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What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses.

Does your child just need to crash or swing? Are some activities too overwhelming?

Whether your child is sensory seeking, sensory avoiding or a little of both, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can create challenges in everyday life. Environments and activities that many people take for granted can cause great distress for those with sensory needs. But don’t despair - there are many ways to help your child cope, and even get used to these situations.

5 Senses

First, let’s break down SPD. Sensory processing refers to the five senses we always talk about – vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch – but there are two other sensory systems, vestibular and proprioceptive. Those last two can cause challenges for many children. The vestibular system is responsible for knowing where your head is in space, and how you can handle movement. Children who have trouble with their vestibular system either feel overwhelmed by movement, or they never feel like they can get enough. The proprioceptive system allows your body to keep track of where it is. Kids who have proprioceptive challenges may walk down the hallway with their hand on the wall, to know where they are. They may either constantly bump into other students OR find it difficult to stand in line because they can’t handle being right next to someone else. Kids who seek vestibular input often crave tight hugs or need to jump and crash.

Children with SPD may be sensory seeking or sensory avoiding, or sometimes a combination of both. Occupational therapy can help immensely, regardless of the SPD type, in determining the right amount of sensory input your child needs, as well as the best ways to provide that input. Sometimes, this can look the same for both seekers and avoiders - therapists are providing the input seekers crave, while helping avoiders become more comfortable with input. 

Tips to Help Your Child

Miriam’s head occupational therapist, Cindy McFarland, suggests ways to help your child with SPD outside of school or therapy. These tips will help your child feel calm and in control of their body, and help you enjoy your family time.

Around the House

Regardless of your child’s age, or the size of your house, there are a wide variety of ways to help meet their sensory needs. Here are just a few suggestions.

  • Set up an age-appropriate obstacle course in an open area of your home. Just 15 minutes of activities like jumping on a small trampoline (or even the couch!), crashing into pillows, hopping from one tile to another and doing a few somersaults can get your child moving and make a world of difference in their ability to remain calm and concentrate on a task.
  • Squish your child. (Stay with me here!) To do this, simply have them lay stomach-down on a mat or pillow, and roll a yoga ball over their back with your weight on top. Adjust your pressure based on their comfort level.
  • Push them on a swing. Swinging, whether outdoors or indoors, is a perfect sensory input activity. For those who crave even more movement, spin them while they swing!
  • Give them “heavy work” to engage their proprioceptive system. Heavy work is any activity that pushes or pulls against the body. These activities can help kids with sensory processing challenges feel centered. Heavy work can include pushing a heavy box across a room, carrying a full laundry basket, doing the wheelbarrow walk with an adult holding their feet, climbing on a playground, or pushing a vacuum cleaner.
Child on an outdoor swing


Around Town

Some outings are inherently perfect for kiddos who seek sensory input.

  • Trampoline or adventure parks offer safe spaces to jump, climb and slide.
  • Swimming pools provide a fun, active environment, with pressure from the water helping keep their proprioceptive system in check.
  • There are gyms - such as We Rock the Spectrum in St. Louis - specifically designed for children with SPD and other special needs, providing safe, fun, sensory friendly activities.
  • Hiking offers plenty of physical activity, as well as sensory opportunities such as crunching leaves, feeling the water in a creek and listening to the sounds of nature.

Many landmarks and family destinations provide spaces, days or times specifically for children with SPD and their families. Here are a few examples in St. Louis.

  • The Magic House Calming Corner, located on the lower level near the Star-Spangled Center, offers a soothing space with soft lighting, neutral colors, quiet games and a mesmerizing 6-foot bubble tube. When the excitement of this amazing St. Louis landmark gets a little overwhelming, head to this spot to take a breather.
  • The St. Louis Zoo is better prepared than ever to assist those with sensory challenges, thanks to staff training and a Sensory Inclusive certification. In addition to staff knowledge and understanding, the Zoo has installed signage indicating areas where there may be sensory triggers, such as noise, temperature or smells, as well as quiet spaces for relaxing.
  • Several local live and movie theaters offer special showings for kids with SPD. These may include a lower level of sound, lights on during the show, and more freedom to get up and move when needed. For instance, check out Circus Flora, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Marcus Theatres.

Signs of sensory processing disorder:

Please note: Children with sensory processing disorder may not demonstrate all - or even many - of the behaviors listed here.

Sensory Avoiding:

  • Unusually low pain threshold
  • Avoids being touched or hugged
  • Picky eater
  • Fear of crowds
  • Intolerance of noise
  • Anxiety
  • Oversensitive to odors
  • Dislikes getting messy
  • Easily distracted or overstimulated

Sensory Seeking:

  • Unusually high pain threshold
  • Craves tight hugs or other pressure
  • Disregards personal space
  • Clumsy
  • Fidgets
  • Plays rough with other children
  • Constantly touches things
  • Behavioral issues
  • Doesn’t understand their own strength

Do you suspect your child might have sensory processing disorder?

  • Talk with your pediatrician
  • Request a developmental screening
  • Pursue further diagnostic testing, including a comprehensive evaluation. Miriam Learning Center offers a number of assessments.
  • A diagnosis will help you obtain services to put your child on the road to success as early as possible.