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Horrible Haircuts and Terrible Toothpaste: Helping Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder Tolerate Hygiene

Children of all ages often find basic hygiene tasks boring, annoying, and tedious. Who wants to brush their teeth when they can go play outside? While it can be difficult to get any child to perform these tasks, it is exponentially more difficult for a child with Sensory Processing Disorder.  Sensory Processing Disorder

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) involves atypical processing and integration of incoming sensory information. A child with SPD may have difficulty processing any of the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell). They also may have difficulty processing the two “hidden senses,” proprioception (processing input from muscles and joints) and vestibular processing (processing input regarding movement and head position). Children with difficulty modulating incoming sensory input often have strong sensitivities to certain sensations, which can interfere with their ability to participate in age-appropriate activities.

Why Do Children with Sensory Processing Disorder Struggle with Hygiene?

Many children, especially those with tactile and auditory processing difficulties, have difficulty with hygiene and grooming. Engaging in these activities with children with SPD can often feel like a fight. This is because children with sensory sensitivities often go into “fight or flight” mode when presented with aversive sensations. While the buzz of an electric trimmer, the cold metal of a nail clipper, or sticky soap that just won’t seem to rinse off may not be your favorite, for a child with SPD if may feel like walking the plank!

How Can I Help My Child?

The good news is there are many strategies to help your child with SPD tolerate hygiene tasks with fewer outbursts. Below are a few steps involved in creating a grooming routine that works for you and your family.

Step 1: Figure out what your child is afraid of.

It is very important to determine which particular sensations are the problem. If your child is old enough, you can ask him or her about which specific sensations he or she dislikes or fears. This may also help you find some quick and easy solutions; perhaps the smell of the particular brand of soap or taste of toothpaste is the culprit.

If your child is too young or does not have the self-awareness or communication skills to discuss hygiene tasks, it will be your job to figure out what is bothering him or her. Think of yourself as a “sensory detective” and examine your child during these tasks. Does she pull away at the touch of a brush? Does he cower at the sound of the hair dryer? Observing your child and spending some time analyzing what bothers him or her will get you closer to finding a solution!

Step 2: Change your routine based on their particular sensory sensitivities:

If your child has tactile (touch) processing difficulties or sensitivities:
– Engage in deep touch pressure activities before and after the hygiene task. By providing deep touch pressure to a child’s body, he or she becomes less sensitive to undesired “light touch” inputs. There are many ways to provide deep touch pressure: firm massage to the limbs, upper back, and head; use a therapeutic body brush if you have been trained by an occupational therapist to use one; apply firm pressure on a large pillow or blanket to give your child’s body “squishes.” And don’t forget- tight hugs are a highly underrated mechanism for deep touch pressure!

– Provide pressure during the task. Try applying more pressure to the head when brushing hair. Utilize a weighted or heavy blanket on your child’s lap during a hair or nail trim. Have your child wear a compression shirt or compression vest during activities.

– Consider temperature. If a cold nail clipper feels sterile and uninviting, warm it up. If the faucet is normally on cold when your child washes hands, add some hot water and give a few minutes to warm up. Temperature can make a huge difference!

– Consider purchasing an electric toothbrush. For some children with tactile sensitivities, vibration can be a very regulating sensation. If you are unsure how your child will respond, experiment with a vibrating oral massager (e.g. Z-Vibe, Jiggler) before investing in a pricy electric toothbrush.

If your child has auditory (sound) processing difficulties:
– Warn the child before your turn the device on. This allows the child to mentally prepare for a hair dryer, electric toothbrush, or razor to turn on.

– Allow the child to wear headphones, if it does not interfere with the activity.

Step 3: Build a consistent grooming routine.

Children with SPD rely on routines to help them make sense of the world. The more your child can expect and rely on a familiar routine, the calmer he or she will be.

NSPT offers services in Bucktown, Evanston, Highland Park, Lincolnwood, Glenview, Lake Bluff and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!

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Incorporating Balance into Your Child’s Before-School Routine

boy balancing on floorBalance, like many things, will only get better with practice and through challenging the balance systems. However, it can be hard to find time after school to work on balance activities when kids already have mountains of homework to keep up with. It can also be difficult to make balance exercises fun and enjoyable for kids.

In order to work on balance skills while saving time and keeping it interesting, here is a list of 5 balance activities that can easily be incorporated into your child’s before-school routine:

  1. Put pants, shoes, and socks on while standing up-This will require your child to stand on one leg while using her arms to don the clothing.
  2. Sit in ‘tall kneeling’ (sitting on knees with hips straight and knees kept at a 90 degree angle) while packing up the backpack-Sitting in the tall kneeling position narrows your child’s base of support, making it harder for her to maintain her balance. This posture also helps to strengthen her hip muscles, which are an important part of keeping her stable in positions that are challenging for her balance.
  3. Sit on a pillow while having breakfast-The pillow serves as an unstable surface, so your child will have to work hard to balance while sitting on it. This is a great way to work on core strength as well.
  4. Walk heel-to-toe on the way to the bus stop-Narrowing the base of support by walking heel to toe will challenge your child’s balance  and help improve her balance when she performs dynamic movements such as running or walking.
  5. Brush teeth with eyes closed-Vision is a big component of balancing, and when you close your eyes you are no longer able to rely on that sense to balance. Your body instead will have to use its vestibular and proprioceptive systems to keep steady.

It is going to be important to supervise your child when beginning these balance activities, as they may be hard at first. If you have significant concerns about your child’s balance with daily activities or if you have balance-related safety concerns, you can contact an occupational or physical therapist at North Shore Pediatric Therapy. To find out more about the vestibular system read our blog To find out more about the proprioceptive system read our blog

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Swimming- A Fun and Beneficial Sport

Swimming is a great sport and pastime, particularly for children with sensory processing difficulties, as the waterBoy in swimming pool provides a multi-sensory experience for the body. Swimming also addresses a variety of skills, ultimately improving your child’s sensory processing, strength, endurance and coordination.

Proprioceptive/tactile processing: The feel of water on the body gives proprioceptive input, the input to the muscle and the joints, and gives a sense of where the body is in relation to other body parts. The constant sense of the water against the skin provides deep proprioceptive input and helps with developing body awareness.

Vestibular processing: Somersaults under water or headstands at the bottom of the pool provide vestibular input, as the body is responding to the changes in head position and assisting with balance to complete these tasks.

Auditory processing: The pool environment typically provides a loud and vibrant auditory experience, as children’s laughter and happy shrieks are heard while they play in the pool.

Strength: Moving the body against water when swimming is a workout for the muscles! The water provides natural resistance for muscles, which in the long run, builds up overall body strength.

Endurance: Not only does the resistance of the water against the body make the body stronger, it also assists with endurance. As the muscles become stronger, they will be able to endure swimming and other activities for longer periods of time.

Coordination: Swimming strokes are very complex. The brain must take in all of the sensory information from the environment and act quickly to move the arms, legs, torso and head in a coordinated fashion to produce the movement.

So many children find swimming exciting and fun, and love spending summer days at the pool. Parents can also appreciate spending time at the pool knowing that this activity is not only fun, but also good for their child!

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