Brushing a Child's Body to Calm Him Down

Many children with sensory processing disorder or autism spectrum disorder receive occupational therapy 2. Often times these children are prescribed a sensory diet that may include a brushing technique used for calming. According to occupational therapist Michelle Mitchell, writing for the Sensory Perception Disorder Companion, the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol is the technique commonly used in these cases 1.

Sensory Defensiveness

Children diagnosed with sensory perception disorder or autism spectrum disorder may exhibit signs of sensory defensiveness 24. Ann Stensaas, OTR, defines sensory defensiveness as a negative reaction to one or more types of sensations, including, touch, movement and balance, hearing and taste, smell or textures 4. Many occupational therapists use the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol to reduce sensory defensive symptoms 15. Ellen Yack, OT, writing for Autism Asperger's Digest, says that while there is not substantial research backing the brushing technique, occupational therapists have reported positive results with children who are sensory defensive 5.

Sensory Diets

Children who are sensory defensive can respond positively to a daily schedule of sensory-enriched activities. Amber Swearingen, MOT, says when an occupational therapist develops a sensory diet specific to a child's needs, the neurological system can receive the appropriate amount of sensory input needed to function optimally. A therapist evaluates and interacts with the child in order to determine how she becomes upset and is soothed. Parents may identify other social or physical issues by completing a questionnaire. Once information is gathered, the therapist develops a sensory diet with the right amount of sensory input.

The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol

Many occupational therapists use brushing at the beginning of the child's therapy session as a way to help the child calm down and focus on the task at hand. According to Lena Winston, OTR, and owner of Kids OT to Play, a pediatric therapy clinic in Massachusetts, the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol applies deep pressure, stimulating the brain, which then releases chemicals into the body, calming the child and allowing them to better process information or handle their environment. Therapists often teach parents how to use the brushing technique at home. Children can also learn to use the brushing technique at school to help them stay focused throughout the day.

Typical Results

Once it has been determined if the child responds positively to the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol, parents can monitor the changes that occur. Ellen Yack, OT, says changes may simply be a change in reaction and not necessarily positive or negative. Common physical changes are improved sleeping patterns, less resistance when grooming, improved handwriting, increased receptiveness to hugging and tolerance of clothing. Emotionally, parents may see an improvement in communication, stabilization of emotional responses, an increase in affections and improved eye contact. Some behavioral changes may be increased motivation and focus and a decrease in irritability, hyperactivity and impulsiveness.