Sensory Processing Disorder and Dance – Approaches for Effective OT

Sensory Processing Disorder and Dance – Approaches for Effective OT. GettyImages

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) - more info here - is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Treatment for SPD often involves Occupational Therapy with a sensory integration approach.

Last month we highlighted a fantastic organization committed to empowering individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities through movement - danceability.

Instructors at danceability teach dance and movement to children and adults with disabilities, including individuals with SPD. In fact, approximately 15 percent of dancers at danceability have an SPD diagnosis.

Two instructors, one who currently works as an OT and the other a special education teacher in the Buffalo area, provided some great information about their integration of OT and sensory input within danceability classes.

What works for individuals with SPD?

The key to working with individuals with SPD is to gain their trust and discover what is grounding or brings them the most sense of comfort. Examples of grounding exercises within the danceability context are: a specific type of music, low lighting, deep pressure, lotion massages, movement patterns such as bouncing or rocking, and a certain object or instrument. While many of these individuals have very limited verbal skills, most are very effective communicators if observed closely.

Small class sizes are essential for a dancer with SPD; what works for one student may cause a complete downward spiral for another. Music and movement has a profound and positive effect on individual with SPD. One instructor states, “Improvement in the students ability to attend to task, maintain eye contact, communicate more effectively, follow directions, interact with peers/volunteers, […] is something I have witnessed time and time again in working with these amazing, though sometimes challenging, teachers of life.” What a testament to this work!

Danceability has a sensory studio where most students with SPD attend classes. Lights and music can be adjusted according to the dancer’s needs and the instructor has access to wide assortment of accessories, i.e., balls, weights, instruments, rollers, etc. to make the experience as therapeutic as possible. Additionally, consistency of class structure and dedicated staff and volunteers who truly care about the well-being of the dancer are key elements to the individual success of children and adults with SPD.

What does a class look like for students with SPD?

Most classes begin with sensory input.

Adult classes start with hand and feet lotion massages. Younger students begin their class with various sensory activities, i.e., body socks, brushes, spinning in a bilibo seat, or getting deep pressure by being wrapped in a yoga mat. This extra sensory input helps to calm and relax dancers before participating in more structured activities.

Instructors often switch between structured and unstructured activities throughout the class.

Examples of structured activities include: bouncing on exercise balls, follow-the-leader dances, obstacle courses, or tap shoes at the barre. During unstructured period of class, many dancers, despite many being non-verbal, are able to express their sensory needs by showing volunteers what sensory toys and activities they want to use.

What can you do?

First, I’d recommend finding an occupational therapist if someone you care about with SPD does not currently see an OT.

Second, either integrating sensory input or finding a dance studio similar to danceability would benefit an individual with SPD and their families.

Finally, take a look at this site for any sensory input tools for your home that could benefit any individual with SPD. 

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