Sensory Disorders and Learning Disabilities

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Featured Speaker:
Annika Zallek

Annika Zallek, OTR/L
Annika Zallek, OTR/L, provides pediatric occupational therapy for children from birth to 18 years old. She is passionate about working closely with families and children to help them improve their participation and performance in daily activities. She is registered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy and specializes in comprehensive evaluation and treatment programs for children with developmental delays, attention deficit disorders, autism, sensory processing challenges and learning disabilities. Annika has worked with a variety of age ranges from pediatric to geriatric patients in outpatient settings.

About This Podcast

You might know a child who is oversensitive, clumsy, and out of sync. That child may have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a common but misunderstood problem that affects children’s behavior and can affect the way they learn, move, relate to others, and feel about themselves.

Aspirus Outpatient Therapy Services provides comprehensive pediatric occupational, physical and speech therapy services.

Our therapists provide evaluation and treatment services for infants, children and adolescents (up to age 14) who are not achieving their physical, functional and/or communicative potential.

Listen as Annika Zallek, OTR/L explains sensory disorders and learning disabilities.


Melanie Cole (Host):  Sensory processing disorder can be often misunderstood, misdiagnosed problem that can impact the way a child learns. My guest today is Annika Zallek. She's an occupational therapist with Aspirus Health System. Welcome to the show, Annika. What is sensory processing disorder?

Annika Zallek (Guest):  Thanks for having me. Sensory processing disorder:  first of all, it is not a recognized diagnosis by the DSM. However, it's typically present in children and we see them having difficulty processing all of that sensory information, whether it's auditory, visual, proprioceptive, vestibular, tactile. Their bodies just don't have a good way of modulating that information and so what then happens is they have these maybe adverse reaction sensory inputs and oftentimes behavior and learning disabilities that impact their daily lives.

Melanie:  What would a parent notice and how soon would they notice something that would signal maybe a trip to the pediatrician to see if this is something that's going on with their child?

Annika:  Technically, you can notice some sensory processing difficulties in children as young as in an infant age but typically around that two, three, or four year old age where maybe your child was doing fine with bath time before but now bath time is a really scary event. They don't like the water; they don't like the sound of the water running. You maybe see your child having temper tantrums for no apparent reasons. Certain things just kind of set them off. Maybe they got a lot of movement, maybe crashing into things. they love, spinning around. We also see children who maybe have a difficult time with those social interaction with their peers because they just don't understand how to play like their peers.

Melanie:  So, if you notice some of these symptoms, what skills might be affected by some of these issues?

Annika:  Like I mentioned before, social skills are one area where we definitely see them because maybe a child doesn't like to play with the same things that other children of same age do and that affects their interaction. You might also see deficits in their fine motor skills, those are also affected. Whether they just don't know how to manipulate their zippers or buttons or they have a hard time with handwriting. We can also see it in if they are an extremely picky eater and they're limited to only a few food items. That's definitely also a sign of something going wrong with their sensory processing system.

Melanie:  Since you mentioned it might not be an official diagnosis, how is it diagnosed?

Annika:  What I do in the clinic is, there is a recognized very well evidence-based assessment called the sensory profile and it looks at all of the different sensory areas: auditory, visual, vestibular, tactile, and emotional behaviors. Then, based on the scores from that, we can see the pattern. I also use just the general parent interview and, at this point, I know what are the red flags, the things to look out for. I see what maybe the child has in terms of their sensory processing pattern and then how I can address that by a therapy session.

Melanie:  If a child has a sensory processing disorder does that automatically mean that they're considered on the spectrum? That it might be autism or ADHD?

Annika:  That's a really good question and I think that's where a lot of people have that belief. So, in general, sensory processing is on a spectrum. Everybody has different sensory processing patterns. You and I have different responsivity to certain inputs. A child maybe just has difficulty with some of those sensory processing but that does not necessarily mean they also have a diagnosis of autism or ADHD. They do tend to come hand in hand and that is well-researched but, like I said, it can definitely be a separate disorder.

Melanie:  How can professionals such as an occupational therapist help with sensory processing issues?

Annika:  I work in an outpatient clinic and so what I like to do is involve, first of all, involve the parents as much as possible because the parents are the ones who spend the most time with the children. My goal is to maybe find ways to modify the home environment, modify routine in the child's daily life to help them be able to modulate their responses. One thing I really like to do is try to develop a tool box for the parent to use at home in terms of calming strategies. A lot of times, these children with sensory processing difficulties get upset very easily. That fight or flight response kicks in quickly. I like to explore a variety of calming strategies in the clinic setting and then have the parents try them at home and try to incorporate them into the child's daily life so that we can prevent having these outbursts and emotional responses to that sensory input.

Melanie:  Give us a few of the tips that you might tell parents.

Annika:  One thing would be to try to see what calms your child, whether it’s maybe giving them a tight bear hug, whether it's rocking in a swing, listening to calming music. Try to find things and then also noticing in your child what may set them off and then trying to find a way to change that or bring it up to your occupational therapist and they can come up with an idea for you as well.

Melanie:  What about as a child grows? Is this something that goes with them as they grow or can it disappear?

Annika:  That is a very good question. I would say, like I said before, because it is on a spectrum they are always going to have some of those sensitivities but the goal of occupational therapy would be to help them find more adaptive responses to them. They may never like the sound of a smoke alarm going off but, through therapy, they'll learn that it's not so scary and they can learn to control their responses to that. I would say it doesn't go away completely but the goal would be to find those ways to help adapt their behaviors and their responses to make it better on the child.

Melanie:  What about as they get into school, Annika? What do you tell parents as some very good advice about letting the school know about some of these issues and what they can do while the child is at school?

Annika:  Yes, definitely. A child spends most of their day at school and you definitely see the teacher report about children behavior not being the greatest. So, what I like to do is come up with a list of maybe modifications or adaptations to provide with the teacher in the schools for the child to have throughout the school day to help with those more negative behaviors or responses.

Melanie:  Give parents your best advice, because these sensory issues can be confusing for other children in the family and for the parents, about dealing with the child that might have these issues and what you really want people to know.

Annika:  What I would tell parents is really just to love your child and make sure you set up your home environment in a way where they can be the successful. There are definitely going to be a lot of challenges but learn to work through those challenges, whether it's explaining to the siblings that their brother may be learns a little differently or he needs thing changed a little bit in order for him to fully function in his daily life.

Melanie:  Annika, one last question, can medicational intervention help with sensory processing disorders?

Annika:  Well, I'm not a doctor but as far as I've read in the research, I haven't found anything in terms of medication that would directly affect this. Really, I would say therapy is probably the best bet for coming up with those different strategies and modifications and adaptations to help the child in their daily life.

Melanie:  Thank you so much. It's great information. You're listening to Aspirus Health Talk and for more information, you can go to That's This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.