Published on 
June 15, 2022

Common Sensory Challenges and How Occupational Therapy Can Help

Occupational therapists focus on improving self-regulation skills to help patients manage sensory challenges

Written by Liz Green, OTR/L, BCP, SIPT-C, & Owner of Link OT

Over 1 in 20 children in the U.S. (and growing) have difficulties processing external stimuli like sounds, lights, and temperatures. These sensory processing challenges often affect individuals with learning disabilities and can make it difficult to complete daily living tasks.

As an advanced trained occupational therapist, I have over 20 years of experience helping people manage sensory processing challenges. In this article, I will talk about the most common types of sensory issues and share a few strategies that occupational therapists use to help patients make sense of the world around them.

What is sensory integration?

Sensory Integration (SI) is an evidence-based framework created by Dr. Jane Ayres in the 1970s. SI has evolved into an occupational therapy tool that’s proven effective across a wide range of patient abilities and age groups.

Sensory integration refers to how a person organizes and interprets the information around them. Some people process internally (in the body) while others process externally (in the environment). People with sensory processing challenges frequently have trouble with daily living tasks like doing homework or cooking dinner. Sensory integration challenges are common in children with learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorder.

Common sensory challenges

There are six categories of sensory processing disorders:

  • Vestibular: sense of body and head position. People with vestibular sensory disorders may struggle with balance, core strength, coordination, fine motor skills, and tolerance of head or body in different positions. 
  • Proprioceptive: muscle and joint awareness. Proprioceptive challenges are associated with a tendency to trip or bump into objects, act clumsily, press too hard when writing, slam doors, or walk with heavy feet.
  • Tactile: sense of touch. Tactile dysfunction is associated with the tendency of individuals to rely on vision to help with finding objects out of view or lack of awareness of  food on their face or if clothing is twisted. They may also have difficulty tolerating clothes, hats, or gloves. Bathing, grooming, and personal hygiene skills are often impacted.
  • Visual: sense of vision. Visual perception or reactivity dysfunction associates with trouble finding objects in “busy” environments and tolerating bright lights or dim environments.
  • Auditory: sense of hearing and interpreting sound. Individuals with auditory processing challenges can be distractible in loud environments and have trouble maintaining a conversation. It is important to incorporate speech-language pathology into the plan of care if this area is impacted.
  • Introception: sense of internal physiologic state. People with interoception difficulties may struggle to recognize feelings of hunger, fullness, thirst, temperature, and having to use the restroom.  

How occupational therapy can help you manage sensory processing challenges

Since every person integrates sensory input differently, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Instead, occupational therapists work one-on-one with patients and develop strategies that work best for them and help improve self-regulation skills. The more regulated someone is, the more likely they are to monitor their actions, thoughts, and impulses, increasing their ability to participate in daily activities.

For example, here are several strategies occupational therapists may use to work with clients who have sensory processing challenges:

  • Understand what “calm” feels like. This could be an activity like taking a walk, sitting in the dark, listening to music, or chewing gum.
  • Implement a sensory diet. A sensory diet should be facilitated by an occupational therapist and incorporates calming/alerting strategies that can be used throughout the day to assist an individual with achieving a more regulated state.
  • Create a routine. Setting and following a predictable daily routine with incorporation of calming/alerting strategies is important to prevent difficulty with regulation state. It is important to complete short bursts (2-3 minutes) of calming activities throughout the day rather than waiting until you might have a meltdown to calm down.
  • Utilize reward systems. Change is hard! Reward yourself for following through in making changes to your day or life! This could be something as simple as taking time for yourself in your room to listen to music, having a family game night, or getting a massage. 

What to do if you have concerns about sensory integration

If you or anyone in your family is experiencing sensory integration issues, consider making an appointment with an occupational therapist. You can find an in-network OT using Wayfinder’s directory, or by speaking to your insurance company.

About Liz Green

Liz Green, B.S., OTR/L has 20 years of experience as an occupational therapist (OT) in a variety of clinical settings. Her passion is to empower neurodistinct individuals in meeting self-directed goals that promote meaningful participation in work, school and life. She also has a certificate in DEI for HR through Cornell University. By combining advanced expertise as an OT with an HR concentration in DEI, Liz has created the first ever neurodiversity consultancy model that gets inside of the psychology of what it means to think, process, interact, and self-regulate differently. In turn, Liz is educating global companies on the intersection between disclosure and psychological safety and company culture and retention. She has spoken at regional and national conferences, including Occupational Therapy Association of Colorado (OTAC) and College Autism Network (CAN).

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