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Helping Kids With Sensory Processing Disorder Adjust to the New School Year

Dr. Amy Wheadon, OTD, OTR/L and co author of King’s Day Out ~ The Car Wash teamed up with Noel Foy, a Consultant in neuroeducation and author of ABC Worry Free, to talk about the links and circular impact sensory challenges can have on anxiety in children.

As the new school year approaches, it’s normal for kids and adults to experience some anxiety, especially given the uncertainty of the times and potential for school plans to change or adapt. For kids with sensory processing challenges, heading back to school can be extra anxiety-provoking, considering its array of multi-sensory, stimulating and new experiences.

Our sensory systems are designed to help us understand the world around us and to support our ability to effectively and safely interact with our environment. In a typically developing nervous system, our senses gather information from our environment (sights, sounds, taste, touch, movement and body awareness). This information is processed in our brain, and the result is an automatic motor and emotional response. For a child who has difficulty processing sensory input, sensory information may not be processed as efficiently, which can cause anxiety, distress and in many cases, strong emotional responses.

Being in a sensory rich and novel/unfamiliar environment, like the beginning of school, can be very anxiety provoking for a child with sensory differences. When anxiety surfaces, it gets in the way of learning, relationships, behavior and performance.

A child with sensory differences may be over or under sensitive to sights, sounds, touch, smell, taste and movement. Especially if the child is oversensitive to stimuli in their environment (also known as “sensory defensive”), the child’s environment can feel overwhelming and scary, and sensory information can be perceived as painful.

  • Bright lights can feel aversive.
  • Loud noises will be perceived as hurting the child’s ears.
  • Light touch can feel painful.
  • Movement can feel overwhelming.
  • Anxiety can increase.

Anxiety is designed to protect us and can alert us to “real” danger. On the flip side, it can send “May Day” messages, even for “perceived” threats such as crowds, smells or foods. This can put them on high alert and activate their stress response. When this happens, stress chemicals pump through the body and cause physiological changes:

  • fast heartbeat
  • tightness
  • sweating
  • tummy ache

Before you know it, your child may be in the throes of fight, flight or freeze. In these moments, their emotional brain is in charge, and they temporarily lose the ability to pay attention, remember what you said, reason, problem solve and perform… all things needed to be successful in a school setting.

Avoidance—one of anxiety’s hallmark patterns—may seem to work in the short term but actually fuels it in the long run. Providing certainty and allowing avoidance-based accommodations (i.e. won’t take the bus or eat in the cafeteria), without building skills does a disservice to the child. We can’t eradicate anxiety, but we can learn to manage it. It is important to recognize that when a child has both anxiety and sensory issues, the anxiety can heighten a sensory defensive response.

Occupational therapists, like Dr. Amy, and anxiety coaches, like Noel, can help children understand and manage their sensory systems and anxiety. By addressing sensory processing challenges and understanding how anxiety works through self-awareness, self-advocacy and empowerment, the child will feel more confident and more in control of his or her environment and ultimately be more successful.

So what can you and your child do to prepare and build skills?

1. Make a team for success!

It is essential that everyone involved has your child’s best interests at heart and is consistent with their approaches, so coordinate a meeting with your school (guidance, nurse and teacher), your pediatrician, licensed OT and an anxiety expert if needed.

2. Identify your child’s needs.

Which sensory issues are triggers? Break down the sensory experience and notice which parts are most troublesome (i.e. noise, texture, lights, etc.).

3. Make a plan 

Discuss triggers, tools and a full communication strategy.

4. Build executive function.

Kids who are particularly sensitive to changes in the environment or activities do better with consistent routines and schedules. You can help transitions go smoother by using a daily schedule or talking out what they can expect will happen next and provide pictures and/or steps of expectations.

5. Test Run.

Try out steps and strategies in less stressful settings: Role play situations and practice steps or expectations for certain classes or transitions (i.e. carry backpack around the house, play with bins with different textures, do activities or games at home that mimic a particular class)

6. Bring along an “adventure bag.” 

It can help to have access to things that offer sensory relief or help your child self-regulate (i.e. visual reminders of a strategy or breathing technique, sound blocker headphones, fidget toys, etc.).

7. Take it step by step.

Don’t project too far ahead into the future… this is what anxiety wants but not what it needs! Be sure accommodations build skills, focus on problem solving and what you can/can’t control.

In the end, it is imperative to equip our kids with all of the tools available so they can be empowered as they navigate all of life’s adventures.

Getty image by PCH-Vector