April is Autism Awareness Month and today is World Autism Awareness Day! There is still so much we all need to learn about autism; however, I prefer to focus on autism acceptance and celebrating differences. Increasing acceptance and normalizing differences was the driving force behind creating my children's book, Liam's First Cut. It was important to give visibility to autistic children while also showing the joy and anxiety that many neurotypicals and neurodiverse individuals experience when approaching something new.
April is also Occupational therapy month and I am thrilled to have pediatric OT Melissa DelaTorre back to shed some light on sensory play and sensory processing and integration.
As a school based occupational therapist as well as a mom of two toddlers, “sensory” is a word I hear and use quite often.. I hear it in the school environment in regards to a child's behavior in the classroom. I see it on all the parenting blogs with various sensory activities. It is exciting that it has received so much attention and recognition, but worrisome when it is being used in the wrong capacity. It is important to understand the difference between sensory processing and integration versus sensory play.
What is sensory processing and integration? Sensory processing is the perception and reaction to various stimuli within our environment. When looking at sensory processing, occupational therapists look at various systems including visual, auditory, tactile, proprioception, and vestibular. Just in reading this definition, you can see that sensory processing and integration is more than just a rice bin (which I love and admittedly make a different one for my own little ones monthly). We all know about our 5 senses but we may not know about two very important sensory systems known as proprioception and vestibular. Proprioception is our ability to perceive and understand our body position and body movements. Vestibular processing is our ability to process our body position in space and involves balance and eye movements.. A concern in sensory processing occurs when a child is either over-reactive or under-reactive to stimuli in any of the above areas.
Some signs of difficulty with sensory processing are easier to recognize than others.
Here are some easy to identify signs:
Child becomes overly upset with loud noises
Child is a very picky eater with limited food palate (especially limited textures)
Child is overly upset with messy play activities or when they become dirty
Child becomes overly upset with car rides.
Child becomes overly upset with swings and slides.
Child is fearful of climbing stairs or playground equipment.
Child becomes overly upset with different clothing textures/tags/etc.
Subtle signs include:
Difficulty falling or staying asleep
Often bumping into objects/people
Leaning on objects/people
Difficulty remaining still
Bringing objects close to eyes
It is also important to note that everyone has different sensory thresholds and different means of processing sensory information. It is only of concern when it is significantly affecting a child's success and independence in their school and home lives.
When there are concerns, it is important to have a full occupational therapy sensory evaluation as every single child is different and there is no one step, quick fix that will help each child.
What is sensory play? Now sensory play on the other hand is just that - PLAY! Sensory play is pure magic. It can include any of the sensory systems however the most broadcasted type of sensory play is what we call tactile, messy play. Think: sand, rice bin, water beads, play doh, slime, shaving cream, etc. If you have a toddler or school aged child do yourself a favor and see beyond the potential mess and try it out! Sensory play engages children to a whole different level and often has calming effects (read: 30 minutes of uninterrupted independent play...also known as a nice break for mom!) It works so well I would even call it a parenting hack.
If your child is hesitant with these activities at first- this is normal. In the beginning, my son would not touch some of my sensory bin masterpieces and I was beside myself. But after continuous exposure and teaching him “messy is fun” (a statement I have learned to regret in my household) he loves them! If you as a parent are hesitant, understand that there will be a small mess which can be easily contained and cleaned up. I always find the time spent playing outweighs the time spent cleaning up afterwards.
Beyond sensory play being a fun, engaging activity, it has endless developmental benefits as well. There is research that shows the benefits of sensory play extending to cognitive growth, language development, fine and gross motor skills, social interaction, and problem solving skills.
**Sensory Play Tips
Start with a dry, hard base (rice/sand/dry pasta/dry beans/etc.) before moving onto wet or sticky items (shaving cream, cold pasta/spaghetti/slime,etc.) as they are easier to tolerate.
Use a dollar store table cloth underneath to contain the mess.
Do activities outside or in the bathtub when possible!
Encourage fine motor development with use of various tools- kitchen spoons, tongs, tweezers, etc.
Big plastic containers are ideal for creating sensory bins.
Utilize props from the dollar store to make your sensory bins festive and fun.
Use food coloring to add interest
ALWAYS know your child’s age level and safety in regards to placing items in mouth.
So remember, if a true sensory processing concern is suspected (as described above) contact your pediatrician or an occupational therapist for a comprehensive sensory processing evaluation. And if you have toddlers and school aged children, try out some sensory play activities in your home! As my son constantly reminds me, “messy is fun!”
Thanks so much Melissa! I hope you found these tips as informative as I did! I can't wait to have some messy play with my little one.