Why is Sensory Such a Mystery?


We’ve all sat in those meetings. The one where the Committee Chair, or the pre-school director, or the classroom staff, or the administration says those dreaded words.

We don’t treat just sensory.”

“OT is for fine-motor and visual-perceptual skills.”

“We don’t provide sensory diets.”

If you’ve never heard these cringe-worthy statements made, consider yourself lucky.

I get it. Sensory issues are tricky. Truth be told, I feel lost with them. I feel like I understand a fraction of what there is to know about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Admitting this is difficult, considering my own child has SPD. But I know, if I’m mystified, then others out there must be equally as lost.

I know they are.

Classroom teachers’ eyes glaze over at the mention of a sensory diet. Shall we count how often the sensory diet recommendations are carried out? I’m guessing we can do it on one hand. It’s not for lack of trying on the teachers’ parts either. Resources are stretched too thin. Training is too sparse. It’s easier just to refer out to OT to get the job done. It doesn’t work if it’s treated with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Heck mention of the Wilbarger protocol alone sends shudders of terror down my spine. And let’s be frank–our kids barely get time to eat and have recess. No one has time to brush someone every two hours, not to mention how socially off-putting this can be to other children. (NOTE: While writing this, a teacher came in and asked about a standing desk to try with a student. The student is currently using a T-stool but a classmate has started picking on her for it.)

But then there’s flip side–we can’t expect children to learn until their sensory systems are modulated. Sure, some information can get in here and there. These kids are smart and will find a way. But smooth, coordinated learning, not to mention social interaction–in other words, success–will be impacted in children with an undermodulated or overmodulated nervous system.

Just because we know these issues are there doesn’t mean there’s an easy solution. From a therapist point of view, providing a sensory diet seems like a good solution. But we all know the reality of this. The cookie-cutter approach doesn’t always work. So, what else can we do? How can we meet our children’s sensory and social needs?

Like most therapists (and those awesome Tiger parents), we know it’s time to think out of the box. Sometimes, the answer is easy. For my son, Jurassic Park, with its roaring T-rex was too loud. We had to leave the movie. When the Jurassic World came out, we had a new plan. That pair of headphones (the cheap version of Beats)–they block the sound too. And my 11 year-old looked like any other kid with his iPod in the pocket of his hoodie. Thinking outside the box while fitting in. We’ve been doing this all along. Or we should be.

OT Doreit Bailer explores a problem solving approach to sensory issues in her seminar, No Longer A SECRET:  A Theoretical, Practical Approach to Helping Students with Sensory and Motor Challenges Experience Success at the Sixteenth Annual Therapies in the School Conference.

~Kathryn Biel, PT, DPT