Sensory Processing Awareness Month: an interview with an occupational therapist

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October is Sensory Processing Awareness Month. In recognition of all the kids out there struggling with sensory input, we interviewed an Occupational Therapist to get the inside scoop on what Sensory Processing Disorder is and how we can help our kids if they’re struggling with this.

Spoiler Alert: Most of us have some sensory processing quirks. So even if your kiddo doesn’t have SPD, there’s still a lot of great info in this interview.

Interview with an Occupational Therapist

Sensory Path GardenToday we’re interviewing Katie Fortney, an Occupational Therapist for the Fort Atkinson School District in Wisconsin. She earned her Masters Degree in Occupational Therapy (OTR) from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since then, she’s worked in a school setting with students attending 4K (Pre-K, Arizona friends) through fifth grade.

She works part time with students with various needs, including, but not limited to, autism, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, Down syndrome, and sensory processing disorders. When she’s not at work, she’s dreaming up new ideas for her school’s sensory path garden, spending time with her husband, playing with their two sons, and snuggling puppies.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Process Disorder (SPD) affects your senses and how you respond to sensory stimuli that your body takes in from the environment. We all know about the five senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing), but your body also has other senses called the vestibular system and your proprioceptive system. Your vestibular system is your inner ear. It helps you with your body awareness and tells you if you are spinning or not. Your proprioceptive system is in your muscles and joints. This system tells you how hard or soft you are pushing on something and also gives you cues about your body awareness.

Someone with SPD is either under-responsive or over-responsive to the sensory information their body is taking in. It can affect one sense or multiple, and can change from situation to situation. Many children can make great improvements in the way their body responds to sensory information by going through specialized therapy with a trained Occupational Therapist (OT).

What are some indicators that a child may have Sensory Processing Disorder?

Many of us have some sensory “quirks” and are not always fully regulated. Over time, we may find ways to self-regulate to get through those challenges. For example, many people doodle, twirl their hair, or chew gum to help stay focused while listening to someone speak. 

Having just a few sensory quirks does not mean you have SPD. However, when these things start to interfere with daily life and functioning, it’s time to consider additional assistance.

This Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist can serve as a starting point to determine if you or your child are experiencing difficulties. If you find yourself checking “yes” to many of these behaviors, talk with your child’s pediatrician and inquire about a referral for an Occupational Therapy evaluation. An OT who is familiar with SPD will be able to assist you in determining why these behaviors may be happening and if SPD is the reason. They will also be able to work with you and your child to develop strategies to overcome some of these challenges.

What does an Occupational Therapist do, especially in regard to Sensory Processing Disorders?

An Occupational Therapist (OT) wears many hats. It’s my job to help assist each child to regulate and deal with the sensory information they’re taking in throughout the day, so they can function at their greatest potential. Since I work in a school setting, I especially support my students to function within their classroom, as well as at lunch, recess, and gym.

An OT working with someone with SPD works with the child to develop very specialized therapy. Each child with sensory difficulties looks different, so their therapy is customized.

An OT can also work in a clinic, hospital, or even within someone’s home, depending on the person’s needs.

What are the best things a family can do after a child is diagnosed with SPD?

Make a note of any behaviors and be open and honest with your child’s pediatrician. They should be able to refer you to an OT. Children with SPD can make great improvements and overcome many challenges with the right interventions and the opportunity to do so.

Working with an OT to determine the optimal treatment and therapy strategies is going to be the best thing you can do for a child with SPD. Early intervention proves time and time again to be so beneficial for these kids.

If you’re not yet working with an OT, you can provide a variety of play experiences at home. This is important for any growing child, but especially for a child with SPD. Allow them to get dirty, explore a variety of materials and textures, climb, run, jump, swim, and roll.

What are your top five sensory tool recommendations?

Thousands of sensory items and toys have flooded the market over the last few years. Working with an Occupational Therapist can help you pick the best tools to benefit your individual child. 

Here are a few Sensory Tools that are inexpensive, or even free:

  1. Read The Out of Sync Child. This book gives an excellent overall explanation of the sensory system and some great tools for a variety of situations. As a parent, you know your child the best. The more you educate yourself, the better advocate you can be.
  2. Swim! Swimming incorporates so many senses and provides your body with constant sensory input. It’s also great for improving coordination and breath regulation.
  3. Read Tools for TotsThis book provides a list of strategies for each sense system as well as tips for handling various sensory behaviors – for example: picky eaters, toe-walkers, and tots who hate haircuts. The book is geared toward toddlers and preschoolers. 
  4. Use a sensory or water tablePlaying with a sensory table offers so much variety. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to create this experience – a small plastic tub will work, too. A search for what to add to a sensory table will provide you with a plethora of ideas on how to change it up for the seasons – seeds, water, leaves, ice, etc.
  5. Play at the park! Playgrounds offer such a great variety of input for your child’s sensory system. Challenge them by offering new ways to interact with the playground – while keeping a close eye on their safety, of course! Try hopping across a feature, rather than walking. Get from one place to another without touching certain places in between. Or (gasp!), try climbing up the slide if nobody is coming down!

Using Sensory Tools

Whether your child is diagnosed with SPD or could just use a little more sensory exploration in their life, our Sensory Tools Shopping Guide can give you some ideas on where to get started. Again, if you’re already working with an OT, they’ll be able to suggest specific tools that will benefit your child the most.

Sensory tools don’t have to stay in the Occupational Therapy room. After attending Curriculum Night in a Kindergarten class, I was overjoyed to see they had ways to incorporate movement and release some of their busy five-year-old energy throughout the day – fidget bands on each chair, a small trampoline, and more! 

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