Pediatric Sensory Differences - Impact and Therapy


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Differences in the sensory integration process can influence development in many ways. If the right supports are not provided, children with these differences may have difficulty developing the skills and other abilities needed for school success and childhood accomplishments. As a result, they often experience emotional, social, and educational barriers, including social isolation or ostracization, poor self-esteem, academic mismatch, and being mislabeled as difficult or worse. Anxiety, depression, aggression, and other serious issues can follow. Parents may be blamed for their children's "behavior" by people who are unaware of the child's hidden differences.

Effective therapeutic supports for differences in the sensory integration process are available, but far too many children with sensory differences are misdiagnosed, misunderstood, and/or improperly treated. Untreated sensory differences that persists into adulthood can affect an individual's ability to succeed in marriage, work, and community social environments. For example, our adult program supports adults with every level of education, and from all kinds of employment; some of whom have successful work lives but are unhappy personally.

Therapy for Sensory Differences

Sensory differences do not affect cognition and people with these differences are at least as intelligent as their peers. (In a study at the Gifted and Talented Center in Denver 550 children were screened for sensory differences.  We found that 33% of these children had significant sensory differences.) Their brains are simply wired differently. These children need to be taught in ways that are personalized according to how they process information, and need leisure activities that suit their specific sensory needs.

Once children with disordered sensory processing have been accurately identified, they benefit from a therapy program of occupational therapy (OT) with a Sensory Integration Therapy (as conceptualized by Ayres) approach.  At STAR Institute we incorporate self-regulation and relational health, alongside investigating the environments and supports that the individual is provided with. We call our approach the STAR Frame of Reference, it is trauma informed and neurodiversity affirming. The STAR Frame of Reference has been published in multiple occupational therapy textbooks and treatment manuals including Frames of Reference for Pediatric Occupational Therapy by Kramer, Hinojosa, & Howe (2019).

The STAR approach is highly personalized to the child and family unit. It is always respectful, enjoyable, and starts with gaining consent from the client (be they a child or an adult). We use advanced clinical reasoning to figure out what works and what makes a difference, and we build therapy to fit each child’s needs and strengths.

We are not advocates of protocol approaches in general because all children are so different and have distinct individual needs. However, we may use elements of programs (such as listening therapies, interactive metronome, and formal exercises) in our approach.

Occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach typically takes place in a sensory-rich environment sometimes called the "OT gym." During OT sessions, the therapist guides the child through fun activities that are subtly structured so the child is constantly challenged, but always successful.

When therapy looks like play then we know we are successful. Adults joining their child's OT sessions should expect to move, sweat, and be fully attentive and present every minute; this usually feels like work (and fun too!). Parents will need to follow their OTs suggestions, instructions, coaching, and direction.

Sessions do not involve formal teaching, power struggles, "training", protocols, forced sensory experiences, or exposure to unpleasant / upsetting sensations. We pride ourselves on being flexible and responsive to the needs of the child and their family and therapeutic supports may alter as the family priorities and needs change. [Learn more about the STAR approach for adults here.]

The goal of Occupational Therapy is to foster growth that enables the child to develop motor mastery and nervous system regulation so that they can experience autonomy; and the ability to make change in their world. 
In childhood this means: development of effective emotional regulation; play; fine and gross motor skills;  social flourishing; ability to attend to tasks; action planning and sequencing; thriving amidst classroom demands; self-care; and participation in family activities.
As we mature this means: engaging in occupational roles we value, such as care of self and others, engagement with people and objects, and participation in social contexts.

The ultimate goal is the self organized child—a child who can be in expanded environments because they feel safe, they want to, they enjoy other people, and they can thrive in the world.

We do this by supporting brain-body growth AND investigating how the environment and systems can be adapted to be more supportive. All therapies are client centered, honoring the child for who they are, and seeking to enable them to flourish in today's world.

Sensory integration growth aims to increase organized brain-body responses to sensation via meaningful and fun child-led activity. Over time, these responses generalize beyond the sensory clinic and show up at home, school, and in the larger community. Effective occupational therapy thus enables children to take part in the activities of childhood, such as playing with friends, enjoying school, eating, dressing, and sleeping.  

At STAR Institute we believe that Occupational Therapy must be family-centered. Parents are involved and work with the therapist in every session to learn more about their child's sensory challenges and methods for engaging their children in therapeutic activities.

For detailed information about our unique therapy for sensory differences go to: STAR Institute Treatment Center.