It can be difficult to describe the overwhelming feeling brought on by sensory processing disorders. Bright lights feel irritating, large crowds become suffocating, and too many smells or sounds turn oppressive. Sensations that might seem completely run-of-the mill for a neurotypical person can be transformed into challenging hurdles for individuals who have difficulties filtering the world around them.
Varleisha Gibbs, an occupational therapist and the vice president of Practice Engagement and Capacity Building at The American Occupational Therapy Association, explained that SPDs can manifest in different ways ― it’s more than just meltdowns or tantrums.
“We all take in a multitude of sensations at any given moment. Some are challenged with the ability to interpret, organize or respond to such sensory information in a way that allows them to effectively engage with others and participate in everyday life activities,” Gibbs said. “They may present with difficulty ‘modulating’ revealed in avoiding certain sensations, seeking out intense sensations and input to their body, or simply lack an appropriate response or fail to attend to stimuli.”
Like most neurological disorders, they can be varied from one person to the next and can involve more than just the five senses we automatically think of.
“Some kids are sensory-seeking and others may be sensory-avoidant,” said Amanda Morin, the director of Thought Leadership and Expertise at Understood, an organization that seeks to enrich the lives of individuals with learning differences.
She also pointed out that many kids’ body awareness and spacial orientation are impacted. “These can affect kids’ ability to know where their body is in relation to others or objects or to pay attention to their body’s signals,” Morin said.
As a parent, caregiver or loved one, you may wonder what tools you can use to potentially help a child process their senses in ways that are comfortable, developmental and empathetic.
“If the toy is interesting enough to a child so they are engaged with toy instead of feeling overwhelmed by what is going on around, then these types of toys can be a good tool for redirection and distraction,” said Anson Koshy, a board-certified developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Houston.
Rondalyn Whitney, a clinical researcher, occupational therapist and associate professor of occupational therapy at Clarkson University, stressed that each child is different and that you need to look for more than a one-size-fits all “trendy” toy that has been marketed as a sensory processor.
“In order for a ‘toy’ to help, it has to provide a way to balance the sensory system,” she said.
Whitney said how you introduce sensory play is more important than the kind of toy you use.
“The key in sensory-based play is that it is child-directed,” she said. “The more sensory-based play opportunities, self-directed, we provide, the better we support the development of the sensory-motor system. Integrating sensory play into a family’s routines is the best advice, for instance smelling vanilla before baking cookies.”
Morin also underscored this when discussing the concept of a “sensory diet,” which encompasses various activities to engage a child’s senses.
She advised considering two main factors when shopping for sensory processing toys: “Is the toy just adding to the sensory information a child has to filter through, and does what the toy proposes to do match the sensory needs of the child?”
For instance, you wouldn’t get a vacuum cleaner toy for a child who doesn’t like loud noises, but you might consider it for a child who is drawn to vibrational sensations.
This is where observation comes in.
“We need to improve the understanding of development, how to observe children at play and how to provide interesting and interactive play that supports their persistence and enjoyment. The more we persist with a challenge, the more those neurons grow,” Whitney said.
Whitney left us with a salient reminder: “The message, in my mind, is to view each child as unique and find what brings him or her joy.”
With the help of these knowledgeable experts, HuffPost compiled a list of gifts for your sensory sensitive child that, at the very least, might “bring them joy.”
A deck of yoga cards to help kids move through big emotions, plus a yoga mat with extra cushion
A therapy ball to bounce on and help with vestibular sensory activities
A key component of Morin's sensory diet is movement and incorporating vestibular activities that bring awareness to the body. Bouncing on a therapy ball or doing light exercises — mobility levels permitting — can be a good option for many children. The honeycomb structure and stability of this therapy ball from Trideer is suitable for kids up to 4 feet, 8 inches tall. Get it from Amazon for $19.49.
A pair of soft and seamless socks and an irritation-free compression undershirt
A collapsible canvas tent perfect for creating safe spaces
Sometimes having a quiet and secluded place to retreat to when things get overwhelming can be useful. Whitney suggested a pop-up tent, which can help provide an environment where a child feels in control.
"Children are often placed in a situation where they have little control. The way we can make life more comfortable is to limit input to 'just right,', provide calming strategies and provide control," Whitney said.
This collapsable tent, which is nearly 3.5 feet tall, is made from durable canvas and can quickly and easily be constructed indoors or out. Get it from Crate & Barrel for $149.
A large pack of travel-sized fidget toys, perfect for sensory play on the go
Morin recommended creating a sensory travel kit
for unfamiliar places. This collection of fidget toys that includes squeezable stress balls, clickable infinite cubes, silicone pop-it toys and pocket-sized pieces is ideal for keeping hands busy and minds focused. Get it from Amazon for $6.99.
A pair of comfortable noise-canceling headphones to drown out overwhelming sounds
Nearly all of the experts HuffPost spoke to said that headphones are essential for providing a child with the ability to control auditory input. "Noise-reducing headphones can reduce traffic sounds or make noise less overwhelming," Morin said in her sensory travel kits guide
. These ultra-comfortable and adjustable headphones by Sony use smart noise-cancellation, so they automatically sense the amount of noise in your environment and perform accordingly.Get them from Amazon for $78.
A classic favorite for sensory movement
The Sit n' Spin by Playskool is a trusty favorite of Whitney's because "they are typically well-tolerated." Body awareness and spacial orientation can be impacted in some cases of sensory processing, Morin explained, and movement-related toys like the self-controlled spinning mechanism of a Sit n' Spin may help with balance, motor skills and coordination.Get it from Amazon for $34.99.
A washable paint set that allows for interactive play
"You can rarely go astray with toys that offer lots of interactive play opportunities. Honestly, toys like boxes or paint brushes, with or without paint, are still iconic and provide a lot of play options," Whitney said. This paint set uses washable tempera paint and no-spill cups so users can express their creativity without worrying about causing a mess. Get it from Walmart for $25.99.
A pack of scented lip balms and a scented stuffed animal to encourage olfactory sensations
A weighted blanket that might help induce feelings of calm
This moisture-wicking, 12-pound blanket from Brookstone is made with ultra-soft material and is designed to stimulate deep-touch pressure. "Weighted blankets are popular, but for some children, they are very alerting, even anxiety-provoking," Whitney said. "The key is to never impose sensation but allow the child or person to experience sensation through play."Get it from Amazon for $69.99.
A white noise machine and gentle alarm clock for consistent and calming background noise
Morin suggested using a white noise machine as a useful tool for an auditory sensory activity. Creating a backdrop of consistent sound might be soothing for a child who doesn't process unexpected noises well. This all-in-one sound machine, gentle alarm clock and smart light from Hatch contains a library of soothing sounds, white noise and soft glow lights to meet a child's specific level of comfort. Get it from Amazon for $129.99.
A tricycle to promote kinetic movements and vestibular activity
A tricycle is another classic toy that Morin likes to use for movement-related sensory activities, as it can help develop better balance and body awareness. This traditional Radio Flyer has a secure steel frame, an adjustable seat and is suited for kids ages 2 to 4. Get it from Amazon for $56.99.
A classic interactive board that can help develop motor skills
Morin said she is "a big fan of classic toys that integrate sensory work as part of the fun," and recommended the Latches board by Melissa & Doug. It features various closures and clasps that hook, slide and snap into place, as well as colorful pictures behind each door or window.Get it from Amazon for $17.99.
A set of "chewelery" to help with anxiety or stress
"Chewelery," or chewable necklaces — another suggestion of Morin's — can provide a safe outlet for biting or fidgeting inclinations and can also be used as an oral sensory activity. These food-grade, nontoxic silicone pendants by Tilcare Chew can be worn around the neck for easy access and come in calming color tones. Get it from Amazon for $6.99.
A touch-and-feel book that may help with food aversions
Flip through this mealtime book that features different foods and meal-related things to help familiarize a child with activity of eating. The different textures, materials, colors and imagery can provide grounding material for a child who is experiencing too much sensation or can help invoke sensations in a child who is understimulated. Books like this are also a great portable items to have on hand if traveling to an unknown or high-sensory environment. Get it from Amazon for $10.99.
A slime-making kit and kinetic sand to encourage tactile sensations
A vibrating pen that double as a writing aid
This vibrating, battery-operated pen by Squiggle Wiggle can provide a gentle sensory input to the hand without actually affecting a child's writing or drawing. It also comes with four ink replacements in different colors to give visual variety. Get it from Amazon for $9.99.
An interactive game that uses kazoos for oral and auditory activities
Combing both oral and auditory sensory activities, this Kazoo That Tune game by Ridley's has players pick a card and attempt to play a song using a kazoo while the other person tries to guess. Get it from Madewell for $10.
A vibrating rubber children's toothbrush for oral and motor processing
Turn regular toothbrushing time into a sensory activity that promotes oral and motor processing. This small rubber toothbrush by Quip uses sensitive sonic vibrations, a two-minute timer and 30-second pulses to introduce oral sensations in the mouth. Get it from Target for $24.99.
A relaxing steel drum and complete band set for auditory activities