Understanding Sensory Processing and Motor Competency

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To meet the challenges of the schoolroom and the playground, children must be able to move adaptively, with balance (gross motor), and be able to manipulate objects (fine motor).

Some children appear to know how to do things, but they fall and/or trip and move and/or use toys in an uncoordinated manner. These children are often called "clumsy." They are usually easy to identify by observation or by scores on a number of developmental measures. An occupational therapist (OT) or a skilled developmental therapist can suggest appropriate activities and equipment to help these children improve their motor skills.

Other children are slow to learn motor tasks (e.g., using eating utensils, crayons, and scissors, as well as playing safely on unfamiliar playground equipment). These children are more difficult to diagnose and they would benefit significantly from an OT evaluation and treatment plan. The difficulties these children have are not based on inefficient motor coordination and/or poor balance. Instead, these children do not know how their body parts work together and how to use their bodies to meet new challenges. It takes a lot of practice to master motor tasks and their progress initially is very inconsistent (e.g. successful one day and at a loss the next).

Motor planning difficulties remain throughout a person's life, but with special attention, a child can make great strides. Activities and equipment that provide sensory input to the whole body (especially the skin) and to the balance receptors help a child learn how his or her body works.

A final group of children who can benefit from OT suggestions and/or intervention are those individuals who become disorganized and behaviorally inappropriate because of an over sensitivity to sensory inputs others find neutral. A child can be oversensitive to one of more inputs such at touch, sound, and/or noises. This type of difficulty can only be inferred by carefully observing how a child's behavior changes during the day and when confronted by different stimuli. An OT can assess a child's sensitivity and provide suggestions to reduce the child's over sensitivity.

All children have the potential to succeed. Those who appear uncoordinated or unable to manipulate objects can benefit from an OT evaluation and a well thought out treatment plan.

Barbara Lyons, OT, PhD, is an occupational therapist who has taught at the University of Illinois' OT Program and has evaluated and treated children in both the school and clinical settings. She has studied with Jean Ayers, who was known for her efforts in increasing awareness about sensory processing disorder.

For sensory, fine and gross motor products, shop our Sensory and Fine Motor category and our Gross Motor and Active Play category.