Sensory Processing Disorder – Creating Calm in a Chaotic World

by Tom Kloiber on April 3, 2013

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Sensory Processing Disorder affects about half of all autistic children, and the symptoms often significantly impact all aspects of daily life, including learning. Understanding how to deal with the disorder is crucial to communicating and working with autistic children. Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the U.S. According to the CDC, autism affects 1 in 88 children today and boys are five times more likely to be autistic than girls (1 in 54 boys)…and new studies indicate that this may be an underestimate.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

To put it simply, sensory processing involves how we perceive and react to sensory input. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), occurs when sensory input causes inappropriate responses. As a result, children with SPD can have a host of social, behavioral, and health issues, including impaired motor skills, poor coordination, anxiety, depression, academic failure, behavioral problems, and poor social interactions.

Creating a calming environment

When dealing with an autistic child who has SPD, environment is important. While most kids love a chaotic room filled with bright colors, pictures, hanging mobiles, and a jumble of toys and books, kids with SPD can quickly become overstimulated and overwhelmed, resulting in either hyperactive behavior or withdrawal. The key to getting and keeping the attention of a child with this disorder starts with the environment. Everything is important.

De-clutter – Minimize clutter and make sure everything—books, toys, equipment—is neat and in place. Clear tables and desks.

Color-up – Choose paint colors that are calm and pale. Prevailing color psychology (yes, that’s a thing) holds that yellow is an upsetting choice (it increases anger and frustration), red, purple, and orange are exciting and stimulate creativity (great for regular kids, but potentially terrible for kids with SPD), and warm blues and greens lower blood pressure and make people feel calm and comforted. Neutral colors like tan and soft white are also a good choice, as long as the lighting is soft and muted.

De-light– If using ambient light is possible, turn the lights off. Harsh overhead fluorescent lights can be distracting and upsetting, and they often emit a high pitched hum that adults often can’t hear…but kids can. If it’s too dim with the lights off, plug small, unobtrusive lamps in dark corners.

De-scent – Don’t forget olfactory triggers. Scented markers, stinky garbage, the lingering smell of popcorn or last period’s microwaved lunch, perfume, air fresheners, and other strong smells can be terribly distracting.

Re-sound – Sounds are hard to combat, especially in a school environment. Try calm classical music played at very low volume or a sound machine set to rain or surf (look for one made to facilitate sleep, with no jarring bird sounds). Keep the volume very low, just loud enough to counter traffic sounds.

Even if you’re providing therapy remotely, you can control the audio and visual you provide during your session and encourage the parents to ensure there is not too much background stimulation during your time.

Every child is different, and finding the right combination of environmental factors necessary to facilitate lessons will take some experimentation. But it’s well worth the effort to reach and teach kids who suffer from SPD. Do you have any tips to share?

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