Did you know how much muscular strength is linked to processing functions? It may sound far-fetched but sensory processing disorder isn’t only about what goes on between our senses and our brains.
How can this be?
Starting from the neck down, we have muscles near our joints that must be strong enough to enable us to do everyday tasks. Neck muscles, shoulder muscles, and arm muscles need to contract as necessary so that we can pull and push and carry objects.
My son has big trouble in this area. Until he was almost four years old he couldn’t open the fridge door, carry anything heavy without great difficulty, or open up the little bag of chips I allowed him once in a while. Once he started succeeding at these tasks, he realized he needed to put a lot more effort into whatever he does. The result? Knocking himself over when trying to unplug a wire from an outlet, shoving his sibling away when he meant to give a slight push, and pulling out his dresser drawers when trying to find his clothing.
Think this sounds like proprioceptive awareness? You’re not wrong. Some of the sensory disorders is a result of certain muscles not getting exercised enough and physical therapy is often recommended.
Next comes core body strength. Many children with sensory processing disorder have poor posture as a result of poor core strength. Gravity is pulling at them, making them a bit hunched. Consequently, the head is in a poor position to be picking up sights and sounds and processing them effectively. The lungs aren’t in ideal position for allowing fresh air in and out, leaving the child out-of-breath sooner than the typical child.
Another very common problem that reveals itself as a result of poor posture and weak arms: poor handwriting. I should really write: sloppy, messy, atrocious handwriting. It looks as though the child is simply being lazy and can’t be bothered to do a neat job. My son’s OT pointed this out to me- if you watch a child like this while he writes you’ll see his poor posture, awkward placement of his arms, as well as his gripping the pencil too lightly or too firmly.
When I was a kid in school, any paper that wasn’t 100% neat had to be re-written from the beginning. That would seriously depress my son who has been lucky with teachers so far. I do check his homework nightly and I ask him to find 10 letters which aren’t done neatly and to erase them and do them again. But I would never scrap an entire paper that he’s written and tell him to do it over as if his efforts are insignificant.
Leg muscles may not be in ideal working shape either. A child may get tired easily after just a few minutes of walking or running. Or the child may not know how much strength to put into his feet as walks or jumps and ends up stomping or crashing onto the floor. (Sounds like proprioceptive again.)
Is it any wonder that many of these “sensory kids” don’t like playing sports? Their body moves awkwardly as they are uncoordinated, they can’t run fast or much on the field, their stamina doesn’t last very long.
Yet, what these kids really do need is exactly what they try to avoid: play sports. Other forms of exercise are wonderful for them too. Aerobics and muscle-strengthening exercises at a pace they are comfortable with while teaching their bodies to be comfortable with more at each session.
I admire the SPD child who keeps on going out to the field when he knows he isn’t a very talented player. Of course this isn’t the rule- I am sure there are many sensory kids who are quite good at sports and it helps them in many different ways. But a child who is persistent and stubborn, and keeps on trying to get better at something he naturally isn’t good at, is someone to be admired, in my opinion.
A teacher at my son’s school recognized which children were good at the recess sports games and which ones were below average (yes, during his break). The ones below average did indeed have sensory difficulties. He realized how unfair it was for an uncoordinated child to have to play against the best players time and again and keep losing. And so he organized two separate games: one for the typical children and another one for the awkward ones who needed help and practice more than they needed to lose every time.
This is why physical therapy is so closely related to occupational therapy. Children with sensory processing disorder can benefit from both although usually only occupational therapy is recommended. Here’s what my son’s OT has taught him to do: jumping jacks, hopscotch, climb the monkey bars, pump his legs on a swing so that he doesn’t need me to push him, and catch a ball while jumping on a trampoline. They also worked on bridge exercises for core body strength. That sounds a lot like physical therapy.
There is much more to write about the benefits of exercise for sensory kids, and so I’ll have to make a Part II. Until then…