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How Parents and Play Therapists can Help Children with Transitions by Identifying Sensory Processing Disorder

March 20, 2013

By Sheri Mitschelen, LCSW, RPT/S
VAPT Northern Virginia Chapter Chair

This time of year comes with lots of transitions with Daylight Savings time, the weather changing and Spring break from school. While it’s typical for children to have trouble with transitions, some children and adults have more trouble than others. These children may have anxiety which makes it more difficult to transition and/or they may have Sensory Issues or Sensory Processing Disorder which makes it troublesome.  Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, formerly known as sensory integration dysfunction) is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist, A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.  A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.  

Ahn, Miller, Milberger, McIntosh, 2004 estimate that at least 1 in 20 children’s daily lives is affected by SPD. Another research study by the Sensory Processing Disorder Scientific Work Group (Ben-Sasson, Carter, Briggs-Gowen, 2009) suggests that 1 in every 6 children experiences sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions. Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder, like those of most disorders, occur within a broad spectrum of severity. While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic, and they disrupt everyday life.

According to the SPD Foundation, children with Sensory Processing Disorder often have problems with motor skills and other abilities needed for school success and childhood accomplishments. As a result, they often become socially isolated and suffer from low self-esteem and other social/emotional issues. These difficulties put children with SPD at high risk for many emotional, social, and educational problems, including the inability to make friends or be a part of a group, poor self-concept, academic failure, and being labeled clumsy, uncooperative, belligerent, disruptive, or “out of control.” Anxiety, depression, aggression, or other behavior problems can follow. Parents may be blamed for their children’s behavior by people who are unaware of the child’s challenges.

Effective treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder is available, but far too many children with sensory symptoms are misdiagnosed and not properly treated. Untreated SPD that persists into adulthood can affect an individual’s ability to succeed in marriage, work, and social environments.

Common Signs of Sensory Processing Problems


Out-of-proportion reactions to touch, sounds, sights, movement, tastes, or smells, including:

  • Bothered by clothing fabrics, labels, tags, etc.
  • Distressed by light touch or unexpected touch
  • Dislikes getting messy
  • Resists grooming activities
  • Very sensitive to sounds (volume or frequency)
  • Squints, blinks, or rubs eyes frequently
  • Bothered by lights or patterns
  • High activity level or very sedentary
  • Unusually high or low pain threshold

Motor skill and body awareness difficulties, including:

  • Fine motor delays (e.g., crayons, buttons/snaps, beading, scissors)
  • Gross motor delays (e.g., walking, running, climbing stairs, catching a ball )
  • Illegible handwriting
  • Moves awkwardly or seems clumsy
  • Low or high muscle tone

Oral motor and feeding problems, including:

  • Oral hypersensitivity
  • Frequent drooling or gagging
  • “Picky eating”
  • Speech and language delays

Poor attention and focus: often “tunes out” or “acts up”

Uncomfortable/easily overstimulated in group settings

Difficulty with self-confidence and independence

Many such behaviors are typical at certain stages of development. Many toddlers dislike fingerpaints. But a 10-year-old who has a meltdown during every art project is a different story. A strong dislike of itchy fabric or brushing teeth, shyness with strangers, or fear of a noisy goat at the petting zoo can be “typical” for a younger child as long as these sensory experiences do not interfere with day-to-day function. A child with sensory issues has responses to such experiences that are way out of proportion, consistently showing behaviors that can’t be dismissed.

Sensory Smart Tip: Make transitions easier for the child with sensory processing disorder, or SPD, by providing a clear picture of what comes next.  

In Raising a Sensory Smart Child The Definitive Handbook for helping your Child With Sensory Processing Issues, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and Nancy Peske note that for children with sensory processing issues transitions from one activity to another that other children handle easily can seem abrupt and unpleasant. What seems to us to be a fun shift in activities may be, to them, like slamming on the brakes and or making a sharp turn that causes them to feel disoriented.  To transition a child, first, get her attention. Call her name and tell her that you’re going to switch activities soon, and give her a time frame for completing the switch. For an older child, it may be stating something like “in fifteen minutes you need to do your homework…” For a younger child, it may be “when you’ve gone down the slide three more times, we’re leaving the park.” Keep your voice inviting but warm and firm.

Carol Kranowitz, M.A. has authored The Out of Sync Child and The Out of Sync Child Has Fun which gives lots of play activities regarding the various senses  that are fun and safe to help with improving Sensory Processing Disorder.  This is a great book for parents and Play therapist to use when working with SPD children.

To learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder go to and to find an Occupational Therapist who can assess children for SPD go to

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2013 10:56 pm

    Helpful information, Sheri! Thanks so much. Anne

  2. March 26, 2013 3:41 pm

    Support system is crucial in a child. Parents should always be there. And also the best way to communicate with them is through play therapy, that’s what I’m learned from school before when I was taking up Nursing and our subject was Psychology.

  3. Maureen A. Ritter permalink
    April 29, 2013 4:22 pm

    Thank you, Sheri — very helpful. Maureen Ritter

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