Besides formal occupational therapy, there are many things you can do as caregivers at home to help your child function at their fullest potential. Here are 8 proven ways you can help:
1. Keep a Predictable Routine at Home
A common feature of sensory processing differences is having difficulties with accepting unexpected changes in routine, novelty and transitioning between tasks. Try to keep a daily routine predictable, keep the order of events consistent e.g. first bath, then toothbrush, toilet, book and finally bedtime. Use a picture chart of the day’s major events/ transitions to help him anticipate the sequence of the day. Verbally review it in the morning and occasionally throughout the day can be helpful too. Increasing predictability using a routine can help decrease unexpected sensory stimuli and support them to stay regulated and feel in control.
2. Build a Sensory Rich Lifestyle
Adding more sensory rich activities in your child’s day can be greatly beneficial for a child with sensory differences. Engaging in these activities can help your child to understand their body and environment more. Some sensory activities also have a calming effect and can help decrease hyper reactive responses to other sensations and then supporting regulation. Our tip is to think of it as building a sensory lifestyle so it can be more sustainable and meaningful for your child and your family. To do this, adapt everyday life activities to provide sensory motor input that your child needs. Think about how you can turn up the sensory motor experience on daily activities, for example every morning you can provide deep pressure hug and use a electric toothbrush and on the weekend, you could do cooking activities together (mix, stir, knead dough), push a heavy shopping cart in the store, dig in the sand or go for a hike or swim. For more sensory rich activities to do with your child, you can download our list of Sensory Rich Activities at the bottom of the page.
3. Boost your Child’s Confidence with ‘Just Right’ Challenges
The main principle is that your child has to try and attempt a task that is hard or unpredictable (or a combination of all of these) to them. They need to succeed, again and again so that it is meaningful and fun, that is how children learn about themselves and the world. To ensure they succeed we must “scaffold” the activity so that it has the “just right” challenge - it has to be hard enough that the child continues developing their skill, but you also have to give just enough help so they are successful and do most of the activity on their own. All the toys and tools in our Kid Skills Playboxes comes with activities cards that list a range of ideas to make just right challenges for your child e.g. how to make it slightly easier and harder to meet your child’s individual needs. Check it out here.
4. Try to Limit Screen Time
Some of our kids with sensory processing difficulties can demonstrate decreased ability to play with toys and can have a tendency to play with the same toys for prolonged periods of time. This is often due to decreased play skills and fine motor skills to manipulate toys. Since this is harder for them, there will be less challenging activities or toys that they will prefer to play with and end up spending hours on. One of the most popular, being screen time on the iPad.
While these can be good motivators and will occupy their attention, it is well documented that too much screen time results in a range of negative outcomes (outside the scope of this article), including less time building the skills they need the most through play and learning other ways to relax and have fun. Outside of this, the passive absorption in these activities may lead to problems when you are trying to end the activity. As our kids may have difficulties with regulation and recovering from dysregulation, it is a good idea to make some clear rules about how long and how often they can spend time with electronics/their favourite activity. When it’s time for change or transition, make sure to give them warning. Help them find something to do next. This is very important because it can be hard to think of ideas after a favorite activity is taken away. For some children this can be very hard. A good tip for parents is to try to attempt not having the iPad after dinner. Then making this time earlier and earlier to help fade out the screen time if your child is very obsessed with the iPad.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following guidance (current as at Feb 2020):
- Between 18 and 24 months screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver
- For children 2-5, limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend days
- For ages 6 and older, encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens
5. Don’t forget about visual, auditory and tactile cues
For children with sensory differences, having the right sensory cues can mean the difference between participation and non-participation. For listening and hearing, some of our kids can have difficulties processing what they hear. Sometimes this leads to them missing directions or they may be too sensitive to sounds and are paying too much attention to other noises like the aircon rather than your voice. So it’s a good idea to use visual and tactile cues before using language-based directions.
Visual supports, like showing your child the actions of what to do first rather than explaining verbally can be more helpful. You can even take pictures and make a storybook about an activity that they can look at before playing. Giving tactile cues like placing your hand on your child’s shoulder or arm with safe, firm pressure can help him slow down and orient to the task as well. Providing some hand over hand assistance, can also help them figure out the motor planning easier. Auditory cues can be delivered in different ways; you can sing the instructions rhythmically or maybe tap on the surface before giving your instructions.
6. Give them More Time to Process Information
When your child has poor processing or atypical reactions to a sensory stimulation, give them time to process the sensory information. More often than not the child is processing one or two things at a time so if you immediately present new information (e.g. more movement or new instructions) it is likely the child may get disorganised and overwhelmed which isn’t very effective. It is okay to wait a bit, give it at least 5 seconds, look at your child’s facial expressions and reactions before presenting new sensory information when playing together.
7. Share Strategies and Learning Tools
It is most likely that you might have a team of people at home, school or at therapy centers that are helping your child. If they are very young or less verbal, it is always a good idea to share with your child’s team a list of photos, tools or strategies in the home that you’ve tried and is helpful for your child. Don’t be afraid to open up the conversation with the team. If the teacher or clinician has trialled a sensory tool in the classroom or in the therapy room that has proven to be effective, or just something your child enjoyed playing with, you would want to know about it. You can ask them where you can purchase one to use at home, how should you use it and how long should you use it. You can also try out our Kid Skills Playbox to get your hands on the right sensory toys and tools that therapists love using and recommend, check it out here.
8. Enter a shared world!
All human development begins with the relationship between the caregiver and the child enjoying a shared world. Sometimes for children with sensory processing differences the shared world is overwhelming. It can feel safer to be in their own world but getting stuck there does not promote learning.
What you can try at home is to enter their world through following your child’s lead. You harness your child’s intrinsic motivation by copying or joining what they are doing and this is a way for us to pull them into a shared world. For example, if your child’s way of feeling good in the world is spinning around in circles you can copy him. It is a way for you to connect with them and it will help them learn to trust and experience pleasure in this world.
Emily Nguyen is a Paediatric Occupational Therapist and caregiver to her little brother who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. She writes from the perspective of her experience as a therapist as well as a caregiver to a special needs family member. The blog posts are intended to inspire and educate but are in no way intended to offer medical or mental health advice. Please see disclaimer for details.