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Sensory Integration in Youth

This week my co-host Anna and I had an interesting interview on our 7th podcast episode of “One Day You’ll Thank Me,” with Erin Grujic, Occupational Therapist with Sensational Path. We dove deep into her work with sensory integration to help our listeners understand what it is and how it affects kids, (really all of us) in our daily lives, as we interact with people and our environment.

So what exactly is an occupational therapist? How do they support their clients?

How Erin describes it.... we all have every day activities we take part in and occupational therapists assist people who need extra support in doing those activities. They provide help and also modify things when needed, so the individual can participate fully in their day to day routines.

Erin shared with us that her practice is focused on sensory integration, specifically in children ages 3-6. In her twenty years in occupational therapy, she has found that if a child has sensory challenges and they are not addressed in those early years, the problem will continue on into their teens and even adulthood.

I wanted to make sure our audience understands in practical terms how this affects individuals so we asked Erin to start with the basics of explaining what sensory integration is...

How she described it...our brain organizes the sensory input in our environment and the sensory input that our body is processing, sensory integration is how the brain organizes those sensations for use. When you touch something hot, your brain tells you it's hot, but let's say you are wearing socks that are fuzzy, and your brain doesn’t process that right, sometimes fuzzys are misinterpreted as something dangerous or uncomfortable.

This sensory input directs the sensations where to go, the brain makes sense of it and then we produce an action or activity. We all deal with sensory information in different ways, but when it gets in the way of day to day functioning is when we need to get help.

Erin notes that we have 7-8 sensory systems and some (or all) of these sensory systems can become easily overloaded, impacting our functioning if our brain misinterprets this sensory information as negative. If this happens, kids can get distressed, resulting in a fight-or-flight response that leads to crying, tantrums, covering their ears, refusing to participate, running away, or showing anger. Erin observes that quarantine--the disruption of routine--is contributing to an abbreviated "window of tolerance."

Erin provides a helpful analogy about us all having a "cup" that needs to be filled with sensory information. If the cup isn't completely filled (kids are under-stimulated), kids can seek more input. If the cup is overflowing, kids can get overwhelmed easily and want to avoid sensory stimulation.

How do kids develop sensory integration problems?

A premature birth, any type of traumatic birth where they are immediately put into light and poked and prodded can create sensory integration problems. There are also kids that had a typical birth, but didn’t have the experiences (exploring, being active) in their environment in the early years where sensory issues were created.

Kids benefit from having parents who can be responsive to their child's sensory needs. I shared how I had to modify my parenting style with my son, as he demonstrated sensory sensitivity as an infant and toddler. He found loud noises and having sun in his eyes to be distressing. I also relate to this, as I am sensitive to loud noises, sun in my eyes, fans blowing on me, etc.

Are kids with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, anxiety, or ADHD more susceptible to sensory integration difficulties?

Erin says that all of these types of diagnoses can affect sensory sensitivity, integration or even sensory seeking. These kids may have difficulty sitting still, processing information, and staying focused. I know in my practice, I have parents coming to me with children that have poor emotional regulation, under developed coping skills, and intense emotional reactions. It can be very confusing for the child, and parent who is not sure how to calm them down or react to negative behaviors and rule breaking.

Erin notes that there is always a reason for a behavior, it's essential to figure out the "function" of kids' behavior---what need are they trying to meet? For example, they may be seeking attention, sensory input, or avoidance of unpleasant tasks. We want kids to have an increased "bandwidth" to tolerate sensory information.

What strategies can parents use in the home environment to support their children's sensory development?

- recognizing triggers that set your child off

- using strategies to increase their bandwidth, or tolerance, of these triggers so kids can stay at their "just right" level, for example different physical exercises

- make sure to PLAY with your kids; let them get messy and be a little bit risky

- help your kids co-regulate---adjust their environment to set the stage for success

What are some indicators that can help determine whether it's necessary to consult an OT about your child's sensory issues?

When you start noticing behaviors interfering with function in the home and their life:

  • not meeting milestones

  • having trouble academically/trouble learning new things

  • clumsy, falling frequently

  • limited play (play the same thing over and over)

  • speaking and language issues

Erin notes that OT's can provide a comprehensive assessment to determine whether a child could benefit from intervention from an OT. Based on the results they can suggest tips or in the more extreme situations they can provide one-on-one services.

To hear the entire podcast, click here: Occupational Therapist, Sensory Integration in Youth

You can find more information about Erin and her mobile clinic at Sensational Path.

To learn more about Dr. Egan's online mini-course called "Managing Your Family's Technology and Social Media", created to help parents eliminate power struggles, keep your family safe from internet misuse, and reconnect with your family, please click RIGHT HERE.

To hear the podcast in its entirety go to COVID-19, Teens, & Social Media

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