Category: Sensory Processing Disorder

It’s a Sensory World

So I was that kid, the clumsy kid, shins always bruised, chewing on my shirt sleeves, always grubby. I didn’t learn to write my own name until I was in year 2. I can remember begging my best friend to tell me how to spell it just one last time. I promised I would remember it this time ….

My memory of my preschool is the scratchy hessian under our sheets on the cots we used for nap time.

In year 5 I changed schools and went suddenly from the bottom of the class to the top of the class. I ultimately graduated high school with Dux in 2 subjects and an excellent result allowing me to attend an excellent university in the degree of my choice.

The new school had far fewer resources, in fact, the teacher was absent for most of the year and was replaced by volunteers. There was no playground, a sad comparison to the extensive, age-appropriate, multi-level playgrounds of my previous school, so large it seemed like parkland to my small eyes. The new school’s playground was the car park of the church built beside the school.

In reflection, the only thing I could identify that changed in my favour was the school uniform. My previous school was a private ladies college and our uniform included a tie, beret, and a blazer. All irritating and scratchy. Wearing the tie meant I spent much of the day feeling like I was choking. The new school had a loose cotton dress and I flourished.

There’s many stories I could share with you of how the different way my body seemed to process sensory information impacted on my life, how I would carefully select the pen I used in high school because of how it felt on my fingers when writing, how if the edge of the bed sheet came up and exposed the mattress I couldn’t sleep. How I cut open the neck on the brand new skivvies that my mother had brought me (that went down well you can imagine!)

As I grew older and wanted to fit in I experimented on myself and trained myself to wear sunglasses standing in the kitchen in front of the microwave timer ticking down until I had worn the glasses for 30 seconds, then building up eventually to 5 minutes when I felt I could then continue to increase the time without the timer. I gradually learnt to tolerate wearing a hat and how used an odd strategy involving jelly and green peas (it’s a long story!) to learn how to swallow tablets when I was a university student.

How even as an adult a ticking clock or drip would keep me awake for hours, how smelling the artificial air purifier at my workplace felt like someone had physically hit me in the face every time it sprayed and caused migraines by the end of the day.

How I decorated my apartment with white walls and cream curtains because my workplace was so visually over stimulating my eyes felt like they were aching when I got home. How the skin on the back of my hands used to irritate me when I typed.

Now I work with young children who experience similar differences in the way their bodies take in and interpret the complicated symphony of sensory input that washes over us daily.

The difference is I can see how in so many instances these sensory processing differences have been an advantage. Sensitive hearing, sensitive smell, sensitive tastes would have protected my family or my tribe from many calamities in a simpler time.

The heavy work of the lifestyle we lived not that long ago would have dulled some of the sensitivity I was feeling, things like carrying armloads of wood, carrying buckets of water, digging in a garden, using a washing board or a mangle during laundry. Now in our push-button, largely sedentary world there is little “heavy work” that might take the edge off my over active tactile system.

That being said I can without much reflection identify a few practical things this has helped me with including this such as I am always able to detect when food is just about to start to burn, have saved many meals and in a few instances I have adverted a fire (Not my cooking!)

I can hear the electrical hum in devices and know they aren’t turned off (in a time before modern switchboards this could have been a lifesaver).

I am always the first person in the room to hear and react to the baby crying, I have saved people from drowning by being able to spot the change in the visual pattern of the swimmers while working as a lifeguard and swimming teacher.

I won a competitive job application based on my visual processing skills, I have found so much money dropped on the floor over the years it’s ridiculous!

These differences have been a major advantage in so many instances in my life. I remember when I realised not everyone saw everything the way I did and I walked into a room choosing to ignore things and wondering how it felt to live like this all of the time.

To the parent who is worried about their sensory child, I would say, it’s not necessarily the sensory stuff that’s the issue so much as anxiety and the self-esteem your child has that has the biggest impact on them.

I can remember walking home from work one day as an adult and I decided, I made an active decision to be confident. This was after a lifetime of not knowing why everything seemed that much harder for me compared to other children.

I was fortunate to stumble by accident into occupational therapy after I had finished my undergraduate degree. After completing the master’s degree again it was fortunate that my first job was with a clinic that sent me to complete post-graduate training in sensory processing disorder.

That was when I finally saw I ticked all the boxes for sensory processing disorder (SPD) 2 years later when I was at a conference to learn a treatment protocol for sensory sensitivity and followed it strictly myself and I saw and felt the change in myself.

Unfortunately, sensory processing disorder is not yet officially recognised in the diagnostic manuals this means that research into treatments is poorly funded.

Understanding of just how many children and adults experience the world in this slightly different way is poorly understood and both children and adults who have these differences are left with vague a sense of there being something wrong or different but not really being able to put it into words.

So, parents, I will tell you that if your child has sensory sensitivities it does improve as they get older largely because as you get older you have choice and control.

You can provide this to your child now.

My wardrobe consists primarily of brushed cotton fabrics. Fortunately, now more clothing companies are producing clothes without tags and even seamless clothes.

Allowing your child to make decisions such as which scent for shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste (they even have taste free now), fabrics for clothes can greatly help your child by allowing them to chose which is more easy for them to tolerate. I have noticed many people find artificial scents difficult to tolerate, not just people with sensory processing differences. I have found quality natural scents such as essential oils easy to tolerate in comparison to air fresheners or laundry detergent fragrances.

Providing choices to your child doesn’t have to be a major chore. Once you know your child’s preferences for things like toiletries and fabric styles it will get easier.

If your child is sensitive to sound there is a lot you can do. For example, use a digital clock in your house, turn off all devices that aren’t being used at the wall. Remember just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean your child can’t hear it.

Just knowing that your child’s experience of the world is a little different – a little more or less like your experience can be helpful. Your child’s self-esteem can be built to encourage them to participate in things that interest them and build on their strengths. Additional support to overcome challenges and achieve their individual goals can help them to keep up with their peers.

This is my personal experience. Every child’s experience of the sensory world is going to be different.

If you think you or your child might have differences in the way they take in or process sensory information that is impacting on their development or learning I encourage you to contact the Occupational Therapy Association in your area. They will be able to provide you with a list of occupational therapists practising in your area.

If you would like to read more about this topic you can see my #SensoryAwareness series over at

If your child school-aged child is experiencing meltdowns and tantrums you can access my free short course at

clothing tags

Understanding SPD Series

This week we will be publishing a short series of posts addressing Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This can present

Sensory Processing Disorger can present in a range of ways in people. Each child and adult with SPD have their own way of coping and their own pattern of differences in how their sensory system works. You may recognise some of these challenges. It is currently thought that up to 1 in 20 children are affected by SPD. (SPD Australia

Your sensory system takes in sensory information from the environment and your own body. The well-known senses: vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell are not the only senses. Proprioception – the sense of where your body is and the and Vestibular sense – processing movement and giving you your sense of balance are vital systems allowing you to function in your everyday activities. The final sense is Interoception. This little-known sense is involved in the internal regulation responses, such as hunger, feeling full, needing to go to the toilet, respiration rate, and heart rate.

People with SPD can experience differences in processing the information from one sense or multiple senses. They can be over responsive – Hypersensitive and avoid the sensory input or under responsive – Hyposensitive and they seek the sensory input.

The sensory system provides information from your central nervous system to your brain which is then processed and prioritised.

What is tolerable one day can be unbearable the next as irritating sensory inputs can compound. Thought processes can impact on how the sensation is processed. Picture the already late, stressed parent struggling to get the kids out the door when the baby spits up over their shirt and the dog gets out, making them late for school drop off and work. A child with SPD that might have the overwhelming experience of getting up, having to eat a texture that is uncomfortable then brush teeth which could cause nausea, having hair brushed that feels painful, smelling fragrances from soaps, perfumes, shampoos or deodorants can cause discomfort including headaches, having to wear a school uniform that is itchy and being overwhelmed by these feelings forgetting their lunchbox or dropping their homework and having a meltdown.

Sensory information can be overwhelming, particularly for children who have little to no control over their environment and cannot communicate their experiences. These children may not understand that their experience of the world is different from their peers and may not realise that there is an alternative way of existing and moving through the world.

A challenging sensory experience may lead to anxiety and produce a flight, fight, fright reaction in the person. These reactions are often misinterpreted as bad behaviour, tantrums, ignoring, being overly emotional, being inattentive.  A child under extreme stress may have a melt down or may actually shut down. Our bodies and minds work hard to protect us from possible threatening situations.

When there is SPD it is thought that the brain is not processing and prioritising the incoming information correctly. For example the background hum of a central air system in a school would fade into the background for most people, a person with SPD would potentially hear that hum for the duration of the class, unable to ignore it and keep their focus only on the teacher’s voice. Walking into the classroom if I mentioned the air conditioning the students would easily direct their attention to the sound and back. This ability to focus in on certain background sounds and then ignore them when they are no longer relevant is essential for attention and learning.

When you are in a crowded room, if the person standing next to you engaged in a conversation with anther person starts mentioning your name you will quickly find your attention diverted from your current conversation and turned over instead to your neighbour’s conversation. If you discover it is not you that they are talking about your mind quickly returns to your current conversation. This “tuning in” and “tuning out” happens throughout the course of the day as your body takes in the sensory inputs from the environment quickly scanning all incoming information to produce the correct response. If your child seems to ignore their name yet has been tested and found to have normal hearing and language skills they may be having difficulty prioritising that collection of sounds over the other sounds in their environment at that time. These examples are referring to sound modulation, but this skill is relevant to the other senses. Difficulty in sensory MODULATION can be exhausting and can cause significant anxiety. Difficulties with sensory modulation can affect learning and memory.

These challenges can result in additional difficulties as children may start to avoid experiences, seek other experiences and may struggle with increasingly complex demands. Emotional outbursts, meltdowns and behavioural challenges, self-esteem, and confidence can be affected.

Understanding SPD can be the first step towards helping your child.

Start to learn the signs for your child that indicates what is sensory and what is behaviour.

Provide control and choices to your sensory sensitive child where possible and safe.

Provide safe access to sensory play for your sensory seeking child.

Provide sensory play options that feel safe for your sensory sensitive child.

Heavy work / proprioceptive play such as climbing, crawling, lifting, pushing play and chores (age appropriate) can be very helpful to meet the sensory needs of our brains.



Apartment Friendly Water Play Ideas

Apartment friendly water play ideas

While living in a small apartment it was often a struggle to find a way to allow our children to have sensory play especially when they were so young and we didn’t have a balcony.

I would set up play inside a blow up swimming pool in the lounge room with towels down on the ground around it. The idea of the pool was that there was an edge to show where the messy play could happen. When things were going to be very messy I would even just set up the play in the bathtub.


Here are some little ideas for the water play:

If your child is hesitant with water play set up the water play table with a very small amount of water that you play with to show hoe it can be used. Then just gently invite your child to watch and join you when they are comfortable.

Use a cup to tip water back and forth you can add food colouring with a dropper to watch it disperse and make this more interesting.

Pour water from a bottle into another container experiment with funnels.

Poke holes in a milk or juice bottle to create a ‘watering can’ and use to shower dolls, toys, toy cars, or even water plants.

Drop food colouring  into a clear water container to watch the colour of the water change. Adding an effervescent tablet will cause lots of little bubbles.

Pour water along a path like your drive way with a water can

Use a soup spoon to scour and pour water

Cut a pool noodle in half to make a “river” and pour water along it

Use a spray bottle to spray water – you can add food colouring or liquid paint to make the water coloured. If you add paint you can do “spray painting”.

Use a syringe to draw up the water and squirt onto a target.

Use a dropper to water you magic seeds (these could be beads, seeds, rocks).

Use water pistols to shoot at a target (if you have a child that is keen on shooting things you could shoot down little arm men or less violent they can shoot an actual target image).

Water plants with a watering can (can make one from a plastic milk bottle – put one hold in handle to allow air to enter. Pierce the lid a few times to allow water to come out).

Give a doll a drink.

Bath a doll.

Wash a doll’s hair.

Give a dinosaur or any other plastic toys a drink from a “river” or “pond”

Set up a car wash complete with a sponge and car wash (detergent) to give them a really good clean.


If your child is sensitive to water play I suggest using smaller amounts of water, allow your child to use a tool to handle the water (such as a soup spoon or cup) and gently invite them to play while you are already playing with it. Make it look like it’s the best fun you have ever had to peak their curiosity. As you do everything you explain to them what you are doing, this will help reduce their fear while building your connection and provide opportunities to develop their language skills.


marbles in sensory play

Sensory Cheat Sheets

Sensory Processing is one of my favourite topics and as someone who grew up with some sensory processing challenges and now as a professional working in occupational therapy I always find myself loving it when the topic of sensory processing comes up!

Read more

set your goals

Goal setting

You have probably heard the acronym “SMART Goals”






When a parent or therapist is creating goals for a child these goals should be child centred and wherever possible the child should be enabled to set their own goals.

In a school context an Individual Education Plans (IEP) is created by a team. In some instances the child will attend the meeting and will be able to contribute to the development of their education goals. Goals should always be meaningful to the child and should make a difference in their lives.

Goals must be functional and they must be measurable. O’Neill and Harris (1982) propose goals should include the following:


Will do what

Under what conditions

How well

By when

Applying this to an IEP:

Who – The student’s name

Will do what – For example will sit on the carpet for 20 minutes during circle time in the classroom.

Under what conditions – Sitting on a move n’ sit cushion, with access to fiddle toy of their choice with Learning Support Assistant (LSA) seated behind the child.

How well – Student will remain seated without verbal prompting in 9/ 10 instances

By When – by the end of the first month (or give dates).

Now we’ve set the goals..

It is very important when considering goals to take into consideration “So What?” What does achieving this goal mean for the child?  What will this goal actually enable the child to be able to do? Is achieving this goal actually going to produce any meaningful change anything for the student?
In the above example: Our goal is for the child to be able to use sensory supports to enable them to participate in circle time in the classroom with their peers for 20 minutes at a time. Our “So what?” for this goal: This will enable the child to have access to the curriculum being taught at this time.

This allows the child to be with their peers in class (by reducing distracting behavior, or by reducing running from class or other applicable change).

This allows the child to be more independent by reducing reliance on the LSA to be with their class in a meaningful way.

This actively encourages the LSA to reduce their prompts to the child.

Enabling the student to self select or manage a sensory tool can be included in a separate goal in their IEP if relevant.


O’Neill DL, Harris SR. Developing goals and objectives for handicapped children. Phys Ther.1982 ;62:295–298.