by Carol S. Kranowitz, MA
Every day, Sensory Processing Disorder receives new recognition as a common problem among children. Recognition is good, but those of us who know about it and see the benefits of a healthy sensory diet want more. To prevent sensory integration dysfunction from hindering our children’s development, we want Sensory Processing Disorder early intervention and identification.
One way to encourage parents, teachers, and other early childhood professionals to address SI dysfunction is to help them see it as a developmental problem. Kids don’t grow out of Sensory Processing Disorder; they grow into it, unless we spot it and treat it — the sooner, the better.
Early identification is often possible if children attend a center with an occupational therapist (OT) or a savvy teacher on staff, who can observe their behavior over time.
Sensory Processing Disorder can also be detected by a pediatric team using a multidisciplinary approach. Another avenue is a screening. A screening is neither a test nor an in-depth examination, but a short, informal “look-see.”
Most school or daycare centers conduct annual hearing and eyesight screenings. These procedures briefly check all the children in the center to determine whether they can hear and see adequately. The purpose is to identify children whose sense organs – i.e., ears and eyes – may be faulty and need correction.
Additionally, some enlightened centers offer developmental screenings to check children’s language, vision, or sensory integration. All the children may be screened, or a selected few. The purpose of these screenings is to identify children whose developmental skills may be delayed, and who may benefit from early intervention.
Independent schools, clinics, and public programs such as Child Find offer developmental screenings. Most are helpful, and some are free. An alternative is contracting with an OT to administer the Balzer-Martin Preschool Screening (“BAPS”).
This screening was designed by Lynn A. Balzer-Martin, PhD, OTR, a pediatric occupational therapist and special educator. It is a quick, effective screening to see whether very young children have the neurological foundations necessary for smooth development. In 1987, St. Columba’s Nursery School, where I teach, became the first site to use BAPS.
Using a sensory integration model, the screening program is developmentally suitable – and fun – for preschoolers. It is simple enough for schools to administer. It is thorough enough to enable educators to distinguish between basic immaturity and risk factors that may predict learning and behavior problems. Indeed, during the screening process, a fairly complete picture of each child’s sensorimotor functioning emerges.
The screening has three parts. Part I, a checklist for teachers, and Part 2, a sensorimotor history questionnaire for parents, focus on activities at school and at home.
Part 3 is an observational screening which an OT consultant and a teacher (or care provider) conduct together. They work with two children at a time during regular school hours. In one morning, they can screen about 15 children. While the teacher records data on a chart, the OT guides each child through 12 activities, including spinning a top, alternating arm and leg movements, galloping, riding on a cushioned scooter board, hanging upside down from a dowel, and balancing on one foot.
The OT compiles the data to determine which children may benefit from further evaluation. There is no quantitative score to indicate which children should be identified. Rather, the OT makes this determination through clinical judgment, after reviewing the data and conferring with the teacher and program director.
Occupational therapy is often a beneficial treatment, especially for children with language delays. It regulates the nervous system, helping children respond appropriately to sensory stimulation and proceed with moving, playing, and learning. The OT may also recommend physical therapy, counseling, or language therapy – or a balanced “sensory diet” at home and school.
Over 100 early childhood centers, in the U.S. and abroad, are currently using BAPS. Thousands of children have been screened, and, as a result, many preschoolers have received the intervention they need to develop essential skills. Becoming aware of Sensory Processing Disorder, parents and teachers are providing indoor and outdoor activities that promote healthy sensorimotor development. Gradually, we are catching on to the idea of catching out-of-sync children before they fall.