Sensory Processing Disorder

How to Treat Sensory Processing Disorder

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

A boy works with an occupational therapist to manage symptoms of sensory processing disorder
A boy works with an occupational therapist to manage symptoms of sensory processing disorder

Each person with sensory processing disorder (SPD) has unique needs and sensory difficulties. The first step on the road to treatment is to determine which senses are over- or under-sensitive. Then, working with a trained therapist, children and adults can develop strategies to cope. Make sure to find a therapist with training in sensory integration. Some doctors don’t recognize it as a condition, and may poo-poo your or your child’s struggles.

Treating SPD with Therapy

SPD treatment often means working with an occupational therapist on activities that help retrain the senses. Many therapists use a sensory integration (OT-SI) approach that begins in a controlled, stimulating environment, and focuses on making SPD easier to manage in day-to-day life. OT-SI uses fun, stimulating activities to challenge patients’ 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 with patients who practice at home. Depending on the senses affected, therapy may also include:

  • Physical therapy using a sensory integration approach (PT-SI)
  • Vision therapy to improve eye-motor skills for people who have trouble reading, merging into traffic, or writing
  • Listening therapy (LT), which asks people with auditory issues to listen to a variety of sound frequencies and patterns to stimulate the brain while doing other motor tasks like walking on a balance beam
  • Psychotherapy for people who have developed a mood disorder or anxiety because of SPD
  • Speech and language therapy

The goal of all these therapies is to improve everyday life skills including:

  • How you touch and are touched
  • How you move and are moved
  • Bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body together)
  • Eye motor skills (how you read/watch a ball coming towards you)

Both occupational therapy and LT use principles of the theory of neuroplasticity, which contends that the brain can change based on experience. For some, it involves years of therapy; others need less therapy to manage symptoms.

Some 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 or working in a particularly stressful job could trigger the onset of new symptoms. Additional therapy and counseling can help re-establish control over symptoms as environments and circumstances change.

Treating SPD with Medication

Medication is not recommended to treat SPD.

Treating SPD with Lifestyle Changes

Some patients find that pairing therapy with alternative treatments such as acupuncture helps to alleviate symptoms of SPD, though research has not confirmed the effectiveness of this holistic 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 designed to prioritize a patients needs and create an environment that maximizes strengths and minimizes challenges. This involves prioritizing tasks and routines into short and simple steps that limit the sensory exposure an easily over-stimulated patient must endure. Putting away clean laundry, for example, could break down into: bring laundry to room, separate clothes into groups, put clothes into bins as marked.

Sound-blocking headphones may help regulate environmental noise, as can other tools designed to 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 wearing a scarf to cover your nose are also good strategies. Allow your child to wear sunglasses under bright lights, and take frequent breaks when visiting large, overwhelming places together. In the kitchen, consider investing in a cookbook like Deceptively Delicious or The Sneaky Chef to learn strategies for making healthy foods more appealing to sensitive children.

For individuals who crave and seek out sensory input, many professionals recommend creating a sensory zone with fabric blocks to crash into, or a rice bin filled with buried treasure. These zones can give kids a sensory break that can help them focus and get back to learning. 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.

For adolescents and adults who experience under-stimulation, intense activities can help: running, swimming hard, jumping on a trampoline, and martial arts. People who are easily overstimulated find relief from reading, listing to music, stroking a cat, or gardening.

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