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What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Read time: 4 minutes

Has your child recently been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder? Has your child ever had an over the top reaction to what seems to be a regular situation? Obviously, all kids can have challenging behaviour, however, some children have a hard time processing and tolerating certain physical, situational, environmental and sensory experiences. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the inability to process sensory stimuli. That means it can lead to reactions and behaviours that are disruptive to the child and those around them. Difficulty in processing sensory input can leave both the child and the parents/caretaker overwhelmed, stressed-out and anxious.  

Child with sensory processing disorder covering ears and smiling while playing outside.

SPD has made its way into mainstream culture. A quick Google Search will lead you to lots of information. Since ASD children have more difficulty processing sensory input, they may become easily overwhelmed or overstimulated by situations (i.e. bright lights, loud noises, crowded spaced) or things (i.e. textures of food or clothing). Many children with ASD also experience sensory processing problems. But SPD is not limited to children with autism. Children with ADHD or no other diagnosis at all can have SPD. Every child who has sensory difficulties will have a challenging time until their needs are identified and addressed.

SPD: Hypersensitivity vs Hyposensitivity

Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological disorder that affects that way that a person receives and processes sensory information.   In everyone, messages from the senses are sent to the nervous system where they are processed. However, in SPD, this processing is faulty. This can lead to an uncomfortable experience for the individual. There are two kinds of sensory processing difficulties: hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.

Hypersensitivity

Hypersensitivities can lead to oversensitivity and sensory avoiding. Several things can act as triggers to sensory meltdowns. For example, some of the triggers include crowded spaces, specific clothing, smells and textures of food, sudden or loud noises and bright lighting. 

Some hypersensitivities include:

  • Severe response to sudden loud or high-pitched noises
  • Easily distracted by background noises and movement
  • Does not like unexpected touching, hugs or cuddling
  • Uncomfortable around crowds or busy places
  • Fear of falling or getting hurt

Children that have sensory avoidance may do the following:

  • Become overwhelmed easily by places and people
  • Look for a quiet place when in crowded or noisy situations
  • Sudden noise can easily startle them
  • Bright lights can be bothersome
  • Clothing and fabric can make the child uncomfortable
  • Avoid hugging or touching others
  • Textures and smells of food can be bothersome
  • Transitions and change can be very upsetting and difficult

Hyposensitivity

Hyposensitivities can lead to under-sensitivity and sensory seeking. Often, sensory seeking children have a need for movement and have a lot of difficulty sitting still. They also like physical contact and pressure. 

Some hyposensitivities include:

  • A constant need to touch textures and people, even when it’s not appropriate
  • Lack of understanding of personal space
  • Uncoordinated and awkward movements
  • High pain threshold
  • Unable to sit still, constant movements
  • Rough and aggressive when playing with other kids

Children that are sensory seeking may do the following:

  • Constantly need to touch things
  • Be unaware of rough house playing and physical risk-taking
  • Have a high pain threshold
  • Constantly be moving and bouncing around
  • Show a lack of respect for other people’s personal space
  • Be easily distracted
  • Be clumsy and bumps into walls, trip over their own feet etc. 

It is important to realize that no two children are alike and each child’s sensory experience and coping mechanism are unique. And, your child may actually be affected by sensory issues from both categories. The journey to understanding your child’s sensory issues and ways of managing them can be an overwhelming task but there is help.  

Occupational Therapists can help

Occupational Therapists (OT) are trained in sensory regulation and can help to understand, identify and manage sensory stimuli issues. Accordingly, they can provide helpful tips, resources and supplies. For example, an OT might suggest a sensory diet to ease the anxiety and discomfort of your child. In effect, These strategies help children to manage their emotions and behaviours through specific activities and self-regulation techniques. 

Children with sensory processing disorder playing in sensory bins made by an occupational therapist.

Identifying and managing a child’s sensory difficulties will allow the child to cope with SPD. As a result, having a handle on their sensory triggers will provide them with the opportunities to use tools and strategies that will aid in their successful social interactions and day to day well-being.

Top 10 Fun Autism and Sensory Friendly Places in the Greater Toronto Area

Read time: 5 minutes

Have you ever been in a situation where the music was just too loud or the lights were way too bright? How about being in a place that was far too overcrowded and you started to feel overwhelmed and panicky? Well, this is a common feeling for those that are diagnosed with autism or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD is related to over or under sensitivity to certain sensory stimulation such as loud noises, bright lights, tastes and touch.

It is a condition that affects the way the brain receives and responds to information concerning our senses and has been found to create either an over or under sensitivity to certain things within our environment.  Those that have (children specifically for the purposes of this article) SPD often receive a co-occuring diagnosis like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 

Since SPD is so prominent in children especially for those that also have additional disorders, life can become difficult for not only the child but for the parents and caretakers as well.  This sensory sensitivity can be very debilitating and sadly can turn a task as simple as going to the grocery store into a very difficult undertaking.

Here in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in Canada, some companies have caught on for the need to provide alternative accommodations for those that live with special needs like  SPD, ASD & ADHD etc. These establishments have collaborated with autistic focussed organizations to find ways to modify their businesses to provide a sensory-friendly environment.  

Child with autism plugging her hears and shutting her eyes tight.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sensory stimuli in the environment. These GTA attractions are working to help your child manage these times.


Below you will find some of the places around the GTA that are now offering these autism and sensory-friendly settings.

Autism or Sensory Friendly Attractions in Toronto

1. Ontario Science Centre – 770 Don Mills Road, Toronto, ON M3C 1T3The Ontario Science Centre offers Sensory-friendly Saturdays on the first Saturday of every month from 3 – 7 p.m. They have partnered with Geneva Centre for Autism and other organizations to offer sensory-friendly events and programs. Sensory-friendly Saturdays were created to provide an environment that is inclusive, respectful and accessible. Their program is available to everyone and is appropriate for all ages and abilities. 

The following dates are set for 2020:

February 1, March 7, April 4, May 2, June 6, July 4, August 1, September 5, October 3, November 7 and December 5 


For more information please visit their website at: https://www.ontariosciencecentre.ca/showsandexperiences/368/ 

2. Toronto Zoo – 361A Old Finch Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, M1B 5K7

The Toronto Zoo has developed a downloadable app specifically for those with ASD. This app called MagnusCards (for more information please visit http://torontozoo.magnuscards.com/) was created to provide a structured, step-by-step program that has a game-like design which helps teach a variety of life skills through the use of the app.

This app is believed to provide empowerment and a welcoming environment for those living with autism and other cognitive special needs.  The five-card decks include information on entering the zoo, Indo-Malaya, Tundra Trek, African Rainforest Pavilion, and Getting Help.      

For more information please visit their website at: http://www.torontozoo.com/tz/accessibility 

3. Cineplex Movie Theatre – Variety of Locations

Cineplex theatres offer “Sensory Friendly Screenings”, which includes a “lights up and volume down” environment.  In partnership with Autism Speaks Canada, Cineplex provides an atmosphere that allows those individuals with ASD or those who suffer from sensory sensitivities the opportunity to enjoy new releases at the theatre. 

The website states that these screenings will take place approximately every 4 – 6 weeks on Saturday mornings at 10:30 AM, however it is best to check your local theatre in case any changes have taken place. 

For more information please visit their website at: https://www.cineplex.com/Theatres/SensoryFriendly 

4. Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) – 100 Queen’s Park, Toronto ON, M5S 2C6

The ROM has teamed up with Autism Ontario to create a “ROM Sensory Friendly Guide”, where they provide helpful tips for visiting. The guide speaks on different areas in the museum that could affect someone with sensory issues (such as loud noises, lighting, scents, temperature, sloped floors and crowded areas). It also outlines where there are quiet areas around the museum. 

For more information please visit their website at:

https://www.rom.on.ca/en/visit-us/accessibility/rom-sensory-friendly-guide-for-visitors

5. Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada – 288 Bremner Boulevard, Toronto, ON M5V 3L9, CANADA

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada is the first autism certified attraction in Canada.  This Certified Autism Center has been designated by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) after completing comprehensive autism awareness and sensitivity training. 

Ripley’s Aquarium is committed to ensuring that their visitors with ASD and other sensory sensitivities have the greatest time while at the attraction. The staff have undergone extensive training and each exhibit integrates some form of IBCCES sensory guidelines (https://www.ripleyaquariums.com/canada/files/2019/04/Sensory-Guides-Final.pdf) which provides the guests with additional information regarding the sensory impacts at each display or activity. 

Please check out their website for dates and times as they will be hosting several additional sensory-friendly days that include quiet spaces, music-free environments and increased lighting. 

6. Chuck E. Cheese – Various locations around the GTA

Chuck E. Cheese offers a sensory-friendly experience the first Sunday of every month at participating locations, this includes opening doors two-hours before their regular opening times.  The organization realizes that the Chuck E. Cheese experience can be overstimulating and therefore wanted to provide an opportunity for those that suffer from sensory sensitivities to come out and have fun with well-trained staff.  As it is their mission to provide an event that allows “ALL kids to be a kid”.

For more information please visit their website at:

https://www.chuckecheese.com/events/sensory-sensitive-sundays

7. Skyzone – Various locations around the GTA

Skyzone offers activities such as trampolining and jumping along with a wide variety of other programs. At Skyzone, visitors are provided with a fun experience that allows them to burn off energy in an extremely fun way.  Skyzone offers sensory-friendly hours which provides a calmer, toned-down jumping experience for those with special needs. 

For more information please visit their website at:

https://www.skyzone.com/programs/sensory-hours

8. Sobeys – Various locations around the GTA

As mentioned, tasks for which most would think is simple such as grocery shopping can be an anxiety-ridden experience for both a child with ASD and their parent/caretaker.  Grocery stores can have a lot of sensory stimuli such as loud music, bright lights and crowds which can be overwhelming for a child that suffers from sensory sensitivities.

Sobeys has taken notice of this issue and has now created an accessible and inclusive sensory-friendly shopping experience.  To accommodate the sensory needs, Sobeys provides every week, a two-hour shopping window where they eliminate almost all the in-store lights and sounds.

Some of the sensory sensitivity measures taken by Sobeys are turning down the lights, turning off scanners, lowering music, having staff members speaking in softer tones and holding off on any announcements. According to Sobeys, the sensory sensitive shopping takes place currently on Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.  Please check with your local Sobeys for up to date information on dates and times. 

For more information please visit their website at:

https://www.blogto.com/eat_drink/2019/09/sobeys-sensory-friendly/

9. Young Peoples Theatre – 165 Front Street East, Toronto M5A 3Z4

Young Peoples Theatre offers “relaxed performances” where the performances are the same however there is a more relaxed atmosphere relating to noise levels and movement.  The sensory sensitive measures include the house lights being adjusted so that they are not as dark as they normally would be. They have also created designated relief areas where you can go if a break is needed.  For the ease of your child’s visit the theatre has also created a visual visiting guide that can be looked over with your child prior to your arrival to help eliminate any fears or surprises that could arise. 

The visual guide can be found at: https://www.youngpeoplestheatre.org/about-ypt/accessibility/

10. Upper Canada Village – 13740 County Road 2, Morrisburg, Ontario

Upper Canada Village is nestled up in Morrisburg Ontario and offers visitors an exciting experience of what life was like back in the 1860s.  Through transporting back in time, visitors are able to explore authentic buildings, activities and the people of the time. Upper Canada Village offers ASD sensory-friendly Sunday mornings where a child with sensory sensitivities will be able to enjoy the attractions is a less chaotic and overwhelming environment. They provide some helpful tips on their website for visiting the village with a sensory sensitive child.

For more information please visit their website at:

https://www.uppercanadavillage.com/events/asd-sensory-friendly-sunday-mornings/

Enjoying fun and memorable experiences is so important for children and even though your child may suffer from sensory sensitivities it is comforting to know that particular companies are working towards creating inclusive and accessible environments for ALL children to feel welcome and be able to enjoy their time. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sleep Problems

Read time: 4 minutes

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Research shows that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to experience other problems that go hand-in-hand with ASD, which are known as comorbid conditions. This research estimates that the number of children with ASD who would qualify for also having a comorbid condition is approximately 70-80%. The range of comorbid conditions that exist can affect an individual’s mental and physical health, as well as impact them neurologically and medically. Some examples of how these comorbid conditions can manifest include an atypical reaction to one’s surroundings, sleeping disorders such as insomnia, and poor muscle development.

Child with autism spectrum disorder sleeping at her desk, with pencil in hand.

It is very common for children to go through a stage where they don’t sleep through the night. This is actually a normal stage within a child’s physical and cognitive maturation. However, it is a stage that, should it be persistent, is detrimental to not only their health and development, but also their daily functioning. This can affect how they interact with others on a daily basis, especially in children with autism spectrum disorder. Researchers have also demonstrated that insomnia, on its own, tends to worsen the symptoms of ASD and lessens an individual’s ability to thrive in their life.

Existing research shows that there is a strong tendency for those with autism spectrum disorder to have  problems with establishing proper sleep patterns and that they are impacted to a much greater degree than neurotypical children. Additionally, the studies also reveal that those with autism spectrum disorder are at a much higher risk of developing these sleeping disorders than neurotypical peers. The number of those with autism spectrum disorder who have trouble sleeping ranges anywhere between 44-86%. This is contrasted by the overall child population, where only 10-16% experience sleeping problems. 

Many autistic children who experience difficulties regulating emotions and behaviour are shown to also exhibit difficulties with their sleep. A past study of Asperger syndrome and other forms of autism discovered that the children who had persistent insomnia displayed greater emotional and behavioural symptoms than children without sleep disturbances. Parallel conditions are also known to disrupt sleep, some of which include gastrointestinal irregularities, stimulants, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety. 

Young girl sleeping

A study found in the academic journal Autism looked at the frequency that sleep issues in children with symptoms that are commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder occurred. The study participants were evaluated for symptoms relating to autism, problems with their sleep, and emotional and behavioural issues. It was found that persistent insomnia was over ten times greater in autistic children than those who did not have ASD (39.3% vs. 3.6%).

The autistic children were shown to develop more sleep irregularities over a period of time, with a frequency of 37.5% compared to 8.6% of the children without autism. Both groups were children aged 11-13 years. Even though only a few girls were included in the study, it was discovered that sleep abnormalities occurred less in girls than boys and their sleep problems were temporary. Those with ASD who also had ADHD were more likely to develop sleep problems.

Without question, it is clear that there is significant scientific backing that demonstrates the link between autism spectrum disorder and sleep problems. Sleep disturbances can, in reverse, negatively affect the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, such as experiencing an increase in repetitive and/or hyperactive behaviour, lack of focus/attention, displays of aggression, and an impairment in higher brain functioning. Given all these potential issues, it is important for parents to attempt to maximize their children’s sleep habits and put routines and strategies in place that will allow their children to get the most quality sleep.  

Sleep hygiene are the practices that we use to ensure that we have good nighttime sleep and as a consequence good daytime alertness. 

Some examples of good sleep hygiene for autism spectrum disorder are:

  • Avoiding daytime naps
  • Establishing a bedtime routine that offers time to relax and wind down before actually trying to sleep
  • Making sure the sleep environment is comfortable
  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (even on weekends)
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Avoiding blue light producing screens for an hour before bedtime

If your child is having a difficult time with sleep, contact Side by Side Therapy for a no-charge 30 minute consultation and we can brainstorm some ideas to help!