ADHD Comorbidities & Related Conditions

Sensory Processing Disorder: Treatment Options

Treatment for sensory processing disorder typically includes occupational therapy, introduction of a sensory diet, and sensory integration challenges that train the brain to respond differently to stimulation from the senses.

A child with sensory processing disorder covers her head with her shirt because sensory input is overwhelming
A child with sensory processing disorder covers her head with her shirt because sensory input is overwhelming

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is not linked to IQ. Children with the condition are no more or less intelligent than their peers. However, in order to learn, these kids must be taught information in ways their sensory processing systems can absorb. Additionally, occupational therapists can help children learn appropriate responses to certain stimuli.

SPD treatment consists of working with an occupational therapist on activities that help retrain the senses. Often, therapists use a sensory integration (SI) approach that begins in a controlled, stimulating environment. They use fun, stimulating activities to challenge a child’s senses without overwhelming them or linking stimulation to feelings of failure. Over time, the goal is to extend these learned, appropriate responses outside of the clinic to home, school, and life.

Treatment may include a “sensory diet” wherein activities are introduced in a gentle, fun way in order to ease into a range of sensations. This approach is most effective when parents practice these activities at home. It may also include listening therapy (LT), which involves listening to a variety of sound frequencies and patterns to stimulate the brain. Both occupational therapy and LT use principles of the theory of neuroplasticity, which posits the brain can change based on experience. For some, it involves years of therapy; others need less therapy to manage symptoms.

Sometimes children who have successfully managed symptoms with therapy may find they need additional treatment as they get older and reach new life challenges. Going to college could trigger the onset of new symptoms, or a particularly stressful job. Additional therapy and counseling can help reestablish control over symptoms by growing understanding and providing new strategies for adapting to novel environments.

Alternative Treatments

Some find that alternative treatments such as acupuncture help to alleviate symptoms of SPD as part of a holistic treatment program, though research has not confirmed the effectiveness of this approach. Brushing, or the Wilbarger protocol, and craniosacral manipulation have also proven helpful as complementary therapies for some individuals. Any alternative treatment should be administered under the supervision of a qualified therapist.

Sensory organizing is a system parents can use to prioritize a child’s needs and create an environment that maximizes strengths and minimizes challenges. This involves prioritizing tasks and routines into short and simple steps. Putting clean laundry away could be: bring laundry to room, separate clothes into groups, put clothes into bins as marked. For children who are overstimulated, parents should take steps to limit the sensory information they take in.

Sound-blocking headphones may help regulate the noise in the environment, as can other tools that make stimuli less invasive. Wearing tag-free clothing that is loose fitting can help. Placing a fragrant sachet in your pocket to cover offending odors, or a scarf to cover your nose are good strategies as well. Your child may want to wear sunglasses under bright lights, and you should take frequent breaks travelling to large, overwhelming places. Get creative in the kitchen and prepare unappealing foods in ways that mask their texture.

Sensory zones can help people who need lots of sensory input. Soft fabric blocks to crash into, or a rice bin to dig for things with your hands. These zones can give kids a sensory break that can help them focus and get back to work.

Here are some other suggested strategies for children:

1. The hyperactive, sensory-seeking child: Get him to carry the laundry basket, push the shopping cart, or bring in the grocery bags from the car.

2. The tactile-sensitive child: Do finger-painting activities at the kitchen table and let him draw pictures on the bathtub walls with shaving cream.

3. The child with a poor sense of space and balance: Swimming, horseback riding, and jumping on a trampoline all help.