Working with Children with Sensory Processing Disorders as a School-Based Therapist

If you’re working as a school-based occupational, physical, or speech therapist, at some point, you’re likely to work with children with sensory processing disorder. Although it may vary, children on the autism spectrum often have sensory processing disorder. But the condition can also affect kids who are not on the autism spectrum.

Sensory processing disorder involves either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli. The disorder can affect any sense including taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell. Some children may have hypersensitivity to one type of stimuli, such as touch. For other children, more than one sense may be involved. Usually, to be diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, the condition must interfere with everyday functioning.

How Sensory Processing Disorder Affects Kids

Children who have sensory processing disorder may have a variety of symptoms that vary in severity. It is more common for kids to have an overreaction to stimuli or a hypersensitivity than the opposite response.  Children who are hypersensitive may have the following symptoms:

  • Easily distracted
  • Can’t sit still
  • Fearful of touch or games that may involve touch, such as tag
  • Aware of background noise more than others
  • Poor balance or coordination

Although less common, some children also have hyposensitivity to stimuli. Symptoms may include:

  • Indifference to pain
  • Invading the personal space of others
  • Constant need to touch things
  • May not understand their own strength and end up hurting others

Tips for Successful Therapy

The goal for working with children with sensory processing disorder is to develop strategies so students can reach their full academic potential. But therapy can also help a child socially and emotionally. Whether you are a physical, occupational, or speech therapist, there are several things you can do to help the students you are working with.

Avoid sensory overload in the classroom: If too much is going on during a therapy session, it can overload your student. Make sure you limit noise and distractions as much as possible. Avoid sitting a child near a window where they may start looking outside or be distracted by bright sunlight.

Allow sensory breaks: Children should ideally have therapy after having a break for recess or physical education. Depending on the length of your session, consider allowing your students a short break to stretch a little.

Implement calming techniques: Depending on the student, different techniques may work to calm a child. Fidgeting toys and listening to calming music may help in some cases.

Be consistent: Order is often soothing for children with sensory processing disorder. That doesn’t mean you should do the same things each session. Instead, try to be consistent; conduct therapy at the same time and place each session if your schedule allows.

Consider visual aids: Although it can vary, children with sensory processing disorder are often visual learners. Consider using games, apps, and books during therapy. Specifically, designed apps are available, which address many issues related to sensory processing.

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