#47 - Choosing the Best Sensory Strategies for Your Child: Expert InsightsNov 05, 2023
How to choose the best sensory strategies for your child..that’s the golden question isn’t it? We all hope for one or two sensory strategies that are just going to be the magic answer, and solve all your sensory struggles.
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret here. There’s no one BEST sensory strategy. And anyone who tells you on social media that there is, is using it as clickbait.
Welcome to episode #47 of the Food Explorers podcast, Choosing the Best Sensory Strategies for Your Child: Expert Insights.
For those of you who are newer to me, Hi! I’m Sam. I’m a pediatric occupational and feeding therapist, and I specialize in helping parents, therapists, and adults understand the sensory system and use this information to help the senses feel their best so your day can be a bit less chaotic and a lot more fun.
And in today’s podcast episode, I want to debunk that there’s a list of best sensory strategies, and prove to you that instead what we want to look at is the best sensory strategy for YOUR child’s unique body. And to do that, I’m going to give you a little behind the scenes look at situations I’ve personally encountered as an occupational therapist and sensory specialist. So you can see how these strategies work in real life situations.
Let’s get to it.
I want to elaborate a bit on choosing unique strategies for each body. Think of every single person’s sensory system like a unique thumbprint. Every person’s body in this entire universe is different. From the moment we’re born we have our own personalities, preferences, and life experiences. And that’s reflected in our sensory system.
For those reasons, our sensory systems have their own unique preferences.
But here’s the tough part. In order to truly recognize those preferences, and respond to them appropriately you HAVE to understand sensory processing.
And this becomes EVEN more important when there’s a mismatch between a person’s sensory preferences and the world we live in. Essentially, when a person experiences sensory issues.
Because in those cases, not only do you need to understand what sensory processing is, but you also need to be able to understand how their sensory system is experiencing and perceiving the world. In other words, you need to understand the specific types of sensory challenges they are having.
Now, one of my absolute pet peeves as an occupational therapist is that there’s a lot of sensory misinformation out there. Not that it’s all completely untrue, but that a lot of people don’t really give you the whole picture.
Instead, you're getting really small pieces of sensory information. Personally, I believe this is because those people teaching it, don’t always understand the full picture themselves, including many OTs. I think it’s wonderful that people with unique needs have shared what they’ve learned about their bodies with the world, or parents are sharing information that has never been shared before, BUT and this is a big BUT, when other people are watching it and trying to learn, vital information is being left out, that drastically alters the strategies you choose.
I’ll give you one big example of this. Chances are if you’re here with me today, you’ve likely heard about hyperresponsivity, sensory avoidance, or seeking. If you haven’t, don’t you worry, hang in here till the end of the episode. There are providers out there (many who are not trained in sensory processing FYI), who share information about the sensory system.
Most often what I see happening, is that they want to help you understand that different people can be over-responsive or under-response to sensory input. Meaning, they need more or less sensory input. And then, they prompt you to explore whether your child is more under or over responsive. From there, the recommendation is usually to offer more or less sensory input depending on your child’s preferences.
Now, this is true - people can be over or under-responsive. HOWEVER, there is a ton missing here.
When we talk about over and under-responsivity, we’re actually talking about sensory modulation, which in the simplest terms I can put it in - is the brain’s ability to handle incoming sensory input.
And that’s why people can be over or under responsive. They may have a lower threshold, and cannot handle as much sensory input. Or they can have a really high threshold, but not pay enough attention.
The thing is…there’s also two other subcategories of sensory modulation challenges. And there’s two other entirely different categories of sensory processing challenges, that don’t include sensory modulation at all. Furthermore, most of these professionals fail to explain that it’s a cumulative effect of all the different senses.
So a child isn’t just over or under-responsive, it can differ for each sense. They can be over-responsive in one, under-responsive in another, and seeking in a third. But then all of this combines in the brain to determine their sensory threshold and response to input. There’s also a difference between the type of input you offer - is it passive or active? Meaning, does the person actively work to get the input, or does an outside influence provide the input.
So why does this all matter?
It matters because when you don’t fully understand the sensory system, you’re likely choosing strategies that are not the right fit. For example, if you’ve listened to one of those programs and determined that you think your child is a sensory avoider because they don’t like to get dirty or brush their hair, and so you avoid all unnecessary input…
But …here’s the thing, other types of input might actually help them empty their sensory load, and calm it down. For example, something like hugs, or calming music. But now you’ve taken away all that extra input.
And then you’re confused about why it’s not working. The truth is…you NEED the whole picture.
You can’t learn the sensory system in 5 minutes, or from one blog post, or one reel or tiktok video. In fact, I don’t think you can learn it from 5. You need to really see how it all connects and works together.
But let me give you some behind-the-scenes examples, because real life situations always help better explain what I’m getting at.
- I recently saw a child, let’s call him Johnny. Johnny had a very hard time sitting still, and often got in trouble at home and in the classroom. He was pegged as a troublemaker, because he was disrupting the class so often. Clearly, the teacher and parents could tell that Johnny needed more movement. But even when they gave him the movement prior to sitting, he was still constantly shifting his position. They were constantly telling him to sit up, sit still, or stop moving. When I saw Johnny, it was immediately clear to me that part of his picture was missing. Not only was Johnny hyporesponsive, or under-responsive to movement, but he also had postural challenges. Meaning he didn’t have the muscle strength or endurance to properly sit up in his chair for long periods of time, without moving. Because they were only looking at his sensory modulation, they missed the fact that Johnny ALSO had a different type of sensory processing challenge - postural control (which is a part of sensory-based motor difficulties). Once we established this, we were able to provide him with sensory strategies that helped wake up his muscles, and improve his ability to sit in the chair for longer periods of time. In his case, we used a wiggle seat, and strengthening activities.
- Here’s another example, I remember working with a family who absolutely could not find a way for their child to fall asleep. Again, this family had determined that their child was a sensory avoider. However, he required mom to stay in the room every single night when he fell asleep, rubbing his back and rewrapping him in his sheets if he woke up. Now, what she didn’t realize is that she was providing A LOT of a different type of sensory stimulation for him. He wasn’t a sensory avoider for all the senses. Specifically, proprioceptive input. However, they weren’t using independent strategies. They relied on mom to be able to be in there applying the strategies every single night for hours. Once we determined that he specifically benefited from certain types of passive proprioceptive input, we were able to find solutions that he was able to use on his own to fall asleep at night, and stay asleep longer. Some of the strategies he really enjoyed were massages prior to bedtime, and specific sheets that offered more proprioceptive input.
So these are just two examples of how not fully understanding sensory processing, left out information that these parents could have really benefited from to choose the right strategies. But where do you go from here?
Well, of course you can go to an occupational therapist (and in fact I totally believe that this is extremely useful in anyone’s sensory journey). BUT you must also be educated yourself.
There’s only so much a therapist can accomplish in the short sessions we are allotted, and the majority of that time is spent directly focusing on their interactions with your child. Although sometimes you get super lucky with a therapist who is also able to educate you as they go! But even then, it’s hard to take it all in during a therapy session.
Educating yourself on the side is one of the best things you can do to better support your child’s sensory system. Not only will you be better able to understand what your occupational therapist is talking about, and their recommendations, but it will help you carryover and generalize these techniques into your home life as well.
And that’s why I’m SO SO excited to share that my new mini-course Understanding Sensory Challenges is now available to you AND i’m running a special pre-black friday discount for this week ONLY. When you sign up today using the code BLACKFRIDAY all uppercase, you’ll save an extra $10 off the price of the course, and it’s currently only $40 so that’s an insane deal.
I know, I know, you might be thinking - I don’t have time for another thing. This course is only 35 minutes. That means you can watch it in less time than you would binge your favorite netflix show. (shout out to Suits which is our current fave).
And in this mini-course I teach you it all. We go in depth on the 3 different categories of sensory processing challenges, and their subtypes. Yup, everything we talked about today, I’m going to lay out in easy-to-understand terms, and I’m giving you that full picture.
So that you can finally stop walking on eggshells, and begin to understand how to choose the right sensory strategy for your child’s unique sensory system. By the end of this mini-course, you’ll have a better idea of how to predict and mitigate those messy situations that lead to meltdowns, when in the past you just felt lost because you never knew why they were happening.
But I know you may need to hear it from another parent. So I wanted to share what one parent had to say about this mini-course: "I just finished watching the Sensory Processing Difficulties masterclass and it was SOO helpful. My daughter's SLP always comments that my daughter finds food "threatening" but I never fully understood how or why that happened. I love our SLP, but in our 30 minute sessions there's never enough time for me to dig into the detail or get all my questions answered. The practice schedules SLPs back to back - so I compeltely understand. For the first time ever, I was able to understand how and why my daughter feels anxious when we introduce new foods. I feel like watching this masterclass just shifted my whole perspective and understanding of how my daughter experiences eating. I am moving on to the next masterclass now that specifically talks about the sensory system and eating. Can't wait to learn more!"
So what are you waiting for?! Head over to www.drsamgoldman.com/understandingsensorychallenges and get immediate access. I just know you’re going to love it.
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