How Occupational Therapy Changed Our Family

As you may know, my husband and I are raising a Spirited Child. That has been its own journey, and it's full of laughter, joy, hardship, and patience. Today, I want to talk about something that can frequently go hand-in-hand with Spirit, and is lesser known, but could ultimately be the missing piece of a puzzle for you and your child. That's Sensory Processing Disorder and Occupational Therapy.

Some of you may have heard about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) as being associated with autism and the spectrum. In fact, this was how I associated it at first. I remember being on a Spirited Child group on Facebook and seeing all the parenting talking about SPD and literally thinking "Thank god I don't have to deal with that!" Hahaha laughed the parenting gods. 

The thing is, I didn't know much about it, how it could present, and mostly importantly, how identifying SPD and engaging in Occupational Therapy (OT) could make such a stunning difference for my child and our family. Because of my experience, I feel a strong responsibility to speak about OT to all parents, educators, and practitioners because it can be a total game-changer. My daughter is currently four years old, so we are lucky to be in this position from a young age where we can help her come up with confidence! But remember, it's NEVER too late to start your sensory journey!

My lightbulb moment.... 
A friend of mine commented in on a Facebook status about something totally unrelated and said her child had Oral Sensory Processing issues. I immediately messaged her and asked if she was raising a Spirited Child. Our conversation, and her generosity of spirit and openness with me, opened a panacea of information for me. A lightbulb went off in my head as I realized, "Oh my gosh--her kid is what I would classify as bright, fun, and like most other children." That was when it first dawned on me that maybe my child could have SPD as well. Not all children will have other developmental issues and have SPD. There is a broad spectrum when it comes to SPD and children can effected in different ways. The field is vast, people!

So, what is it? 
According to the Star Institute, it is defined as "SPD is a neurophysiologic condition in which sensory input either from the environment or from one’s body is poorly detected, modulated, or interpreted and/or to which atypical responses are observed. Pioneering occupational therapist and psychologist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly."

We have seven (not five!) senses where we get input in our bodies. The two that aren't always talked widely about are proprioception and vestibular senses. These are body awareness and movement. The other five that we are often more familiar with are tactile (touch), visual, audio, oral (gustatory), and olfactory (smell.) When a child has SPD, one or several of these can have trouble integrating.

Children can avoid certain things, like the feeling of getting their shirt wet or the texture of a certain kind of food, or they can seek out more sensory experiences to satisfy an unmet need, like rough housing to feel deeper pressure. For our child, who has proprioceptive, vestibular, and oral issues, she wasn't able to articulate, "Gee, I have no idea where my body is in space and I need pressure on chest and limbs!" And it's no wonder--what adult could even articulate that?!

How symptoms present
For our daughter, The Bird, some symptoms were obvious and some were not. The biggest symptom that was causing issue was anxiety. Mornings before school were especially hard, despite implementing a positive reinforcement system, gentle parenting, and new communication style. Sometimes my daughter would cry the whole time at school! Turns out, there is a huge connection between anxiety and SPD, and ultimately this is what pushed us to get a sensory evaluation. Through working with our school's Child Mental Health Consultant, who wanted us to attend therapy, I realized that before we went that route, we should get a Sensory Evaluation.

There were other things that seemed like personality quirks, but turned out to be SPD symptoms. For example, she was always licking her hands, chewing her toys, and mouthing other items. She also loves spinning in circles, rough housing, was sometimes rough with other children, and would get wound up to the point of no return. The Bird loves a good mess, and was always seeking to make them.

Some less obvious symptoms that were a direct result of SPD were performance based. For instance, she wasn't able to participate in school activities without great difficulty. Circle time and sitting still were a challenge, or telling the teacher what a certain color was near impossible, despite the fact that she knew all her colors. Not to mention meltdowns, which were simply due to her inability to soothe herself and her sensory needs.

The Sensory Diet 
After getting our Sensory Evaluation, we began what is called a "Sensory Diet." The Sensory Diet is basically a series of exercises and activities that are highly individualized to meet your child's specific needs. For us, it looks (something) like this:
Brushing each limb 10 times (in a downward motion away from the body)
Joint compression
Wiggling legs and arms (with a song) 
Tapotement on the back 

Brushing each limb 
Deep Massage
Joint compression 

As needed/ Throughout the day (before any special occasion) 
Tapotement on the back 
Wiggling arms
Sensory Tube 
Bouncing on a ball 
Bear hugs
Log Rolls 
Squishing between pillows (we call this game "ice cream sandwich") 

There are also some things we do all the time that help a great deal. For example, brushing teeth was always a huge ordeal for us. Since our OT recommended an electric toothbrush, I've not had a problem. Also, the hand licking was an issue during flu season, but since understanding her sensory needs we got her chew necklaces (more about this in an upcoming post!) And we now use tools like her sensory tube, a weighted blanket and weights for her to use on her lap at school and in the car. All these things help tremendously. 

I also am pretty diligent to offer sensory experiences whenever I can. Play doh, kinetic sand, water (even if it's just an extra long bath), vinegar and baking soda experimentation, and good old fashioned mud puddles are ALWAYS on the menu for us. Once a day, we try to do some sort of sensory play together. 

Ongoing Process of living with SPD 
Right off the bat we experienced some pretty wonderful results. I am aware that it doesn't always work this way. If you have a child who is sensory avoiding, it can be a totally different process. For us, because she is sensory seeking, it was easier to know what she was craving and how to satisfy that. 

Through adding many of the tools and exercises, my daughter was able to go to school and felt comfortable. This happened almost immediately. The teachers and staff could hardly believe how much the OT and our sensory diet gave her relief and allowed her to participate in the classroom with such ease. She immediately felt more comfortable being away from me, even asking to do overnights with her grandparents! 

However, I do want to concede that the process is ongoing. For example, we are now in the process of changing classrooms at school because she has moved up an age group. This has been disturbing for her on a few levels and has changed her sensory needs. We have to give her extra time because she's also spirited, and routine is BIG for her. So we see some regression because of this. And that's OKAY. We just go back and re-tool the formula a little bit. 

Find Support Wherever You Can! 
I am always looking for new and creative ways to get her sensory needs met. One of my favorite websites is  There is so much great information on there! Another thing that I have found that has made this process easier is support. Everyone in my family and many of our friends are all on board. They ask us questions about sensory needs, watch and even participate with exercises! Both sets of grandparents regularly do exercises with my daughter, and my husband's mother (who sews) helps us making sensory tools (like a resistance band and a sensory tube) for my daughter to enjoy. Support is key! 

Also, we have found terrific support from my daughter's school which is also a full time daycare. They have installed a sensory cubby for her with several soothing items. They noticed she liked the tight space of sitting in the cubby, so they allow her to go there whenever she is having a hard time, or even a meltdown. They are helping her to learn to soothe and trust herself when I'm not there, and that gives me a great deal of piece of mind!