What is Sensory Integration (also called sensory processing)?
Eighty percent of our brains are devoted to processing incoming sensory information and formulating appropriate responses to our sensory environment. Even as you sit reading this information, you are being bombarded by sensory input: the visual stimulation of the computer screen and the visual decoding of the words on the screen, the sounds in your house (e.g., voices, electronics), outdoor sounds, the feel of your clothing on your skin and the weight of your body against the chair, the temperature in the room, internal sensations from your muscles controlling your posture and SO much more! If your brain is processing (or integrating) the information effectively, you are able to focus on what you are reading and tune out the other sensations competing for your attention.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
For children and adults with sensory processing issues, sometimes called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID), the brain has difficulty making sense of the sensory information and deciding what to focus on, what to filter out, and how to respond appropriately to the information. This response may be a motor action, such as adjusting your posture so you don’t fall down (clumsiness), or it may be a cognitive response, such as being able to concentrate on your spouse’s (or teacher’s) voice even though the kids are being noisy in the same room. People with sensory processing issues have to expend a lot of extra energy and thought power making sense of their sensory world and trying to formulate appropriate responses. Therefore they struggle with poor attention, low frustration tolerance, moodiness, anxiety, and sometimes depression. SPD is an umbrella term that encompasses several different types of disorders resulting from poor sensory integration.
What is Sensory Modulation Disorder?
SMD is one specific type of SPD. Sensory modulation refers specifically to the brain’s ability to respond appropriately to the sensory environment and to remain at the appropriate level of arousal or alertness. There are actually three primary types of Sensory Modulation Disorder:
1. Over-responsive: This type is an exaggerated response of the nervous system to sensory input. For example, people who get motion sick easily are over-responding to vestibular input (the sensation of movement). The nervous system goes into fight-or-flight mode even when no real danger exists.
2. Under-responsive: This type is a lack or insufficient response to the sensory environment. Sometimes these people appear to be daydreaming or unfocused on what is happening around them. They may also be uncoordinated and have difficulty with motor skills development.
3. Sensory-seeking: With his type, the sensory seeker’s nervous system needs intense input for the sensation to be registered properly in the brain. Therefore the sensory seeker craves intense sensations constantly.
How is Sensory Processing Disorder diagnosed?
Typically, SPD is diagnosed by an occupational therapist (OT) after the child has been referred by a pediatrician or a teacher who has seen signs of sensory processing issues. OTs trained in the diagnosis and treatment of SPD typically use a combination of standardized assessment tools, sensory checklists, and observation to confirm a diagnosis. At that point, the therapist determines how SPD is affecting the child’s development and works to devise an appropriate treatment plan.
How is Sensory Processing Disorder treated?
Treatment usually involves occupational therapy. Some physical therapists and speech and language pathologists are also trained in treatment of SPD. The therapist determines the particular type of SPD and the affect it is having on the child’s development. Some forms of SPD primarily affect motor skill development. Treatment usually takes place in a therapy gym with a variety of equipment, such as swings, crash pads, mats, and scooters and is designed to enhance the child’s ability to interpret sensory input accurately and make adaptive responses with his or her body. If the child’s SPD primarily affects sensory modulation, the treatment is aimed at reducing symptoms of over-responsivity or under-responsivity to sensory input. In addition to clinically-based therapy, a sensory diet is often recommended.
What is a Sensory Diet?
Sensory Diet is a term that was originally coined by Patricia Wilbarger, an occupational therapist. A sensory diet is what all of us use to keep our brains alert and focused throughout our days. Most of us have created our own sensory diets without consciously thinking about it. You may drink coffee to stay alert during long meetings or twirl you hair while concentrating. Some people do their best problem-solving while pacing back and forth in their offices. Many people exercise to “decompress”—to help them modulate the sensations that have been taxing on their nervous systems throughout their day. Some people need intense sensations in order to feel good: really hot showers, extra spicy food, and extreme sports like bungee-jumping. Music is an important part of most people’s sensory diets. Certain types of music help you calm down while other types perk you up. For people with a SMD, figuring out what their brains need to be alert and focused, or calm enough to go to sleep at night, requires some assistance. Often, a Sensory Diet is recommended to them by an occupational therapist or other professional trained in sensory integration treatment. The sensory diet is usually a written or picture schedule of selected activities designed to be used throughout the person’s day to keep their nervous system at the appropriate level of arousal.
What is BrainWorks?
BrainWorks is a sensory diet tool created for use by parents, therapists, and teachers. After consulting with your child’s therapist, or using our sensory checklist to determine what type of sensory modulation disorder your child has, you can easily access forms and sensory diet picture cards that can be printed out for immediate use. The activity picture cards have icons that will help you identify which activities are calming and which are alerting to the nervous system. BrainWorks takes the guess work out of creating sensory diets! For professionals who create sensory diets frequently, BrainWorks saves their valuable time and allows them to quickly and easily print out the specific information and activities clients needs. BrainWorks is user-friendly and has a built-in teaching component (the modulation icons) that help children and their parents to quickly choose activities needed by their nervous system at any given time. BrainWorks has activities for use in home and school settings and is divided into categories based on age and type of modulation disorder (over-responsive, under-responsive, or sensory-seeking).
What age range is BrainWorks designed for?
The BrainWorks activity picture cards are designed to be used for children ages 2-18. For birth to two-year-olds, there are special forms for parents and caregivers to help them choose activities to calm and alert the babies and to stimulate development of sensory integration. BrainWorks also has information forms for adults with sensory modulation problems.
What can a parent do at home to help a child with Sensory Processing Disorder?
Consult with an occupational therapist for specific recommendations for your child. In the meantime, use our Sensory Checklist to get an idea of how your child is responding to sensory input. After filling out the checklist, use BrainWorks to print out information and picture cards you and your child can use to address his or her sensory needs. BrainWorks is a tool that has been created for use by parents, as well as professionals, to empower children to use sensory input appropriately to calm or alert their nervous systems as needed.