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Raising a Sensory Smart Child - Practical Solutions for Daily Challenges - October 16, 2009

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Practical Solutions for Daily Challenges of Raising a Sensory Smart Child

All material Copyright 2004-2009 Lindsey Biel OTR/L & Nancy Peske
Article reprinted with the express permission of the authors as it appears on their website.
By: Lindsey Biel OTR/L & Nancy Peske authors of Raising a Sensory Smart Child

NB: This article was written primarily for parents and caregivers of children with Sensory Processing Disorder. We include it here as an excellent resource that therapists may share with the parents and guardians of the kiddos they treat with with and without SPD.

  • To desensitize gums, and help your child tolerate using a toothbrush, massage gums with a rubber finger cot, Toothette or Den-Tips (available in many drugstores), use a Z-Vibe or other oral vibrator, or swipe gums with a washcloth.
  • Change toothpastes. If your child can’t tolerate toothpaste foam, try non-foaming toothpaste such as Orajel Toddler Training Toothpaste.
  • Make it predictable. Develop a predictable routine for when and how to brush. Help your child choose the brushing pattern. For example, she could always start with top teeth and to brush from left to right, front to back. A consistent brushing pattern will help your child learn to sequence this complex activity, help her to predict when and where she will feel various sensations (instead of feeling assaulted by the toothbrush) and help her feel proud about keeping her mouth and teeth nice and clean.

  • Switch soaps. If your child doesn’t like “slimy” soap or shampoo, try foamy soap (also good for tactile play-unlike shaving cream, it doesn’t have a strong smell).
  • Rinse differently. If your child avoids bathing because she hates being rinsed off, try using a large container of water since the extra weight of the water might feel soothing. Alternately, your child might be more comfortable if he feels in control of the water. In this case, provide a sprinkling can (beach or garden toy) or a hand-held shower attachment. Count down together to rinsing: “1, 2, 3, rinse.”
  • Keep eyes and face dry. Use a foam visor or a washrag held over the face when rinsing. This is good for a child who hates water on his face or who hates tilting his head back for rinsing. You might also have him dry his face immediately after washing it even if he’s still in the shower or bath.
  • Use a different towel. If toweling dry is a problem, experiment with softer (or harder) towel textures. You can also try pre-warming the towel in the dryer for a few minutes.

  • Calm with deep pressure. Give calming deep pressure input via a backrub or massage using long, firm strokes. Simply squeezing feet, legs, hands, and arms, can be soothing at bedtime, especially for a child who has difficulty transitioning from an aroused, wakeful state to a calm, restful state. You can also try a weighted blanket, a weighted lap pad or a cozy beanbag—such as the Peapod shown.
  • Lights out-or not. Make sure the room is dark enough (or light enough) for your child to sleep. A small amount of light might comfort one child, while light creeping in through the curtains or under the door might disturb another.
  • Quiet time. An auditory sensitive child may need total quiet to fall asleep. Try a white noise machine, fan, aquarium, or even a radio set on static to help block out sounds. Some kids fall asleep more easily listening to gentle music such as Mozart or special sleep-promoting CDs such as Baby Go to Sleep (800-841-4248) or Hemi-Sync sleep CDs (800-541-2488).

  • Get familiar. Visit the haircutter to check it out and watch other children get their hair trimmed (avoid the word “cut”). Familiar places are less scary.
  • Desensitize the scalp. Massage your child’s scalp before a haircut using your hands, handheld vibrator, or vibrating hairbrush.
  • Bring your own. Your child may be distressed by the plastic cape with its scratchy closure. Instead, use a soft towel and clip or an oversized shirt. Bring a t-shirt to change into right away so that she doesn’t have to wear a hair-covered shirt home.
  • Go kid-friendly. Go to a child-friendly haircutting salon or create your own at home with snacks and an absorbing video to watch.
  • Brush it off. Have the barber or stylist give the child a big soft brush or a dry washrag with baby powder on it to brush off stray hair as it is cut. Use baby powder on irritated skin afterward.
  • Give him time. A new haircut or hairstyle can be distracting for a child for days. Try to avoid them before a test or special event.

  • Consider the softest clothing. Many kids with sensitive skin insist on super soft clothing. Many parents swear by the all-cotton clothing made by Land’s End and Hanna Andersson. Check their overstocks, check for children’s “preconditioned” clothing, and visit local consignment stores and thrift shops (think: pre-worn = pre-softened).
  • Consider tightness vs. looseness. Some children are more comfortable wearing snug clothing or tight clothing worn beneath their other clothes. Try bicycle shorts, tights, “too small” t-shirts, etc.
  • Watch the details. When buying clothes for a tactile sensitive child, avoid scratchy nylon threads and items made of polyester blends which can pill and cause discomfort. Buy seamless socks from places like and

  • Avoid shopping during peak hours. Shop during off-peak hours. When stores are at their most crowded and noisy, they can be overwhelming for a child with sensory issues, leading to tantrums and meltdowns.
  • Let your child push the grocery cart. Pushing provides calming sensory input. Many grocery stores have junior carts for smaller children. Have your toddler or preschooler push his stroller or pull a wagon. Add packages for extra weight.
  • Give your child some control and a sense of predictability. Young children can help find groceries on the shelf and match groceries to a picture list. Older kids can help you write lists, find items, pull out coupons, or check items off your to-do list.

Potty Training
  • Get the right seat. Some children are disturbed by the size and feel of a large toilet seat. Bring your child to the store and help her pick out a potty chair or a cushioned vinyl ring that fits onto an adult toilet seat.
  • Reduce the fear of flushing toilets. Some children are frightening by the sound of flushing. A sense of control helps: together, count off to the flush, for example: “1, 2, 3, FLUSH!” Make lots of noise as the toilet is flushing, shouting “hooray!”
  • Help them to be aware of the need to “go.” Sometimes, tight clothes provide sensory input that distracts a child from the sensation of needing to use the potty. Loose clothing such as boxer shorts may help him recognize when he has the urge to go.

This Month's Featured Authors: Lindsey Biel OTR/L & Nancy Peske

Lindsey Biel, M.A., OTR/L is an occupational therapist specializing in pediatrics and the co-author of the award winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child. Through her private practice in New York City and the NY State early intervention program, she works with infants, toddlers, and older children with sensory processing disorder, developmental delays, autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, and other challenges. She is a popular speaker, teaching workshops to parents, teachers, therapists, doctors, and other professionals across the country, and a contributing writer for Autism Asperger Digest Magazine.

Nancy Peske is a freelance writer, editor, co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, and the co-author of the Cinematherapy series which has sold over 270,000 copies and inspired a TV show on Women’s Entertainment. Formerly an editor in the trade division at HarperCollins, she has co-written, ghostwritten, and edited several bestselling books in the areas of spirituality, inspiration, health, and psychology. She lives in Shorewood, Wisconsin with her husband and son, diagnosed with SPD and several developmental delays.

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Tags: Sensory Processing Disorder OT October 2009 Newsletter Article