Sensory Regulation, What Is It?

By Maureen Karwowski, OT

As I sit at my desk typing this blog on my laptop, I am regulated enough to focus on this task.  I am able to filter out the sounds of the lights buzzing, my coworkers typing, the feeling of my clothing, and the light coming in from the window beside me.  I will admit that some times I am able to do this, and not others.  For a child with sensory processing challenges, the interpretation and responses to the  sensory experiences I described can be ineffective.  These ineffective responses can impact a child’s overall regulation and can affect many areas of development.  It is estimated 01_Mason Esquivelthat 1 of 20 children are impacted by a sensory processing deficit (Ahn, Miller, Milberger, McIntosh, 2004).

I have worked with many children with sensory processing challenges as a pediatric occupational therapist.  I know from my work that every person presents with their own unique sensory profile.  Since every child is so unique, I am required to closely assess each client to be sure that I understand where their challenges are and what I can do to assist them.  A skilled occupational therapist will use a variety of assessments, some are standardized evaluations, and others are from observations of the child.  A thorough assessment will address three areas of sensory processing: sensory regulation, sensory modulation, and sensory discrimination.  Today’s topic is sensory regulation.

Sensory regulation refers to a person’s ability to keep their arousal at the right level for the situation.  Adequate self-regulation is essential to the development of attention, regulation of sleep/wake cycles, control of emotions, as well as the daily transitions that make up a child’s routine.  Sensory regulation is necessary for social interactions and learning.

One of my clients, who has significant challenges with this skill described a story about how at school, he loves to run around on the playground at recess.  He told me that the problem is that all of the other kids can slow down after recess, line up and then go back into school.

“I get so revved up that I can’t control myself anymore.”10_Logan

His teachers stated that he ran into the building, bumping into other kids at times, and did not respond to verbal directions.  This is a great example of how regulation issues can impact transitions and school.  This story ends well for this little boy.  His mother and I worked together and identified what were the factors that were impacting his regulation challenges.  For this boy, he was sensitive to movement and visual input.  He was correct in his statement that running around on the playground “revved” him up.  In occupational therapy sessions, and at home with his parents, we worked to address his challenges with movement and with visual input.  This in turn assisted him with his transition from running around to lining up to go back inside the school much easier.  We also worked on using some “tools” to help him with this transition, such as being given an earlier warning than the other kids from the teacher, he blew the whistle which gave him a chance to take a deep breath, and was in charge of carrying the bin of recess equipment into school which gave him some heavy work.

We all have strategies that assist us in keeping our arousal level where they need to be.  People chew gum, drink coffee, fiddle with objects, all in an effort to keep alert.  We also have strategies to calm ourselves down such as deep breaths, working out, knitting, herbal tea.  It is very important for children with sensory regulation challenges that we identify what are the regulating strategies that they can use to assist them.  Something as simple as chair pushups, sucking on a piece of candy, squeezing a stress ball, or rocking in a rocking chair can be useful.  It is important to customize these strategies to your child, as everyone responds differently.

I find that my occupational therapy sessions are the most effective when the parents and I are working together to identify the child’s sensory processing challenges and how those challenges are impacting daily life.

Stay tuned, as my next blog post will discuss sensory modulation.  Sensory modulation is the amount of sensitivity a person experiences towards a sensory experience.

For more information about Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley please visit EasterSealsDFVR.org.

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