Ask an OT: Sensory activities

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I consistently find myself in situations where people ask me OT-related questions that are outside of my regular practice area. Instead of mumbling and stumbling as I have done in the past, I am implementing a new strategy. This post heralds the beginning of series called "Ask an OT" where I pass the questions on to therapists who know more than I do. 

The inaugural questions come from a friend whose young boy is a deep input and vestibular seeker. OT services may be in his future, but have not started yet. I am referring the questions onto a classmate from dear NYU, Kalya Paradis, OTR/L and her friend Catherine Cowen, OTR/L.

Please note that the information provided here is not meant to replace professional medical advice, but hopefully will be helpful in generating ideas and future conversations.

1.) What are some vestibular input activities that can be done inside and involve the whole family?

Hi there! Here are some activities I would suggest for you:

  • Animal walk, relay races, and soccer:  Animal Walks (such as bear walks, crab walks, wheelbarrow walking, etc.) are a nice way to get in vestibular input along with calming proprioceptive input to the joints. They can also be integrated into relay races or soccer games (ie crab-walk soccer) to be played as a family!
  • Blanket Swings: Child lies wrapped up in a blanket or sheet and two adults then take each end and swing it back and forth! The kids can take turns with this, as they will likely all enjoy.
  • Blanket tortilla rolls: On a soft carpeted surface, child gets rolled up into a blanket (or “tortilla”) by an adult who then allows the child to logroll out by pulling at one side to unwrap. This activity also provides calming deep pressure input when the child is rolled up. You can add more time for deep pressure with gentle but firm hugs and squeezes with the child in the blanket. It is nice to include this calming deep pressure time as a way to wind down and re-organize after the more exciting vestibular input.
  • Freeze dance: Easy to enjoy as a family! Vestibular input can be emphasized by making it freeze dance with spinning and stopping or running around an object like the couch and stopping.
  • Musical chairs: Same idea as freeze dance!
  • Duck-Duck-Goose: Another fun family game that provides children with opportunities to run around in circles.

2.) How often and for what duration are sensory activities typically recommended?

This is hard to answer since it really depends on the child. Take notice of whether your child is calmer after time performing vestibular and deep pressure activities and how long this lasts. A nice place to start could be 10-20 minutes 2-3 times a day.  The first 10 minutes can be vestibular fun and the last 10 can be deep input to provide balance and calm. Try putting on some relaxing music during deep input time.

Deep input activities include:

  • squeezes up and down arms and legs
  • hugs and squeezes while wrapped up in a blanket
  • gentle pushes downwards with a rubber ball or pillow up and down back/arms/legs
  • push-ups against a wall or trying to “push the wall away”
  • chair popcorns (aka chair push-ups) by having child sit and place palms on the side of the chair with knees bent and then lift body and legs off the chair by pushing through hands.

3.) Any other initial tips for starting a sensory diet?

Make it fun! Try establishing sensory diet time as a part of the family or child’s routine. You can make a picture to represent sensory diet time that can be taken out when it is time. You can call it “OT time” or “sensory time” or really anything the child catches onto.

A child with a sensory diet should be under the care of an occupational therapist, who should be consulted with as to how the child is responding and how to tailor it for the child.

4.) What are some good questions to ask your OT, when services do get underway?

  • Can you please be involved with the implementation and monitoring of a sensory home program?
  •  Can you inform me of any dietary modifications or specialized sensory programs that may help my child?
  • I’m interesting in learning more, can you provide me with resources for information and research about current and new OT practices?

5) A primary concern about sensory seeking behaviors can be how it affects social relationships, as the behaviors can come across as rough or aggressive. Any initial thoughts or tips on this?

I’d first like to provide this article reviewing a book that advocates providing safe rough-housing such wrestling and pillow fights in a safe environment.

When playing try using words such as “safe hands,” “gentle/soft touch/play” and having a child do-over an action they may have done aggressively; this time in a playful manner that is not too aggressive.

One idea for an activity would be Personal Space Robot Freeze Dance. Have the kids walk and dance around the room, intermingling. When the music stops the kids put their arms out like robots to check their personal space. Arms-length personal space all around means they passed the Personal Space Robot test!

Self-Advocacy and Nike Shoes

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