Nikolai Korniyenko, 5, swirled his fingers in a smear of foam soap on the wall mirror at the Methodist Therapy Center in Oak Ridge recently. Laughing, he drew a circle for a face, and a curve for a smile.“Where do the eyes go?” asked Rebecca Blankenship, MSOTR/L, an occupational therapist at the center. Nikolai drew two dots for eyes.
Just a few years ago, Nikolai would never have touched messy soap, much less drawn a picture with it, said his mother, Samantha Korniyenko.
“Since he was about 18 months old, he has avoided a lot of things, like loud sounds and messes in his hands. He wouldn’t get in the shower with the water running. He wouldn’t touch any colored soap,” said Korniyenko. “If we went into a loud crowd, he would start running back and forth. He didn’t like textures in his clothing, like footed pajamas. I just thought he was a difficult kid,” said Korniyenko.
But there was more to it than that. Nikolai was diagnosed with “sensory processing disorder,” a variation in how his brain processes the information coming from his senses – the sights, sounds, textures, and physical sensations he experiences.
Some children (and even adults) have difficulty processing and integrating the information around them. “Sometimes when too much sensory information comes in all at once, they have a difficult time processing the information appropriately,” explained Cindy Ayo, OTR/L, also an occupational therapist at Methodist Therapy Center.
“Children can become overstimulated and may have a hard time filtering different sensory input. Certain sensory input may bother some children; however, they may have a hard time identifying which particular sensory stimuli is bothersome. They could be distracted by the light in their eyes, or the tag in their shirt, or the seam in their sock,” Ayo said.
Children with sensory processing disorder may become over-stimulated, distracted, irritable or withdrawn, anxious or depressed. They may be unable to focus in school or enjoy friends around them. They may be described as clumsy, uncoordinated, in constant motion, stubborn, impulsive, or picky with eating and dressing. They may be unable to calm themselves, go to sleep easily at night, or make transitions from one setting to another throughout the day. They may not like being touched or held, or they may not want to get dirty or tolerate loud noises.
It’s not known what exactly causes sensory processing problems, but they can accompany other physical or developmental disorders such as attention deficit disorder, cerebral palsy, genetic disorders, visual impairments, autism spectrum disorders, brain injuries and other conditions.
Fortunately, treatment is available through occupational therapy, offered at Methodist Therapy Services of Oak Ridge.
Methodist Therapy Services offers a full range of pediatric services, including speech, physical and occupational therapy, with 10 therapists and assistants on staff. Conveniently located across from Methodist Medical Center, the center features a 6,000-square-foot gym with swings, a ball pit, scooters, quiet play toys and several private therapy areas.
Three occupational therapists and two occupational therapy assistants offer therapy to address sensory integration difficulties, which about 75 percent of the center’s patients receive. Therapy for sensory integration deficits is typically given individually, one hour per week, per child for several months.
To the observer, this therapy looks a lot like child’s play. “We jump and climb, swing and spin, and play with different textures in our hands,” said Blankenship. She explained that these activities help the child acclimate to different senses. Over time, children learn what helps them manage the sights and sounds around them.
“With the help of an occupational therapist, as children age they can find appropriate ways to regulate their sensory systems to remain organized and calm, which allows children to ‘feel good.’ But when children are very young, they may not have that awareness yet,” Blankenship said.
Each child receives a customized therapy plan based on his or her needs. For example, to ease Nikolai’s aversion to messy hands, Blankenship first had him play with items that were not as slimy as soap.
“We start off with things like brushing his hands, and touching things that aren’t so aversive in nature, like dry beans, noodles and rice,” Blankenship said.
After each session, the therapists give parents a set of exercises and activities to do at home. For example, Nikolai’s parents do a process called joint compressions. It’s a series of gentle movements of the feet and ankles, knees and hips, done before he goes to bed and when he becomes overstimulated.
“It takes him from full speed to completely relaxed. He comes to us and tells us he needs it,” said Korniyenko.
She said Methodist Therapy Center has been very beneficial in addressing Nikolai’s sensory integration difficulties. “They have helped him so much here at the Methodist Therapy Center. Over the years I’ve come to know all of the therapists here, and we are so pleased with them,” she said. “They truly care about the kids and are here to help them. It amazes me how the things they do here really do help in everyday life.”