There's something up with a child you know. She is clumsy, picky, always on the move, or perpetually flopped in a chair like a wet noodle. He is impulsive, intense, and quirky. Maybe this child has a learning disability, ADHD, or autism, or maybe not. Why are everyday sensations so distressing to him? Can she really "hear" the fluorescent lights that she claims are distracting her?

It's very likely that this child you're concerned about has sensory processing disorder, also known as SPD or sensory integration dysfunction. An estimated 1 in 20 children have this disorder. Almost all children with autism have SPD as well.

This child's nervous system is wired atypically so that his body processes everyday sensations differently. His senses don't give him an accurate picture of what's going on in his body and his world, so he's prone to anxiety, distractibility, impulsivity, and frustration. A child with SPD will tune out or act out when overstimulated. The need for sensory input such as movement and touch can be so overpowering that the child truly can't control his need to seek it out. Many of us have difficulty tuning out background noise in a busy restaurant so we can focus on a conversation, or we prefer clothes that are tight or loose. These are sensory preferences. When a child's sensory issues interfere significantly with learning and playing, he needs the help of an occupational therapist, a sensory diet, and a sensory smart adult who can teach him how to feel more comfortable in his body and environment.

Fortunately, many of the accommodations that can make a huge difference in the life of a child who has sensory issues are simple and inexpensive. Here are just a few:

1. Cut out clothing tags, turn socks inside out or buy seamless ones, and avoid clothing with embroidery and elastic that may feel irritating to the child.

2. To help him tolerate the intense sensation of having his teeth brushed, offer the child nonfoaming toothpaste and try desensitizing his mouth and lips by using a vibrating toothbrush or even just gently pressing a hand-held vibrator against his cheek, jaws, and lips before attempting to brush.

3. To calm and focus a child with sensory issues, you may need to use deep pressure against the skin as you compress her joints. Hug her, or press pillows against her body or rolling her up in a blanket to play "burrito." However, always pay attention to what a child is telling you, in words or body language, about her response to sensory input. Don't upset her with unwanted touch.

4. In school or at home, allow him to sit on an exercise ball or an inflatable cushion, with a smooth or bumpy surface, to give him extra input to his body. This will meet the movement needs of a child who just has to be able to squirm and enhance his body awareness, allowing him to focus better.

5. Let the child separate different foods on his plate and eat them without mixing together foods of different textures. The skin in the mouth of a child with sensory issues can be exquisitely sensitive, making her a picky eater. You may have better luck getting her to eat a steamed green vegetable or raw carrot stick rather than a peanut butter sandwich.

6. Provide the child with quiet getaways to retreat to when the sensory onslaught of everyday life is too much. Let her sit alone with you in a car outside of a party or noisy restaurant, or in a quiet, darkened room, listening to relaxing music on a personal music player.

A pediatric occupational therapist, trained and experienced in helping children with sensory issues, can work with parents and teachers to plan and carry out activities for the child that can help him or her function better at home, at school, and away. She can also help problem solve and discover accommodations that will ease the child's discomfort. Whether working on a consultation basis, in a "sensory gym" nearby, at home or at school, the right sensory smart OT can make a huge difference in the life of a child with sensory processing disorder.

copyright (c) 2010 Nancy Peske

The information contained in this article is provided as a public service. It is for informational and educational purposes only. This information should not be construed as personal medical advice. Because each person's health needs are different, a health care professional should be consulted before acting on any information provided in these materials. Although every effort is made to ensure that this material is accurate and up-to-date, it is provided for the convenience of the user and should not be considered definitive.

Author's Bio: 

OTR/L, of the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, recently expanded and rereleased by Penguin Books and available at bookstores everywhere. Her son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (sensory integration dysfunction) and multiple developmental delays at age 2. For more information, visit and