Many activities can provide needed vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (body awareness) sensory input for children with sensory processing disorder. A sensory smart pediatric occupational therapist can design a unique sensory diet for your child that incorporates such activities, which will help keep a child's sensory needs met throughout the day and, over time, actually retrain his system to function more typically. Alas, parents often find themselves frustrated by their child's unwillingness to participate in activities that would seem perfect for meeting the child's sensory needs. This makes it difficult to carry through the sensory diet at home and at school when the OT is not there coaxing and coaching the child.
It can be a challenge to find activities that provide movement (vestibular input) and compression and pulling apart of joints (proprioceptive input) that the child with sensory issues will willingly engage in. In part, this is due to the increased anxiety children with SPD and / or autism experience (remember, children with autism almost always have sensory processing issues but a child can have sensory processing disorder without having autism). Often, individualized sports and private lessons, such as bowling or swimming, where the child does not feel she has to compete with others who are more coordinated than she is, are a good bet. Physical activities that incorporate other interests, such as dancing to music she likes, can be excellent choices because the child's natural appeal to some aspect of the activity may help get her past anxiety about her lack of body awareness and coordination. Martial arts and yoga work well for many kids with SPD, in part because they can be individualized and involve body awareness and minimal stimulation (for instance, there is not a lot of noise or children moving about quickly when they practice).
At school, the child with SPD (sensory processing disorder) may need an adaptive gym class at school in order to be able to get the sensory input needs without going into sensory overload, withdrawal, or becoming upset and even aggressive.
Whether at school, at home, or away, always consider the environment in which your child with sensory issues is exercising. Is it echoey, with the squeak of sneakers against a hardwood floor? Can she stand the smell of chlorine at the pool? Think about ways to alter the environment so she can better tolerate it. Perhaps your child would be better off with a dance class that involves quieter music, no mirrors, and a smaller group. Pools that are kept clean without chlorine and activities in an open field, large room with few echoes, or on a near empty playground may be less distracting for her.
If the child is verbal, ask him what is making him related to engage in the activity. It may be that his system needs to be perked up with energizing music or a little super sour candy because he is in a state of low arousal. Or, it may be that he is feeling hypersensitive and uncomfortable in his body, and needs some calming, focusing activities before engaging in something more active and stimulating.
Planning for the activity, giving concrete information and details about what is involved and the sequence of activities, and working with the coach or teacher to accommodate your child's reluctance can make it easier for your child with sensory processing issues to push himself to get the sensory input his system needs. Whenever possible, work with a sensory smart OT who can observe your child, analyze what is holding him back, and help you to strategize ways to get him moving. You might be surprised at how much your OT is able to get your child to do in the low-pressure, inviting environment of a sensory gym where he is free from the eyes of curious onlookers and is receiving support for working through his anxiety as he tries new activities. Once past his initial fear of, say, a swing, he may be willing to try it out in a different environment, such as on the playground.
Every child's sensory needs are different. The more you and your OT know about your child and ways to accommodate his needs with clever strategies, activities, and toys and equipment that make movement fun, the easier it will be to meet his sensory needs. Over time, these activities will increase his comfort in his body and environment. Develop sensory smarts and you can help your child to do so as well.
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