Finding Treatments for Sensory Processing Disorder
What does one do for a child who perceives and experiences the world differently than most people?
This question on the minds of every parent of a child with a sensory processing disorder (SPD) does not have an easy answer. Very few scientific studies have been conducted on interventions for SPD, so parents and providers don’t have a lot of evidence to pull from when looking for evidence-based treatments. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in fact, “recommends pediatricians communicate with families about the limited data on the use of sensory-based therapies.”
Without definitive evidence of the effectiveness of one treatment over another, parents and providers are exploring and experimenting with a variety of treatments reported to help kids with SPD. Here are five of the most common:
Occupational therapists (OTs) are healthcare professionals who help people learn to function effectively in their everyday lives. OTs who work with children with SPD help them develop better body control. They help kids handle sensory input and work on appropriate behavioral and physical responses to stimuli.
The techniques occupational therapists use when treating kids with SPD vary depending on the child’s needs and the experience of the therapist. Common techniques include “brushing” (which involves applying deep pressure to the child’s body via a soft-bristled brush) and movement activities, such as spinning, jumping and swinging.
OTs help children develop fine motor skills, self-care skills (such as dressing and brushing teeth), and hand-eye coordination. Occupational therapists also help children and their parents identify appropriate adaptations and accommodations.
Some specialized centers and occupational therapists offer listening therapy, which may improve kids’ ability to process sounds. Such programs typically involve children listening to music through headphones for about 60 minutes, a few times per week. The music incorporates specific sound and vibration patterns, and children are encouraged to engage in visual-motor activities (such as coloring and balance and core-strength developing activities) while listening.
One study of seven children who received this type of therapy found it may improve the functioning of children with SPD, but it is unclear from the study if the changes noted were caused by the intervention or other factors.
While not typically recommended as a stand-alone treatment for SPD, “floortime”—described as an adult spending 20 or so minutes interacting with the child, following the child’s lead—has been advocated as a way to improve the sensory regulation abilities of children with SPD.
Whether or not the treatment works as a specific intervention for SPD, most children thrive under the attention of a caring adult. For instance, research has shown that children learn verbal and non-verbal communication skills most readily when in direct interaction with an adult.
A computer-based program, interactive metronome is a therapy designed to help children adapt their response to external stimuli. The interactive metronome establishes a specific rhythm, which is played to the child via a headphone. The child is asked to perform a physical task, such as clapping, in time to the rhythm, and the computer program gives auditory or visual feedback regarding how well the child synched his or her actions to the beat. Over time, children learn to adjust their actions to better align with the beat, which proponents say helps reduce over-responsivity and enhance body awareness.
A “sensory diet” is a daily plan of sensory intervention, designed for children with SPD to manage their hyper- or hypo-sensitives. The plan is tailored to the needs of each child, and includes interventions that have been found to be effective or soothing for that individual child. A sensory diet may include swinging time, the use of a vibrating toothbrush, daily outside time at a local playground, the use of a weighted blanket, and quiet time. Sensory diets can be adapted over time to a child’s changing needs.
When considering SPD treatment, ask about the experience and qualifications of the provider. Talk to other parents to learn more about their experiences with