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Sensory integration is the organization of the sensation for use. It is both a theory and a frame of reference from which principles of treatment have been developed. It takes into account an individual’s neurobiological ability to process and integrate sensory information and considers how that ability allows the individual to plan his actions to enhance participation in a wide array of environments. Through ongoing research, the theory continues to be refined and validated.
Frequently therapists observe children with poor vestibular-proprioceptive processing who have difficulty holding themselves upright against gravity. These children function better with frequent activity breaks or when able to sit on something that allows them to move while in place, such as a ball. While it may seem counter-intuitive to insist that a child who is tired engage in physical activity to help him sit still, it works.
Your child may feel insecure moving through space or may be unable to organize his body movements with the rapid and unpredictable changes of other children and equipment of the playground. It is important for parents to assist their child to feel secure while at the same time modeling and supporting physical play experiences through sliding on slides, swinging on swings, and playing ball and tag with other children.
Your child may experience unusual sensitivities to touch, making those textures and experiences feel irritating or uncomfortable, or even painful. Many times children will withdraw, but sometimes they may lash out if they perceive that someone else has hurt them, even if it is accidental. Preparing the child in advance to let him know he will be touched and how is very important. Allowing the child to choose comfortable clothes will help. Provide a mirror so that the child can see what someone is doing to him if he is getting his hair cut or washed by someone else.
Parents must seek the help of a professional with postgraduate training in sensory integration to accurately identify these deficits. Unusual responses to sensation such as excessively seeing or avoiding sensory experiences are often a key characteristic of this hidden disorder. However, some children will exhibit subtle learning and behavior problems that can go undetected or be misunderstood. Sensory integration problems may be underlying the causes of these difficulties.
Many children with these diagnoses exhibit unusual sensory reactions or inadequate sensory processing, although sensory processing deficits are currently not a defining feature of these diagnoses. If a child shows symptoms of atypical sensory reactions – such as poor awareness of various sensations (e.g., high pain tolerance), hypersensitivity to various sensations (e.g., touch or sounds), or slow or inaccurate processing of sensory information (especially body and spacial awareness)-he will benefit from an evaluation and subsequent intervention focusing on sensory integration.
Children with these diagnoses have additional concerns that are not accounted for by sensory integrative dysfunction alone. They often benefit from a multidisciplinary approach that includes special education, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, social skills training, and biomedical and behavioral interventions.
There are many factors that could play into chaotic mealtimes. Your child can have extreme sensitivities to smells, tastes, and textures of food that make it difficult for him to tolerate the smell of foods that are cooking and to eat a healthy array of foods. Sometimes children will be messy either because they don’t realize they’re spilling or because they have poor use of utensils. They may be antsy and have difficulty sitting still at the table. Any of these difficulties are magnified when eating at a restaurant or when your child is tired or hungry. You may want to provide a healthy snack and activity break just prior to preparing or sitting down for the meal. Therapy can help a child to tolerate a more sensory-rich world, including smells and flavors, as well as build fine motor skills and increase sitting endurance, making life easier during these and other essential parts of the day.
The causes are unknown, although there are some factors such as poor nutrition, chemicals in our food or air, problems at birth, or genetic predisposition that may compromise an individual’s development and be associated with problems in sensory integration. Trends in society may also exacerbate a problem in sensory integration, such as the tendency toward increased television viewing and computer use and less outdoor space in which a child can safely explore, run, climb, and jump. Although simply living in an unpolluted environment with ample opportunities for physical play will not alleviate sensory integrative problems, it will help a child’s development.
The results of the professional evaluation specific to identifying hidden sensory disorders determine whether or not sensory integration strategies will be beneficial. If the sensory integration strategies are recommended, they are provided by occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech and language pathologists who have advanced training in the approach. The intervention is playful, child-centered, and specific to building foundational sensory experiences through touch and movement that help the child to plan his own actions in relation to others. In order to do this, specialized equipment is often necessary so that the child can safely experience his body moving through space and exert physical effort in organizing the materials and equipment for increasing challenges.
Understand the problem. Imagine fun and desirable sensory solutions. Create sensory-based play spaces that may entail replacing furniture and mattresses, large pillows, and bean bags. The doorframes may be used for chin-up bars. The bathtub can be rich with tactile toys such as brushes, soap foams, and small containers for pouring. Provide a definite structure and routines that can be posted with words and photos so that the child can remember. Allow activity breaks before and after meals, chores, and homework. Ensure that your child has a good, nutritious variety of foods and plenty of sleep. It may be calming for your child to wear pressure garments such as sports clothing. It may be soothing for your child to wear loose silky pajamas at night or wrap up in a spandex tunnel or cloth rather than using typical blankets. Flannel sheets are soothing, even in summer. Provide your child with plenty of positive attention, including a warm hug, a smile, a soft backrub, and other loving gestures that come so naturally to a parent.
A child is self-organized when he can play at one thing in a constructive manner for a reasonable length of time. He is not self-organized if he starts doing one thing and then almost immediately goes to something else; if his play is nonconstructive; or if he throws blocks around rather than building with them. Children who need constant supervision and support, very likely, are not self-organized or self-regulated. They need the constant encouragement, direction, and presence of an adult to provide the structure of their daily routines, make transitions, and know how and when to interact with others. Children learn to organize themselves through play, especially social play, if they are able to do so.
Children thrive in a balance of structure and freedom. Ensure that the educational team understands the nature of your child’s sensory integration issues. The therapist will work as part of this team to incorporate activities into the daily school routine, whether it is before school when lining up at the door, in the classroom, on the playground, at lunch, or when transitioning to special assemblies or catching the bus. Many children need sensory breaks to sustain their attention. The therapist will have a host of clever ideas and strategies that the child can use that will not disrupt the class but will increase your child’s ability and readiness to learn.