How to Engineer Better Environments for a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD
A common partner to ADHD, sensory processing disorder can cause children to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and oppositional or defiant. It may also contribute to or exacerbate other ADHD symptoms and complicate life. Use these ideas and activities to create sensory-smart environments and help a child who has fallen out of sync.
All children thrive in environments engineered for their specific needs. This principle applies especially to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even more so when it is accompanied by sensory processing disorder (SPD), a neurological condition characterized by challenges with stimuli and the senses.
What are the Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder?
A child with SPD has trouble interpreting and managing sensations delivered by the environment and his or her own body. Different children experience SPD in different ways — some may be easily overwhelmed by sensations while others are under-responsive to them; some may experience sensory discrimination and perception problems while others have sensory-motor challenges.
ADHD and SPD influence one another in no small way. A bothersome tag in a child’s shirt, or the classroom lighting, could contribute significantly to inattention and difficulties with concentration. A food sensitivity or a vision problem could heighten a child’s impulsivity.
How to Help a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder
Parents of children with ADHD and SPD should keep in mind these “3 Rs:”
RECOGNIZE that a sensory issue may underlie your child’s disorganization, inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity. Put on imaginary “sensory goggles” and ask:
- What sensations does my child avoid? Some common ones include unexpected touch or movement, t-shirt tags, lumpy mashed potatoes, sirens, and buzzing lights
- What sensations does my child actively seek? (Swinging? Jumping? Fidgeting? Chewing gum?)
- What sensations calm and organize my child? (Jogging? Hugging? Time in the tub or tight spaces?
RECHANNEL the child’s fidgets. Instead of trying to squelch the child’s energy, find a way to help him or her use that vigor in a purposeful way.
REWARD the child with specific and positive words. Praise effort and persistence.
Creating Sensory-Smart Environments for Children
Fixing a child’s physical environment with a focus on the senses can create a world of a difference for their comfort. Parents can begin with these basic steps.
- Eliminate fluorescent lights
- Reduce visual distractions by eliminating clutter
- Simplify work areas
- For homework and other worksheets, increase the type size
- Ask a doctor to check for visual processing issues. Use the College of Optometrists in Vision Development’s website (COVD.org) to find a developmental optometrist in your area
- Ask a doctor to check for hyperacusis — increased sensitivity to sound frequencies and ranges
- Try earmuffs and/or noise cancelling headphones briefly — we don’t want the child’s brain to recalibrate so that normal noises become even more unbearable
Drown out distracting external noises with sounds that are acceptable to the child (mynoise.net is great for this)
- Consider speaking to an occupational therapist about a therapeutic listening program to help exercise the ears and strengthen tolerance
- Focus on tactile desensitization work for hypersensitive children. Give the child hand fidgets (can help tons with focus) and weighted objects
- Buy seamless socks and tagless clothes
- Keep chewing gum on hand
Easy and Fun Movement and Sensory Break Ideas
The brain-and-body activities listed below also work to engage the child, build tolerance to problem sensations and sensitivities in healthy ways, and improve physical skills, concentration, and mental development.
- Jump rope
- Set up mini obstacle courses at home (jump over boxes, hula hoop, crawl)
- Set up “crash pads” — cushions on the floor so kids can jump and fall
- Bounce on a therapy or Hopper ball (#CommissionsEarned)
- Use a Goliath Zoomball (#CommissionsEarned)— a ball that travels back and forth on two handles when the player separates their arms
- Stretches: arm circles, back stretches
- Resistive/deep-pressure activities: Running to the wall and pressing up or against it or “holding it up” or using stretchy resistance bands to wrap around the body and make shapes
Children can also work on sensory challenges by doing chores and other activities around the house. It’s an easy way to integrate sensory activities into daily life while helping them build essential life skills. Some examples include:
- Cooking: Have the child wear disposable gloves to roll dough or mold cookies. That way, if tactile issues make it uncomfortable for them to touch things, they can get sensory input without messing with the receptors on their hands.
- “Heavy” lifting: Children with SPD tend to have low muscle tone; activities that require somewhat heavy lifting are best to work on this. Hauling mulch as part of yard work is a great activity, as is carrying the groceries or food delivery inside.
And remember that a child should not have to earn sensory breaks. The day that they need them the most is the day they are least likely to “earn” them.
The information in this article was sourced in part from “Sensory-Smart Strategies for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD” ADDitude webinar with Carol Stock Kranowitz and Lindsey Biel, which aired on May 7, 2020.
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Updated on October 9, 2020