t always been the case.

My son has significant issues with social skills. He doesn’t understand that his idea of “honest” can come across as rude to someone else. He also doesn’t do well with changing expectations.

Later on I read the email more closely. Apparently, that day the teacher announced a last-minute change in plans. Instead of working on their upcoming science projects individually, the kids in class were going to work in groups.

Upset by the sudden change, my son had an immediate reaction and blurted out, “That’s not fair, you said we’d do our own projects!” The teacher thought it was rude, even though she knew about his issue. But that’s not what got to me.

What did was this sentence: “We’d like you to come in to discuss your son’s behaviors and hear your ideas for how we might best help him.”

I’ve always been a strong advocate for my child. But for some reason, that statement just did me in.

It was the cumulative effect of hundreds of phone calls and emails I’ve gotten over the years from the school asking me to offer advice or strategies to help. The countless meetings in which I’ve worked with teachers to come up with appropriate classroomaccommodations. The endless hours spent suggesting and even locating the right services.

Now, once again, my son’s school was saying that they were out of ideas. I felt like I was being asked to be his case manager, therapist, teacher, social skills coach and professional consultant. I came to a realization.

This wasn’t a job I asked for. I’m not even sure how I ended up with it. But I didn’t want it any more. I would still be his advocate. Beyond that, I just wanted to be his loving, concerned, and—yes—often overwhelmed mom.

I don’t get to have fun with my son when I’m constantly processing what happened at school and what he could have done differently. We don’t spend quality time watching dumb TV shows when I’m busy troubleshooting problems that come up. I don’t get to enjoy him as much as I could.

I’m not doing my real job of being mom very well when I’m taking time off to provide strategies for the professionals at his school. And it’s not like I have any new ideas anyway. I’ve given it my all. I’ve tried to be everything. It’s too much!

So when I went in to meet with them about this latest incident, I quit.

“If I had solutions, I would have given them to you by now,” I said. “He’s not hurting anyone; his grades are good. You’ll have to figure out strategies to help with the other stuff without me. I just want to be Mom.”

The room went silent. So, I clarified.

Yes, I still wanted to partner with the school. Of course, I wanted to continue to be an active member of the IEP team. I just needed to take care of myself and simply be what I (and he) needed me to be: his mother.

That’s a job I did ask for. It’s one I know I can succeed at. And it’s one I deserve to be able to devote my attention to.

10 Best Sports for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

I am often asked “What are the best sport activities for my child?”. When it comes to kids withSensory Processing Disorder (SPD) they do best with activities that are rich with resistive muscle activity (think push /pull) and rich with movement in all directions (up/down/angular/rotary).  Activities that have firm predictable tactile pressure work well.  These are the three body senses that are the “magic ingredients” for success 1) Muscle and joint  position sense (proprioception), 2) Movement and balance sensation (vestibular) and 3) Tactile input to the skin.  These 3 major body senses help to calm and organize the nervous system which helps your child focus and engage well in the activity. Kids with SPD will succeed with activities that are not chaotic with  people and things moving in different directions (so soccer and basketball are not on the list).  They do best with activities that do not require a lot of idle standing and waiting time which takes baseball off the list.  From my 26 years of experience here are my top 10 sports and activities in no particular order:

#1 Swimming

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Swimming is great for so many reasons!  It provides sensory input in all 3 of the main areas movement in all directions (vestibular input), resistive muscle activity which provides improves body awareness (proprioception) and firm constant tactile pressure over the whole body.  It is a fun social activity and important for safety as well.  Be sure to take into consideration the noise level and unexpected splashing.  You can talk with the pool manager and find out the calmer times to come.  Often pools will have a special therapeutic swim time when the pool is warmer.

# 2 Martial Arts

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If your child is having problems with self control and aggression this may seem counter intuitive. However, martial arts teaches peace and self control while giving an outlet for physical stress and aggression in a safe and controlled way. I earned my black belt in Isshinryu Karate when I was 18.  All these years of teaching kids karate has helped me see first hand how much it builds self esteem in kids!  Martial Arts is an individual path that lets your child go at their own pace.  It is something that they will learn a tremendous amount of self control in. They will learn to control their bodies and mind.  Martial Arts schools tend to embrace your child and they become part of a big family that can last a lifetime if they wish.  From a sensory point of view it is fantastic!  Your child will get intense input to their muscles and joints with  punching, blocking and kicking exercises. There is a lot of movement in all directions and balance activities. Your child will learn how to roll with a fall and not get hurt.  When learning katas (a series of movements linked together) they will improve memory and sequencing.  Courtesy and respect are always emphasized.  Not all martial arts instructors are created equal. It is best to observe a few classes and get the vibe of the instructor and the students and make sure that they are all kind and respectful to each other.  Your child will do best with a  small class size.

 

#3 Wrestling

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Wrestling is great because it has intense resistive muscle activity and is 1 on 1. This makes it much easier for your child to focus on the activity.  In addition,  there is movement in all directions and firm tactile input making this sport a winner for all 3 major sensory inputs for increasing body awareness and calming the nervous system.

#4 Gymnastics

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Often parents have tried gymnastics intuitivley knowing it would be great , but then their child was not able to wait in line and listen to instructions.  A great option is open gym time.  Kids have the opportunity to explore equipment with supervision and they don’t have to stand and wait so much. Also consider private lessons or a smaller class size.  Gymnastics is great for providing excellent sensory input to the body.

 

#5 Football

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This one surprised me at first because I thought it would be too chaotic chasing after the ball until my friend who was a coach explained to me it all depends on the position. For example if you are a lineman you have one thing to focus on and that is the guy in front of you – block him!  Turns out football is a great sport for our kids with SPD!  Lots of intense input to the muscles and joints increasing (proprioception) , lots of movement in all directions and firm tactile input as well. All of this sensory input calms and organizes your child’s body helping them be successful.

 

#6 Yoga

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In addition to providing the wonderful  sensory input, yoga emphasizes relaxation and being calm.  My friend Jeanette Runnings who is an OT  developed a wonderful yoga activity, “Yoga Yingo“,  that is easy to do with your child at home.  It is basically bingo with yoga poses that are kid friendly.  A lot of kids that I work with who seek intense movement do really well with inverted poses (e.g. a regular head stand or tripod head stand with knees on elbows). They are able to get intense joint compression and intense vestibular input by being upside down yet at the same time they are trying to be perfectly still and not fall over.

 

#7 Kayaking

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Kayaking is another wonderful activity for your child to participate in.  The gentle rocking on the water along with pulling the paddle against the water provides wonderful sensory input to the muscles and joint which is very calming. The life jacket provides a firm tactile pressure that is calming as well. Nature is a great source of peace and our kids with SPD need to have opportunities to be out in nature regularly. Check out your local places to rent kayaks. I was able to rent one for only $10/hr on beautiful Lake Chelan in WA this Summer and it sure beat having to haul it and carry it to the water.

 

#8 Hiking / Horseback Riding

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So many of our kids with SPD do great with hiking and horseback riding!  Again, being out in nature itself is wonderful for all the senses. Carrying a backpack adds firm tactile pressure and joint compression which tends to be calming for a lot of kids.  Climbing up hill increases the resistive muscle activity providing more position sense (proprioception). There are ample opportunities for movement and balance challenges along the way from jumping off rocks to balancing on a log. On the horse there is a lot of movement input for balance reactions and your child gets to see the world from a whole new perspective up high.  There are many therapeutic riding programs (also called hippo-therapy)  with skilled volunteers who will either ride with your child or walk along side in order to keep your child safe.

 

#9 Skiing

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Skiing is very rich with sensory input. Many kids with SPD thrive with skiing since they are getting such intense sensation of fast movement, balance and feedback to their muscles and joints as they shift weight to make turns. In fact many parents are puzzled  why their kids are such good skiers and when I evaluate them we still see deficits with body awareness, core strength and balance.  The reason is that when they are skiing the “volume gets turned up” with their body senses and they are able to know exactly where they are in space giving which increases the ability to be coordinated and balanced.  Then when they are trying to sit still in a chair the “volume is turned down” and they loose their sense of body awareness and may even fall out of their chair.

#10 Dance

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If your child does not have auditory issues, I think tap dancing is a wonderful source of sensory input to the muscles and joints for position sense (proprioception).  There is so much feedback to every step they take.  Other forms of dance would be more appropriate if your child has auditory sensitivity.

 

Many of these activities are also available with Special Olympics. This is a great way to make friends, get a lot of family support and be in a non judgmental environment. It is also an opportunity for your child to be with kids who have even greater challenges than they do helping your child have balance and perspective in their life.

Mary Kostka is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist specializing in Sensory Processing Disorder at  her  private practice, ‘Ohana Occupational Therapy, LLC,   in Wenatchee and Leavenworth Washington.

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10 Best Sports for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

I am often asked “What are the best sport activities for my child?”. When it comes to kids withSensory Processing Disorder (SPD) they do best with activities that are rich with resistive muscle activity (think push /pull) and rich with movement in all directions (up/down/angular/rotary).  Activities that have firm predictable tactile pressure work well.  These are the three body senses that are the “magic ingredients” for success 1) Muscle and joint  position sense (proprioception), 2) Movement and balance sensation (vestibular) and 3) Tactile input to the skin.  These 3 major body senses help to calm and organize the nervous system which helps your child focus and engage well in the activity. Kids with SPD will succeed with activities that are not chaotic with  people and things moving in different directions (so soccer and basketball are not on the list).  They do best with activities that do not require a lot of idle standing and waiting time which takes baseball off the list.  From my 26 years of experience here are my top 10 sports and activities in no particular order:

#1 Swimming

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Swimming is great for so many reasons!  It provides sensory input in all 3 of the main areas movement in all directions (vestibular input), resistive muscle activity which provides improves body awareness (proprioception) and firm constant tactile pressure over the whole body.  It is a fun social activity and important for safety as well.  Be sure to take into consideration the noise level and unexpected splashing.  You can talk with the pool manager and find out the calmer times to come.  Often pools will have a special therapeutic swim time when the pool is warmer.

# 2 Martial Arts

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If your child is having problems with self control and aggression this may seem counter intuitive. However, martial arts teaches peace and self control while giving an outlet for physical stress and aggression in a safe and controlled way. I earned my black belt in Isshinryu Karate when I was 18.  All these years of teaching kids karate has helped me see first hand how much it builds self esteem in kids!  Martial Arts is an individual path that lets your child go at their own pace.  It is something that they will learn a tremendous amount of self control in. They will learn to control their bodies and mind.  Martial Arts schools tend to embrace your child and they become part of a big family that can last a lifetime if they wish.  From a sensory point of view it is fantastic!  Your child will get intense input to their muscles and joints with  punching, blocking and kicking exercises. There is a lot of movement in all directions and balance activities. Your child will learn how to roll with a fall and not get hurt.  When learning katas (a series of movements linked together) they will improve memory and sequencing.  Courtesy and respect are always emphasized.  Not all martial arts instructors are created equal. It is best to observe a few classes and get the vibe of the instructor and the students and make sure that they are all kind and respectful to each other.  Your child will do best with a  small class size.

 

#3 Wrestling

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Wrestling is great because it has intense resistive muscle activity and is 1 on 1. This makes it much easier for your child to focus on the activity.  In addition,  there is movement in all directions and firm tactile input making this sport a winner for all 3 major sensory inputs for increasing body awareness and calming the nervous system.

#4 Gymnastics

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Often parents have tried gymnastics intuitivley knowing it would be great , but then their child was not able to wait in line and listen to instructions.  A great option is open gym time.  Kids have the opportunity to explore equipment with supervision and they don’t have to stand and wait so much. Also consider private lessons or a smaller class size.  Gymnastics is great for providing excellent sensory input to the body.

 

#5 Football

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This one surprised me at first because I thought it would be too chaotic chasing after the ball until my friend who was a coach explained to me it all depends on the position. For example if you are a lineman you have one thing to focus on and that is the guy in front of you – block him!  Turns out football is a great sport for our kids with SPD!  Lots of intense input to the muscles and joints increasing (proprioception) , lots of movement in all directions and firm tactile input as well. All of this sensory input calms and organizes your child’s body helping them be successful.

 

#6 Yoga

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In addition to providing the wonderful  sensory input, yoga emphasizes relaxation and being calm.  My friend Jeanette Runnings who is an OT  developed a wonderful yoga activity, “Yoga Yingo“,  that is easy to do with your child at home.  It is basically bingo with yoga poses that are kid friendly.  A lot of kids that I work with who seek intense movement do really well with inverted poses (e.g. a regular head stand or tripod head stand with knees on elbows). They are able to get intense joint compression and intense vestibular input by being upside down yet at the same time they are trying to be perfectly still and not fall over.

 

#7 Kayaking

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Kayaking is another wonderful activity for your child to participate in.  The gentle rocking on the water along with pulling the paddle against the water provides wonderful sensory input to the muscles and joint which is very calming. The life jacket provides a firm tactile pressure that is calming as well. Nature is a great source of peace and our kids with SPD need to have opportunities to be out in nature regularly. Check out your local places to rent kayaks. I was able to rent one for only $10/hr on beautiful Lake Chelan in WA this Summer and it sure beat having to haul it and carry it to the water.

 

#8 Hiking / Horseback Riding

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So many of our kids with SPD do great with hiking and horseback riding!  Again, being out in nature itself is wonderful for all the senses. Carrying a backpack adds firm tactile pressure and joint compression which tends to be calming for a lot of kids.  Climbing up hill increases the resistive muscle activity providing more position sense (proprioception). There are ample opportunities for movement and balance challenges along the way from jumping off rocks to balancing on a log. On the horse there is a lot of movement input for balance reactions and your child gets to see the world from a whole new perspective up high.  There are many therapeutic riding programs (also called hippo-therapy)  with skilled volunteers who will either ride with your child or walk along side in order to keep your child safe.

 

#9 Skiing

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Skiing is very rich with sensory input. Many kids with SPD thrive with skiing since they are getting such intense sensation of fast movement, balance and feedback to their muscles and joints as they shift weight to make turns. In fact many parents are puzzled  why their kids are such good skiers and when I evaluate them we still see deficits with body awareness, core strength and balance.  The reason is that when they are skiing the “volume gets turned up” with their body senses and they are able to know exactly where they are in space giving which increases the ability to be coordinated and balanced.  Then when they are trying to sit still in a chair the “volume is turned down” and they loose their sense of body awareness and may even fall out of their chair.

#10 Dance

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If your child does not have auditory issues, I think tap dancing is a wonderful source of sensory input to the muscles and joints for position sense (proprioception).  There is so much feedback to every step they take.  Other forms of dance would be more appropriate if your child has auditory sensitivity.

 

Many of these activities are also available with Special Olympics. This is a great way to make friends, get a lot of family support and be in a non judgmental environment. It is also an opportunity for your child to be with kids who have even greater challenges than they do helping your child have balance and perspective in their life.