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What is sensory processing disorder?

We asked University of Minnesota Health Occupational Therapist Megan Bresnahan to explain Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and share tips for supporting children diagnosed with the condition.
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Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is like a “traffic jam in the brain.”

That’s how University of Minnesota Health Occupational Therapist Megan Bresnahan—and other SPD experts—like to describe the condition. When a child has sensory processing issues, his or her brain may have difficulty processing all the information provided by the child’s senses. This may affect the child’s ability to respond appropriately and complete routine childhood activities, said Bresnahan, who provides care at the Adoption Medicine Clinic at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital

Children who have experienced early deprivation such as institutional care, neglect and or abuse—or those who had a chaotic early life—are at high risk to develop sensory processing disorder. Even children who did not experience early adversity may still face sensory challenges; sometimes these issues are related to other disorders or syndromes. No matter the cause, there are many activities you can offer your child at home to help support their sensory needs.

Learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder screenings and diagnosis.

Providing your child with structured sensory experiences may help them learn to better process sensory information and self-regulate their behavior, Bresnahan said. Here are some simple ideas from Bresnahan that you can incorporate into your home and daily routine to help develop your child’s sensory processing skills: 

General Recommendations:

  • Use structure and routine. This will help your child be ready for what will happen next during the day and can be calming for children with SPD. 
  • Reduce clutter and keep areas as organized as possible. A chaotic environment can make a child’s sensory processing difficulties worse. 
  • Provide regular opportunities for sensory input and activities. 

Examples of activities that can be incorporated into a child’s day:

  • Encourage your child to crab walk, bear walk, wheelbarrow walk or frog hop between daily activities. These can be done in the morning between normal routines, like brushing teeth, getting dressed, going to the breakfast table, etc. 
  • Before sitting down for meals or homework, encourage your child to perform chair push-ups.
  • Allow your child to play with or draw pictures using shaving cream in the bathtub or shower, or outside.
  • Apply lotion on your child’s skin after bath time.
  • Have your child push the cart when shopping, or ask him or her to help carry in the groceries. Both of these activities provide heavy work.
  • Ask your child to pour things into canisters, including dry noodles, rice, beans or water.
  • Within safe limits, encourage your child to move and/or carry heavy things in the house. Examples include: books, pots and pans, or a gallon milk container filled with water. 
  • Provide “sensory bins” as a play outlet for your child. The bins may be filled with kinetic sand, moon sand, dry rice, beans, corn, noodles or other similar material.
  • Serve chewy or crunchy foods for your child.
  • Add increased flavor to your child’s foods.
  • Provide apple sauce, smoothies and runny yogurt for your child to consume through a straw. 
  • Use a weighted lap blanket, lap snake or lap buddy. You can create one of these items by filling a long tube sock with popcorn kernels, dry kidney beans or rice. 
  • Let your child help with household chores such as carrying or moving the laundry basket or detergent, pushing the laundry basket, vacuuming, or digging in the garden.
  • Create a calming area where your child can have quiet time. This spot may contain a rocking chair or beanbag chair.
  • Make an obstacle course in the house for your child.
  • Play music that reflects the mood and energy level of your child.
  • Enroll your child in activities outside of the home that can be beneficial for sensory processing, including: swimming, horseback riding, bike riding, hiking, gymnastics, karate or yoga. 
For further questions about these activities or others, please refer to your occupational therapist or the Sensory Processing Foundation.

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