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Sensory Processing Disorder in Kids

Some children are hypersensitive to – or detached from – everyday sights, sounds, touches and tastes. Here's a look at SPD, and how southeast Michigan therapy helps.

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With SPDs, occupational therapists deploy a variety of techniques designed to desensitize response – or, in some cases, increase sensitivity. It can be as simple as having a child sit on a ball, use a swing or trampoline. In some cases, it applies pressure to areas of the body that are under-aware.

"A lot of times it looks like play, but there's a lot behind the play," says Stephanie Ramser, an occupational therapist with the Building Bridges Therapy Center in Plymouth. The "play" therapy assists the child with improving motor coordination, balance and awareness of touch, Ramser says.

"The outcome we would like is to improve their ability throughout the day, whether it's to be able to get dressed themselves or to read and write."

Therapy tactics and goals

Occupational therapists focus on three areas in a child with SPD: balance, body awareness and tactile awareness.

Typical therapies might include deep pressure to the joints and muscles, deep hugs, brushing with a soft surgical-type brush, swinging, pushing and pulling – all designed to restore balance to the body and mind.

"When we treat these children, I use an eclectic approach, utilizing sensory integration theories and others," Ramser says.

She adds that it's critical to rule out other conditions before embarking on a treatment plan. The "on-the-go kid," or the child who is constantly in motion is often misdiagnosed as having ADD.

"You can make a difference by adding sensory in," Ramser says. "If a child is running around all the time, we might give him a sensory diet to give him what he needs throughout the day, so he can focus and perform tasks. A child with ADD would most likely not benefit from that."

Occupational therapists say they often prescribe a program of therapies at home, like having the child carry a heavy laundry basket, turning off the TV or radio and getting rid of fluorescent light bulbs – which often irritate a child with SPD, says Becky Medcraft, an occupational therapist at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital's outpatient clinic in Chesterfield Township.

"What I try to do is educate the parents on observing the child, seeing what sensory input the child is seeking, and trying to provide that sensation in an appropriate manner," she says. "It's a lot of follow-through at home."

Slow and steady

Medcraft, too, uses a variety of clinical approaches. Some work; others don't.

"Sometimes, you get a response within a few weeks – and they're subtle responses. A child may take a shower and may put their face in the water, or they may take a shower versus taking a bath. Even getting in a car isn't a struggle," she says.

"Other times, it's not so quick – and we may begin to wonder if there's something else impairing sensory integration and we need to do something different."

Medcraft cautions against jumping to conclusions about a child.

"When you have (SPD), it interferes with daily activities," she says. "I wouldn't want every parent to think that if their kid is sitting in front of the TV not doing anything, they have (SPD) – or if the child is extremely active, it doesn't mean they have (SPD)."

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