Sensory Processing Disorders and Deep Pressure

I took a weekend getaway with my husband to Las Vegas, and when we were there, we walked through a Western Stock Trade Show for fun: lots of cowboys and cowgirls, boots, hats, apparel, equipment, etc. It was quite a different culture for me, as I grew up in Southern California, nowhere near a ranch or farm.

When we were there, I saw my first cattle chute, pictured below.

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This made me excited (yes excited), as I had read about cattle chutes from Dr. Temple Grandin, animal behavior scientist. Grandin, on the autism spectrum, suffered from severe anxiety when she was a young adult. While staying on her aunt’s ranch, she learned that the deep pressure applied by the chute calms the animals. She tried the chute on herself, and discovered it also had a calming affect on her. She then went on to design her own “squeeze machine.” If you haven’t seen the HBO movie Temple Grandin, I highly, highly recommend it.

What is a sensory processing disorder, and what do we know about it today?

A sensory processing disorder is one in which a person’s nervous system does not register senses in a typical way. A person can be hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive, or a combination of both. The input from the nervous system is either too great, too little, or some of each.

There are many ways a sensory processing disorder may affect a person. If you are hyper-sensitive, you may hear noises louder than others, be more sensitive visually,  texturally, and/or have a greater sense of smell, etc.

If you are hypo-sensitive, you may not register pain the way most people do, or your hearing may cut in and out, have poor coordination, difficulty attending, etc.

What Grandin was doing in the squeeze machine was seeking out deep pressure. This often has a calming effect on the nervous system (whereas light touch can be irritating or even painful). Bear hugs can also be calming source of deep pressure for some. (I am not making any recommendations!)

If you suspect a student or your child has issues with sensory processing, ask for a referral to the school’s occupational therapist (OT). They will often observe the child, have the parent and teacher fill out a questionnaire about the child’s sensory seeking or avoidant behaviors, and then do activities with the child to see if there are any concerns. If your student/child does have a SPD, then therapy can begin with the OT to help address the issues, including coping techniques.

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