Let's Play

By Shannon Ayala

After school, Nick Sorrentino will fly like superman, knock down bad guys and climb a rock wall. Not bad for a six year-old with cerebral palsy and sensory processing difficulties.

In ordinary play settings, such as a park, kids like Nick or his three-year-old sister Emilia, who also has sensory sensitivities, can have fun, but they can also experience challenges. Nick gets tired fast, lacks awareness of where his body is in space, and has vision trouble, all conditions that hinder his ability to focus. Noise and tactile sensations can overwhelm Emilia.

“She doesn’t like to touch the sand,” her mother, Stefanie Sorrentino said. “She won’t go in the sandbox. She won’t go near the sprinklers, ever.”

One of the first signs that Emilia had trouble with sensory processing was her refusal to eat certain foods. She would spit out anything slimy such as pasta. “She basically eats mush and some sort of graham cracker,” Sorrentino said.

The Sorrentinos have tried various sensory gyms around the city. Nick has been going to them for four years, Emilia for 10 months. Now they go to a relatively small one, called Just Play NYC, on the Upper West Side, which involves one therapist and one child at a time, rather than several therapists and 10 to 20 kids.

The idea of sensory gyms is to create a fun environment where therapists use games or other playful activities that focus on particular sensory or physical needs. Children who use these gyms either need more physical or sensory input than other children or, at the other end of the spectrum, are overwhelmed by sounds or other sensations.

Sensory integration therapy came about as an alternative therapy on the west coast in 1970s. “It was considered very alternative if you go back 20 years ago or 30 years ago, but I think today, it’s very mainstream,” said Isaac Jacobowitz, a pediatrician who founded the Ability Center, a pediatric therapy center in Brooklyn which includes a sensory gym.

“It’s widely sought by parents,” said Jacobowitz, noting the effectiveness remains to be debated.  “I think there’s a lot of research out there that shows that it’s very effective. But there’s a lot of research that shows that it isn’t effective.”

The activities could involve crawling through a tube, jumping through a hoop while throwing a ball through a small hole, riding on a zip line or plain old-fashioned drawing.

“We disguise it as play,” said Shirael Pollack, founder of Watch Me Grow, another Manhattan sensory gym.

The practice is a form of occupational therapy, which is used to guide people with physical or mental setbacks in taking on tasks. For adults, occupational therapy could help an athlete recovering from an injury, an aging person readjusting to basic tasks or a mentally disabled person learning how to integrate into the workplace.

“For a child, you have to be able to play,” said Pollack. “That is your job as a child.”

In many cases, children with sensory difficulties appear to have behavior problems in school, Pollack said. “They run off and they throw themselves,” she said, or even bang their heads against the wall. “It looks like it’s behavioral but it’s really not. They’re having a sensory breakdown.”

For Emilia, it took time to warm up to the gym, said Sorrentino. But she eventually played with swings, and with shaving cream. She still doesn’t eat pasta, her mother said, but she plays with it.