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What is a Sensory Processing Disorder?

What is a Sensory Processing Disorder? 

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a type of neurological disorder in which the brain cannot properly process or integrate sensory information. As a result, a child can be hypersensitive or over-responsive to stimuli or hyposensitive or under responsive to stimuli. If a child is experiencing hypersensitivity to sensory input, this child may have an extreme or fearful response to specific textures, tastes, sounds, balance, or visual input. On the other side, a child with hyposensitivity may appear fearless or unbothered by input or inappropriately responding to sensory information due to lack of awareness.  

What sense are affected? 

Sensory processing disorder can affect one or more senses that may cause your child to struggle with having their hair brushed.  

Tactile (Touch) 

Children with aversion to tactile or touch input have difficulties with hair brushing for a variety of reasons. To start, the texture or feeling of the brush on their scalp may be painful for them. In addition to the brush on their scalp, the feeling of brushing puling through any tangles can cause pain. Hair clips, headbands, hats, braids, or hair ties can cause their hair to feel tight on their head resulting in headaches. Tactile sensitivity is the most common reason for problems with hair brushing for a child with sensory processing concerns.  

Vestibular (Balance) 

The vestibular system controls the body’s sense of balance and motion. Some children can become dizzy or unbalanced when their head is tilted in different planes during hair brushing. Like hair brushing, drying hair can also cause these motions making a child uncomfortable or unsteady.  

Auditory (Sound) 

Children with sensory processing disorder can be hypersensitive to sounds. The sound of the brush going through their hair or pushing through a tangle, the sound of the spray bottle to wet or condition their hair, or the sound of the hair dryer can all be upsetting for these kiddos.  

Olfactory (Smell) 

Items like hair products, shampoos, and body sprays can be nauseating for some kiddos who are hypersensitive to smells. These smells can linger in bathrooms making the room uncomfortable and unsettling for these kiddos.  

Here are some tips on how to make hair brushing less stressful and more manageable for your child with sensory processing concerns!  

“Velcro Boards” 

These boards are a fun, and crafty way to work on a variety of skills across the therapy spectrum! There are a variety of options for these boards that offer multiple ways to play and match to any child’s likes! You can target FM skills by pulling the Velcro on/off the boards. VM skills can be targeted by sorting or matching the pictures! You can add a gross motor component to retrieve the pieces through an obstacle course or animal walks! You can even pair these with an iPad device for language skills! Most of these are super inexpensive and can be created with at home materials!  

Why is Hair Brushing a Challenge for a kiddo with Sensory Processing Disorder? 

Hair brushing can be a difficult time in any kid’s routine! A child can have a hard time sitting down long enough to get the brush through their hair or their hair type may make hair brushing painful. Hair brushing can be even more challenging for kiddos with sensory processing disorder! Here are some reasons your child may have an issue with hair brushing and styling and a few ways to help making it more manageable

Tips for Hair Brushing! 

  1. Observe and talk with your child about what they don’t like about hair brushing. This can help you determine what sensory issues your child may be having with the process that can then allow you to modify or incorporate appropriate strategies into their routine.  
  1. If your child is averse to hair brushing, this does not mean they are intentionally being difficult. Sensory issues can be scary for your child and may put them in a fight, flight, or fright response with the experience.  
  1. Allow your child more control. Allow your child to pick the hairbrush or hair style they want. Allow them to visually see themselves having their hairbrush in a mirror to help.  
  1. Kids are kids and they move around! Do not expect your child to sit perfectly still to get their hair brushed. Allow movement breaks, fidgets, music/shows to be used to assist with distracting them from the unpleasant sensations.  
  1. Choose low maintenance hairstyles. Eliminate uncomfortable hair pins, clips, or head bands.  
  1. Kiddos with SPD depend on and thrive with routine! Trial a visual schedule so they can visually see when it is time to brush hair. Trial brushing hair at nighttime vs in the morning when they may be more sensitive.  
  1. Visual timers are great at showing kiddos how much longer they have with a task. Trial a visual timer like the little timer for your kiddo to set the expectation of how long hair brushing will take.  
  1. Gentle/lite pressure can be noxious to some sensory processing friends. Make sure you place a hand firmly at the top of their head and brush in small section. Hold strip of hair above the tangle to help alleviate input felt by brushing through a knot. 
  1. In prep for hair brushing and washing, trial scalp massage prior to the task. Play in sensory bins with practice dumping dry rice or beans on their head can also help desensitize the scalp.  
  1. A joint compression routine prior to hair brushing/washing can be used to help induce a calming effect before the task. Ask your OT how to complete this process.  
  1. Brush hair while hair is still wet and freshly conditioned to make the brush go through the tangles with less pull.  
  1. Modifying what type of brush you use on your child’s scalp assist with tolerating the experience! Use a sensory friendly brush or a large tooth comb compared to a bristled brush. 
  1. Use a good-quality hair detangling product to increase comfort. Trial ones with limited scents if your child has a hypersensitive response to smells.  

If you have any questions or concerns that your child may be experiencing any sensory processing deficits, reach out to your OT!  

Kayleigh Talbott, The Kidz Club, OTR/L