Sensory Processing Disorder: An Anthroposophic Perspective

A healthy body has flexibility, throughout all its bodily processes of the mind, body and spirit. Looking at a child with a sensory processing disorder *, a specific inflexibility in noted. There exists a one-sidedness manifesting on each of two extremes of inflexibility. With a sensory-avoiding child, any tactile (or in some cases auditory or visual) stimulation is “too much” for the child. With repeat exposures of a sensory trigger, the physical body learns to react sooner in defense of the child’s perceived boundary. Additionally, the mind starts a process of becoming inflexible - the child will start showing avoiding patterns “I don’t wear shirts with tags.” Or “I don’t eat anything mushy.” With a sensory seeking child, there exists the same one-sidedness, albeit in the other extreme “I didn’t know I pushed Timmy that hard.” Or you find that every toy with every piece is out in the playroom all at once, within 10 minutes of the room being tidy.

The growth and development of the child is such that in the first seven years, energy  is used towards building the child’s etheric body, via the physical body. Through repeated interactions with the environment, the life force of the child either gets stronger (through good food, warmth, rhythm) or weaker (through illness, instability in the home, media viewing).

An analogy that many of my patients understand is that a sensory disorder is similar to an allergic reaction. There is a trigger that leads to a response, such as pollen in the air. The response to that pollen in a healthy system is for the body to meet the trigger in intensity, neither too strong nor too weak. The goal is for the immune system to go to a “zero point of neutral,” where there is no more pollen floating around in the body, and also no extra immune cells looking for pollen in the body. If this “zero point of neutral” is not met, there is a residual imbalance that needs to be dealt with by the body. You can imagine with a repeated trigger, over time, the body becomes more sensitized to the trigger, possibly leading to a severe allergic reaction. This same process occurs with the sensory system. The body needs to deal with under or over triggers of sensory experience, aiming for a neutral point. With repeated sensory experiences that never make it to the “zero point of neutral,” it takes a smaller and smaller trigger in the future to set off the “sensory immune response” that can become a “severe sensory reaction.”

With a sensory child, these repeated sensory-triggering physical interactions will imprint on to the etheric and the astral body of the child, causing a rippling effect of one-sidedness in those areas as well. A child then develops a fast heart rate at the sight of a food he doesn’t like, or around his schoolmates (This latter is especially true after age 7 when they become more conscious of their lack of social knowledge regarding boundaries). In that physiological response, the imprint of the etheric is appreciated. As a step further, a child develops animal-like panic upon entry into a recognized sensory-triggering situation. “I told you, mom, I don’t like to be up high in the tree!” This is the “severe sensory reaction.”

The goal of sensory reintegration therapy is to first recognize this disorder as early as possible. Once recognized, the parent works with the child’s physical body to “retrain” the sensory system, giving consistent points of calibration. A parent provides opportunities for simple, pure sensory experiences in a calm environment, cocooned in a strong rhythm in the home life. Examples are using sensory bins (any large container where a child can comfortably reach in to experience a medium with both of their full upper extremities) and filling them with sand, warm water, bubbles, wooden beads, metal objects (we have used metal bobbins and even nuts from Poppa’s garage), acorns, corn, spaghetti cooked al dante (my sensory seeker loved this!), or any other object made of small, natural materials. *** This activity should always be supervised with children under 3, or any child who has the habit of putting things in his mouth. ***

Other modalities parents can use are joint compression therapy (Magda Gerber has great examples of this). This compression activates the Golgi centers in the tendons, acting as a “reset” for the limb. This is most effective at night, just before sleep. Additionally, biodynamic craniosacral therapy can relieve a physical and/or biodynamic** cause of a sensory trigger, such as a cranial nerve compression, or occipto-alantal compression which leads to a lack of awareness out to the periphery of the limbs, bed-wetting into the second septennial, and the child’s drawing reflect this level of body consciousness.

Another great therapy modality is Curative (Therapeutic) Eurythmy. The movements, when guided by a trained Therapeutic Eurythmist, can help effect change directly into the etheric body, and higher levels if needed, to create greater flexibility. This modality is best utilized in a child from the ages of around 5 to 10 years of age, although one could use Therapeutic Eurythmy in infants or very young children (via a parent or the eurythmist doing the movements). After that, Speech Therapy can be a very effective addition, or used in solo to affect change at the higher levels.

There is current discussion and teachings at the International (Anthroposophic) level about sensory integration disorders. As more is discovered about the larger picture of this epidemic, we will have more in our toolkit to help these children.

* Sensory Disorder and Sensory Integration therapy have arisen out of the work of Occupational Therapists. There are many great programs and modalities offered within the area of occupational therapy specifically. The above is a view of the aspects of the sensory system through an anthroposophic lens.

** Biodynamic refers to a system of looking at, and working with, the various layered aspects of a living organism operating within a larger living system, from the physical to the spiritual.