Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders often experience profound sensory issues, which ultimately interfere with their ability to engage functionally in their home, school and community environments. To help clarify how sensory processing issues affect the mind and body, we’ve interviewed licensed Occupational Therapist, Dani Leon.
GR: Individuals with autism may have various sensory issues. Can you please elaborate on the nature of sensory processing issues?
DL: Sensory processing refers to the overall ability to take in, organize, and make sense of multiple kinds of sensory input so that we can respond to our environment in an appropriate and meaningful way. Sensory processing takes place within the nervous system as sensory receptors take in information that is then transmitted to and interpreted by the brain.
Children are constantly taking in information from all of their senses: visual, auditory, touch, taste, smell, proprioception (body sense), and vestibular (movement and gravity). Organization of these sensations dictates one’s ability to adapt to and successfully navigate their world. Some children are able to manage all of this information, filter it, and make sense of it without much effort – it’s an automatic process. However, for children with sensory processing dysfunction, these primary and foundational processes become an overwhelming feat.
This breakdown in sensory processing then influences their ability to develop their self-regulation skills, organization of behavior, and higher level motor competencies like gross motor coordination and fine motor skills.
GR: How would sensory processing issues affect an individual’s interaction with the world?
DL: When a child is struggling with sensory processing issues, their world can often feel offensive and difficult to bear. Imagine, for example, being forced to wear glasses with the wrong prescription. You might feel nauseous or dizzy. You might feel uneasy walking around or hesitant to leave the house. You would probably have minimal tolerance for interaction with others. A child with sensory processing deficits is often struggling with feelings of having to function in what feels like an inhospitable environment and, quite understandably, he or she will demonstrate various means of coping with this difficulty. Unfortunately these coping mechanisms don’t always assist a child in getting help to manage his or her struggles, and can sometimes elicit negative responses from those around them.
The challenges of sensory processing dysfunction can manifest behaviorally, social-emotionally, physically, or as a combination. Some examples of behavioral or social-emotional difficulties include impulsivity, disorganization, low frustration tolerance, heightened emotional responses, difficulty with transitions, hesitancy, overwhelm, under or over- activity level, inattention, aggressiveness, difficulty following directions, and difficulty with social skills. Some physical manifestations may include lack of coordination, delays in fine motor skills such as handwriting, inability to appropriately navigate age appropriate playground equipment such as monkey bars or swings, or “sensory seeking” behaviors”. Often families experience these challenges as a disruption of functional engagement in daily routine life. Activities as simple as mealtime or bath time can become painful and arduous to get through.
GR: Are there treatments available for addressing the symptoms of sensory processing issues?
DL: Yes. Occupational therapists who specialize in the treatment of sensory processing dysfunction work in a variety of ways to essentially “rewire” the neurological pathways responsible for adaptive sensory processing. Typically, occupational therapists work with children in a specialized environment to provide a variety of opportunities for more effective sensory processing through play.
In addition, therapists will often work closely with families to provide strategies for home and school that can help a child cope and thrive within these environments more easily. Treatment of sensory processing issues can have a profound, life changing impact on children and families. Families who are coping with these difficulties are encouraged to seek support from a licensed occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration. Often pediatricians or clinical psychologists are good resources for such referrals.
About Dani Leon:
Dani Leon is a licensed Occupational Therapist. She completed her degree in Occupational Therapy at USC, graduating Magna Cum Laude and as part of the Occupational Therapy Honors Association in 2001. Since then, Dani has practiced as a pediatric occupational therapist in clinic, school, and home settings, continually building upon her education. Dani opened her private practice after having her daughter in 2007. She has found her passion in combining her expertise in child development with holistically supporting families as they grow. Dani has extensive experience in the following areas: sensory integration, sensory-motor skill development, praxis, autism spectrum disorders, developmental delays, and fine motor and handwriting skills.
In 2012, Dani opened a new clinic in the area of Toluca Lake: Sprout Children’s Therapy Center. Sprout offers both occupational and speech therapy, proving the highest quality of services to children and their families. The exceptional team at Sprout relies on years of clinical experience, trusted programs and techniques, and cutting edge research to provide a unique and holistic relationship-based approach to therapy. More about Dani.