Life is constantly changing around us. Things like the temperature, lighting, and noises are always being processed. Although a lot of this happens on an autonomic level, for persons with sensory processing concerns, standing still can be overwhelming and effect everyday function.
Occupational therapist Catherine Armani-Munn, MS OTR/L explores the challenges of everyday functioning for kids and adults with sensory concerns.
Bethany: What year & where did you graduate?
Catherine: I graduated from Keuka College in a 5 yr masters program. My undergrad was in Occupational Science and in 2010 I graduated with my masters in Occupational Therapy. I also got a minor in ASL (American Sign Language) in college which has helped me a lot in the field, especially working with the autism population.
Bethany: What is your background and what areas do you specialize in?
Catherine: I have worked for several different school districts specializing with children with autism. I have also worked in preschools for the deaf and hard of hearing where I communicated with students with ASL (American Sign Language).
I worked for a private clinic for a year that specialized in sensory processing. There I ran a lot of social skills groups, as well as individual clients, ranging from 4-15 yrs of age where I worked closely with clients and their family developing and adapting to make their life routine more manageable.
I am in the process of becoming certified as a yoga instructor for special needs children, which is something that I have been interested in doing for some time. I believe the body movements and stretches, as well as the relaxation and deep breathing aspects of yoga, overlap in the field of OT and what we try to teach individuals. Becoming a certified instructor would be even more beneficial for me by giving me a better understanding regarding this. I recently made a transition in switching settings and am currently working in a sub-acute rehabilitation program as well as long term care facility.
Bethany: When working with the pediatric population at the clinic and schools, what were there common diagnoses that had sensory processing disorders?
Catherine: Children on the autism spectrum, ADHD, children with social/emotional backgrounds, fetal alcohol syndrome, developmental delays.
Bethany: How did you identify sensory concerns?
Catherine: When children have difficulties with transitioning in everyday activities or the classroom, low tolerance to certain textures or lights, craving oral input, difficultly remaining in chairs during class and lessons, craving or seeking movement frequently.
Bethany: And how did sensory concerns effect their day?
Catherine: Most prevalent is learning in a classroom and being able to concentrate successfully. When fluorescent lights are buzzing, a tag on a shirt is rubbing, seeking a change in position, being in a large crowd where all small noises seem to heighten, or a need to chew or put something in your mouth, really affects the way you take in information and makes it difficult to concentrate on what your supposed to be learning. Meal time is also difficult and receiving the appropriate nutrition when you only will eat certain foods or will refuse to eat at all. And if your hungry or lacking certain nutritional value it will have a large effect on your day.
Bethany: Did you use any specific programs or techniques?
Catherine: Drive-thru menu is a set of sensory exercises that focus on certain areas such as strengthening, attention, relaxation, beneficial exercises to support the classroom. Yoga is also a great technique that supports stretch, heavy input, and deep breathing as a calming effect. Slowly introducing new textures to children is a great way to help them overcome some tactile defensiveness they may have. Visual schedules and timers are great supports to help students transition better during classroom or at home activities.
Catherine: Teaching staff, as well as families, the importance of a routine and using visual schedules to give that child a visual for transitions in their routine has really seemed to help them in both environments. Providing teachers and parents with sensory exercises to provide that child in all areas such as deep, heavy input stretches or exercises, or oral exercises or certain foods that support that sensory oral craving they may be having.
Bethany: Now that you work with adults, do you find your previous experience with sensory concerns relevant to the elderly population?
Catherine: I have been working with adult population over the past several months and have recognized that one frequently reappearing area is related to food. Many older adults either have lost the sense of taste which affects what they enjoy or hate eating. Room temperatures in the environment are usually heightened for many older adults. Where most people would not think a room is cold, many older people have a difficult time concentrating on a task due to “being cold”. The temperature of water is also heightened where the temp of water may be hot but feel cold to them or vice versa.
Bethany: What are common treatments for adults with sensory processing concerns?
Catherine: Sunglasses and baseball caps are great way to decrease certain lighting that can be overwhelming to people. Ear plugs are also a great way to decrease auditory stimuli that may be overwhelming, and the nice thing about them is that they are small and people don’t see them.
Bethany: How does it affect their occupations and quality of life?
Catherine: It affects mostly the clothing type that they tend to wear – usually layers of clothing to feel warmer. Again finding foods that an individual will eat and enjoy so they do not lose nutritional value. Weight gain and loss is an important aspect that we look at with each individual to make sure its not edema related or nutritionally.
Bethany: Do you provide education or family support for these clients, as well?
Bethany: Do you have any personal sensory sensitivities that effect your everyday?
Catherine: I am currently learning how to cook and certain textures, such as eggs or mayo, certain dressings, tend to heighten my sensory system and I have a difficult time cracking or even eating eggs. The texture of mayo really bothers me that I can’t stand to eat it. I realized that when I sleep at night I also like to have heavy blankets on me, pulled up tight, in all seasons of weather. I wake up sweaty but I realized if I don’t have a heavy blanket on me it’s difficult to fall asleep.
Thanks Cat! Given your busy schedule and routine, what techniques do you utilize when overwhelmed by outside stimuli?