How to Play with a Child who has Sensory Processing Disorder
By Antonia Llull View Bio
Antonia, better known as Tonina, has been a practicing occupational therapist for over 20 years, specializing in Pediatrics. In her career’s journey, she has founded/directed a
multidisciplinary rehab clinic and a private school for students with special needs (in Orlando, FL) and has been part of the rehab medicine management team at a top rated hospital in Manhattan. Tonina continues to work with children and families while building educational programming for parents and professionals. Founding MPowerMe and mpowermetoys.com culminates her clinical experiences and her love for discovering, sharing, and collaborating with her community to foster growth and creativity in children of all ages and skill levels. She strives to share about the use of toys, games, gadgets, literature, and sensory accessories to build children’s social skills, physical performance, ability to respond adaptively to their environment, and foster their continued journey as life-long learners.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a disruption of the sophisticated balance of multiple sensory systems intended to work together so that we can act or react to a given situation. When the systems that support balance and coordination are not organized, children appear clumsy and accident prone. When the touch system can’t identify if something is “safe”, or if it can’t get accustomed to something that is routine for most of us, children will act defensively toward it. For example, your child may perceive pain or high discomfort with clothing seams or hair brushing. Learn more about each sensory system and Sensory Processing Disorder here.
Parents of children with sensory processing disorder journey with their children to learn how to best parent them from infancy to adulthood. Collaborating with an occupational therapist is an essential part of discovering what specific sensory systems are affecting your child’s development and how to help. This article presents specific play examples that will help parents and caregivers enhance children’s ability to process sensory experiences in a manner that fosters development and fun!
Sensory Processing and Modulation is the ability to organize sensory information from seven systems (the eyes, ears, nose, taste, skin, inner ear - vestibular system for balance, movement, coordination, and the joints - proprioceptive system for body awareness and position sense) in a manner that allows for the “just right” response. For example, when the skin approaches something that is too hot we pull away quickly, but if the information is not organized and paired instantly with the movement required, we respond too late and are more severely burned; if we are running and step on a rock, we feel the shift in our foot and counter balance immediately to avoid falling, but if the information is not processed we are likely to fall; if a child is playing next to a swing set full of “swingers” and they want to get to the opposite side, they will go around at a safe distance or time the exact moment to cross in front without getting hit, but if a child is not processing their environment and cannot organize the information required to determine the safe distance or the timing required, they will likely collide.
When children receive information from these seven systems in a way that enables balance of the body and mind in various situations (school vs. playground, one-on-one play date vs. a party etc.) it allows them to have fun, engage in the activities at hand, be productive, attend to everyday activities, and demonstrate safe, socially acceptable behaviors, regardless of the environment.
When playing, children with SPD can have difficulties with the physical skills and/or emotional reactions needed for manipulating the toy, taking turns, impulse control, attention, dealing with competition, etc. To help guide play, pay attention to the activities, environments, and sensory input that typically calm or re-focus your child. Use those activities to help your child feel comfortable. This will usually support your child’s engagement in interactive and solo play that promotes hand skills, tool use, coordination (both gross and fine motor), socialization, coping, and sensory exploration.
Here are some tips and examples of toys and game play for the…
Tactile Avoider – Children, who avoid different textures and temperatures, limit exploring with their hands and can have negative reactions to typical feeding and hygiene tasks, as well as pre-writing activities. Use these play strategy ideas to help them build hand skills, pre-writing skills, and tool use while also providing the opportunity to explore touch/tactile input when they are ready.
- For kids who avoid finger painting, using glue, holding crayons, or any play that is “too messy”, use toys that are mess free. This provides them the opportunity to create shapes with their fingers without triggering fight, flight, or avoidance reactions. Sit next to your child while they use their mess free pre-writing toy, and imitate their shapes in finger paint, shaving cream, or with crayons, allowing them to see what you are doing without the pressure of interacting. Over time they will reach out to touch what you are playing with.
- Use child chopsticks to pick up sliced fruit or other foods they avoid touching, to feed you or their “tea party” guests.
- Use tongs/tweezers to pick-up miniature plastic animal toys or figurines they have to “rescue” from a “pool of shaving cream” or bin of corn/rice.
Movement Seeker – For kids who are constantly moving via excessive fidgeting, and/or inappropriate rocking, twirling, running, jumping, etc., try the following ideas for unstructured play, structured movement breaks, and building coordination:
- Mini trampoline combined with bean bag toss or velcro dart board game.
- Relay race games (with foam pogo jumper, running, galloping, skipping, hopping).
- Dodge ball games with beach balls.
- Balloon tennis and balloon volleyball.
- Scavenger hunt through house or backyard (while hopping, jumping, skipping, galloping, running to find the items).
Pressure Seekers – For kids who crave pressure via heavy hugs, rough housing, climbing inappropriately, or who use too much force when manipulating objects, try the following activities that increase body awareness and safe interactions while playing:
- Throw, pass, and catch games with weighted balls (one to four pounds, depending on the child’s age and strength).
- Tug of War games with pulling, pushing, and safe “crashing” (use bean bags).
- Treasure hunt through house or backyard (use wheel barrel walking, and/or commando, crab, and bear crawling for heavy input/pressure while searching).
- Use molding clay to create sculptures with varying amounts of force required to form different shapes.
For additional recommendations on toys/games and play to enhance sensory processing visit MPowerMeToys.com