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What Every SLP Should Know About Sensory Processing

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

Let’s talk about sensory processing. I know what you’re thinking, we’re not occupational therapists (OTs). That’s right, we are not OTs! But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fully understand sensory processing. Sensory processing is one of the most important areas to understand, especially for those of us who work with kids on the autism spectrum.

Let me teach you about what I call the optimal learning zone (not to be confused with the zone of proximal development!)

Imagine a child’s state of regulation as a seesaw. A balanced seesaw represents a regulated sensory system. If a child’s seesaw is balanced, this means that the child is in his optimal learning zone. A child who is in his optimal learning zone is ready to learn, and in our case, ready to work on language.

What often happens with kids on the spectrum, is that something negative happens (it may not be negative to us, but it can feel negative to them because of their sensitive sensory systems, such as a loud noise), and completely tips their seesaw. Now, the child is dysregulated, not in his optimal learning zone, and not ready to work on language. Is our goal in that moment to work on language? No.

Think of it this way. If a child is having a tantrum, and his seesaw is completely tipped, are we going to start working on WH questions? No! Our goal in that moment is to get the child back to a balanced state of regulation - bring his seesaw back to center.

If we try to work on language at a time when the child is dysregulated, he is not going to be ready to process language, and not going to be ready to learn.

I think most of us know that when a child is throwing a tantrum and crying that is not the time to work on language. So why would we try to work on language any other time when the child is dysregulated?

If a child is very dysregulated, moving around the room, making lots of noises, covering his ears, etc., then why do we still want (and expect) him to sit the child at the table to work on language?

Instead, our primary goal should be to get that child back to a balanced state of regulation, where he can attend, and where he can actually learn and get something out of our session. If we don’t first bring the child into his optimal learning zone, our sessions will not be effective.

So what can you do? Take the time to learn about the child’s regulatory state, and what you can do to help bring him into his optimal learning zone.

If you are in need of some fresh ideas for sensory activities, check out this freebie: Five Sensory Activities You Can Do Without a Sensory Gym. Click here to receive the free download.

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, autism expert, and founder of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.

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