The Sunny Days Sunshine Center, Inc.
A unique approach to helping children reach their potential.


Fun Summer Ideas for Sensory Sensitive Kids!

June, 2017 | By Gail Spina, OTR/L

ideas for summer activities for sensory sensitive children

Summer vacation is almost here, and soon kids will have more time during the day to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. Exercise, social interaction, and family time are so important for childhood development, and every family should take advantage of summer vacation to its fullest. Below we’ve listed some great places to go on adventures with sensory sensitive children—so grab your sunscreen and sunglasses and let’s go!

Places to Visit for Summer Fun in the Sun

Have a Beach Day

From the grit of the sand between your toes to the salty spray of the sea, heading to the beach is like going to the world’s largest sensory bin! There are plenty of ways to entertain children including swimming, boogie boarding, playing catch, and building sandcastles. For sensory sensitive children, taking along a few extra supplies to the beach can help improve their experience in the sun and the sand.

  • Bring a tent or umbrella to help block the sun and provide a safe space for your children to take breaks and self-regulate.
  • A rash guard and bathing suit combo is a great way to keep sand from irritating sensitive skin.
  • Bring multiple beach blankets for your children to use throughout the day.
  • Sun and heat protection are musts, and you should always bring water, sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses.

Go on a Walk Through the Woods

Going out and taking in the sight, smells, and sounds of the wild can be a great learning experience for your children. In the Garden State, there are plenty of nature reserves and parks close-by to explore! While an all-day hike might be too much for young children, taking a walk on a trail for a few hours allows kids to take in nature at their own pace.

Aside from the usual sturdy shoes, sunglasses, water, and snacks, there are a couple more items and situations you should plan for before heading into the wild with your sensory sensitive children.

  • Bring bug spray, but consider using an herbal insect repellent or Skin So Soft if your children are sensitive to certain smells.
  • Have a photo of your children with you on your phone to help identify them if they become lost.
  • Avoid large bodies of water like deep lakes or fast-moving rivers as children with sensory sensitivity may be drawn to running water and accidentally fall in.

Head to the Playground

Spending some time at the playground is a great way to let your child socialize and exercise. Playground equipment can offer a variety of visual and physical stimuli that can help relieve stress and provide children with the opportunity to meet and play with their peers. To help keep sensory sensitive kids comfortable and safe, there are a couple of things you need to make sure you’ve selected a good playground for them.

  • The playground should feature an enclosed fence so there’s only one way in or out, preventing children from wandering. A closed gate with seating nearby is preferable.
  • Find equipment with cozy spaces so your children can have somewhere to relax and self-regulate.
  • Pick a playground that encourages lots of movement. Look for equipment that lets kids swing, spin, rock, sway, or jump.
  • Choose a playground that includes nature or has muted colors. A more serene atmosphere can help calm sensory sensitive children.

Get a Helping Hand for Summer Activities

We understand that summer is a busy time, and parents often have to keep working while the kids are on vacation. To offer parents fun and educational options to keep their children busy, The Sunshine Center has a variety of events scheduled for the summer including drop in playdates, social skill groups, summer mini camps, MusicRound classes, and more! Check out our fun summer lineup of events in Manalapan, NJ and reserve your children’s spot today!

How to Help Children Cope with Sensory Sensitivity

May, 2017 | By Gail Spina, OTR/L

how to help children with sensory sensitivity

Many of the children we work with have difficulties processing everyday sensory information. Their senses may be over or under-sensitive to stimuli at different times, and these sensory differences can impact their behavior and have lasting effects on their development.

Children on the autism spectrum may behave in a way that some might not immediately link to sensory sensitivity. Children with sensory sensitivity issues can experience sensory overload, and too much information can cause anxiety, stress, and possibly physical pain. To help prevent children from being withdrawn or exhibiting challenging behavior due to sensory overload, we’re going to look at some of the effects of sensory sensitivity and ways to help alleviate discomfort.

Sensory Sensitivities: Hypersensitivity vs. Hyposensitivity

Sensory processing issues can be hard to understand because they affect children in different ways, and symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Hypersensitivity: Oversensitive children have an extreme response to stimuli. For example, they might run away from loud noises or notice distant sounds that others do not. It’s common for these children to be scared of big crowds and to shy away from playground equipment. They may also dislike being touched, even by close family and friends.

Hyposensitivity: Under-sensitive children are less aware of their surroundings. They might have an indifference or high tolerance to pain. They could also engage in sensory-seeking behavior, meaning they have a constant need to touch things and people, even when it is not appropriate. Under-sensitive children also can have trouble with personal space and might be clumsy or uncoordinated.

Some children with sensory processing issues also show signs of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. Below, we cover the five senses and how children respond to different stimuli whether they are over or under-sensitive.

How to help children with sensory sensitivity to light



  • Poor depth-perception
  • Problems throwing, catching, and disconcerting objects
  • Central visions might be blurred, but perhaps is sharp
  • Peripheral vision is blurred, but central objects appear magnified


  • Sensitivity to light and difficulty sleeping when near a light source
  • Distorted vision
  • Images appear fragmented or give off flashes of light
  • Prefer focusing on a detail rather than the whole object

To help children cope with light sensitivity, you can make changes to the environment by providing them with sunglasses or a visor. You can also reduce the amount of light by removing fluorescent lighting or using blackout curtains. For children who are under-sensitive to light, you can use bright, bold visual supports like cue cards to help facilitate effective communication and establish a routine.

How to assist kids with sensory sensitivity to noise



  • Does not notice or acknowledge certain sounds
  • Enjoys banging on objects and doors
  • Attracted to crowded, noisy places


  • Difficulty concentrating due to distracting background noise
  • Sounds are magnified or become muddled and distorted
  • Able to hear distant conversations

To assist children who are sensitive to loud sounds, you can provide ear plugs or a headphone set and play soothing music to help calm them when agitated. It is a good idea to talk to the child and prepare them before they enter a noisy, crowded area as well. You can also shut doors and windows to reduce external noise. To help gain the attention of children who are under-sensitive to sound, try getting on their level and speaking more slowly and clearly

Helping children with sensory sensitivity issues to smells



  • Little to no sense of smell
  • Fails to notice extreme odors, even their own body odor
  • Licks items to better understand what they are


  • Smells can be intense or overpowering.
  • Dislikes perfumes, shampoos, detergents, fabric softener, animal orders, etc.

If your child is sensitive to scent, consider using unscented soaps and shampoos, and avoid wearing perfume to make the environment as fragrance-free as possible. For children who are less sensitive to smells, try using strong-smelling products to keep them from handling other, inappropriate strong-smelling items, like trash or human waste.

How to help kids with sensory sensitivity to taste and texture



  • Enjoys very spicy foods
  • Shows symptoms of pica, like eating non-edible items such as stone, dirt, soil, grass, metal, etc.


  • Has a restricted diet because some flavors are too strong and overpowering
  • Dislikes some foods because of texture and enjoys smooth foods like mashed potatoes or ice cream

As long as your child’s diet has some variety, a more restricted diet to accommodate their taste and food texture sensitivities isn’t necessarily a problem. If they do not like the texture of certain foods, try pureeing them instead.

How to assist children who are sensory sensitive to touch.



  • Has a high threshold for pain
  • Might be unable to feel food in mouth
  • Enjoys heavy objects on top of them, like weighted blankets
  • Chews on inedible objects, including clothing
  • Holds on to others tightly
  • Enjoys smearing foods and other messy substances on surfaces


  • Being touched is uncomfortable or painful
  • Dislikes having hands and feet covered by clothing
  • Dislikes washing or brushing hair
  • Finds clothing tags distracting or unbearable
  • Only enjoys wearing certain types of clothing or textures

For under-sensitive children, introducing them to items that are okay to manipulate and smear like Play-Doh, putty, or cornstarch and water can help calm them. Slimes and sensory bins are a great way to stimulate sensory for sensitive children, and recipes are easy to find online. Also, consider finding alternative items to chew on, such as straws, hard sweets, or latex-free tubes.

If your child is oversensitive to touch, comforting touches like hugs might actually be painful to them. Always approach them from the front and warn them if you are about to touch them. You can also turn clothing inside out so there are no seams, remove clothing tags, or purchase tagless clothing if they are distracted by the texture of their garments.

We are always prepared to help identify areas of concern and develop a program to meet your child’s personal needs. If you are interested in learning more about our therapy services, contact us today and schedule a tour or evaluation.

Learn How Occupational Therapy Can Help Children

April, 2017 | By Gail Spina, OTR/L

How Occupational Therapy Can Help Children

Happy National Occupational Therapy Month everyone! This month is particularly meaningful because The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) just celebrated their 100th anniversary. The concept of engaging in meaningful therapeutic activities has been the foundation of occupational therapy since it was first developed during the early 20th century. Today, occupational therapy is used to help both adults and children to promote participation in activities and foster independence.

How Occupational Therapists Create a Plan of Treatment

Occupational therapists work with children of all ages and abilities to help them reach their greatest potential. Since children learn through interacting with the world around them, their biggest occupation is to play and learn. A trained occupational therapist can identify the needs of children who are experiencing developmental delays or challenges by observing how a child plays as well as understanding their typical home and school environments.

By working together with the guardians and child, an occupational therapist assesses the behaviors, abilities, and any developmental challenges the child might have. Once the therapist understands the child’s behaviors more clearly, they can begin to develop a plan with goals to help the child reach developmental milestones. After the plan is prepared and implemented, the therapist evaluates the child's progress to make sure goals are being met and see if any changes need to be made to the plan of treatment.

Individual Needs an Occupational Therapist Can Address

By using an individualized one-on-one approach backed with input from the child’s guardians, occupational therapists gain a much deeper understanding of the child's needs, family values, and how to make meaningful changes. Often, an occupational therapist will modify the child’s environment and teach them preferred behaviors by modeling skills and strategies to the child and their family members.

There are a variety of ways an occupational therapist can help children achieve their greatest potential. Below are some developmental milestones an occupational therapist might address for a toddler or child:

Occupational therapy for toddlers and young children.


  • Facilitating movement to sit, crawl, or walk without assistance
  • Learning how to cope with failure or disappointment
  • Learning how to pay attention and follow instructions
  • Reducing excess environmental stimuli like noise
  • Building sharing and cooperation skills
  • Learning how to drink, eat, wash, and dress independently

Additionally, below are some examples of developmental milestones that might be addressed for older children and teens:

Occupational therapy services for children and teens.


  • How to form and maintain friendships
  • Strengthening decision-making skills
  • Increasing overall independence
  • How to plan and transition to higher education
  • Improving time management
  • Navigating complex relationships like dating

The Benefits of Occupational Therapy for Children

Overall, the goal of occupational therapy is to help the child improve their life at home and in school. For children who have developmental delays, sensory processing disorder, or autism spectrum disorder, occupational therapy can address behavioral and environmental factors to help foster independence.

For those interested in learning about occupational therapy services, Sunny Days Sunshine Center has an informational seminar happening during National Occupational Therapy Month to help parents understand the variety of therapeutic services available to them and their children. Sign up for our Therapy Service for Kids Discussion that is taking place on April 25th from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm at the Sunny Days Training Room by calling us at (732) 761-0320 or visiting our website.

If you are interested in starting occupational therapy services for your child, we are ready to create a plan to help them reach developmental milestones. To start occupational therapy with the Sunny Days Sunshine Center, schedule a tour or evaluation by contacting us.

How to Teach Children Handwriting and Make It Fun

March, 2016 | By Gail Spina, OTR/L

Teaching kids handwriting can be fun!

As our society continues on the path of great technological advancements, there are some that question why we are still teaching our children handwriting. The "to teach, or not to teach" debate is real in the year 2017, aka the Keyboard Age. In a world of keyboards, is it really worth our time teaching old-fashioned handwriting to our children?

Yes, it is absolutely worth our time! In fact, The New York Times calls learning handwriting still essential and sources research published in The Journal of Learning Disabilities. The research shows that not only does learning handwriting help children learn how to write, but it also helps with what are called "executive function" skills (like planning) in children both with and without learning disabilities.

Here's how you can get started.

Make Handwriting for Kids a Fun Learning Experience

Teaching your child handwriting can be a challenge, but it is possible to make this learning experience a fun one for both you and your child. Handwriting programs such as Handwriting Without Tears created by Jan Olsen, OTR and OT Solutions created by Dr. Beverly Moskowitz, DOT, MS, OTR are wonderful foundation tools. We recommend and use these programs ourselves at The Sunshine Center to help our children develop handwriting skills, including printing, copying, and cursive.

In addition to these resources, it is also important to assess your child's eye integrity, knowledge of the alphabet, and strength of their writing shoulder, arm, and hand.

Assess your child's eye integrity before you start teaching them handwriting.

Assessing Eye Integrity

First thing's first - assess the integrity of your child's eyes for mobility before you begin teaching handwriting. There are eight muscles around each eye that ideally help move the eyes together, as a team. If poor eye movement is evident, we strongly suggest a trip to a behavioral optometrist or other appropriate eye specialist.

Knowing their ABC's makes for a good foundation for your child to learn handwriting.

Knowledge of the Alphabet

There are multiple ways to establish a good foundation for your child's knowledge of the alphabet. Some of our favorites include:

  • Checking to see if your child can sing their ABC's
  • Naming all the letters out of sequence
  • Creating uppercase down and across letters (EFHILT) with tall and short sticks

Encouraging your child to recite the ABC's while pointing to the corresponding letter moving left to right, top to bottom also prepares them for reading.

Playing tug of war is one way kids can strengthen their shoulders and arms.

Shoulder, Arm, & Hand Strength

As soon as your child starts coloring, encourage them to stand at and use an easel instead of sitting at a table. We recommend your child use an easel until at least age five at home for coloring, scribbling, and exploring the use of markers, chalk, and crayons. Standing and writing helps develop the shoulder girdle, keeping it strong and mobile. Wheelbarrow walk racing, playing tug of war, swinging on monkey bars, and swimming are also great ways your child can strengthen the shoulder area.

Help their developing hands by having them use a tripod pinch, a device that assists in holding and controlling a pencil or any other instrument with your fingertips. If they are too young to use a tripod pinch, try giving them thick markers to hold first, then eventually graduate to using a tripod pinch.

EXPERT TIP: If your child refuses to create letters the traditional way using pencil on paper, try using substitutes such as shaving cream, finger paints, and magnets to create letters.

Handwriting Classes for Kids at The Sunshine Center

Need some help teaching your child handwriting? The Sunshine Center can help!

We will work with your child's unique set of limitations when teaching them handwriting. Our center specializes in autism and developmental disorders. We'll work to assess their eye integrity and refer them to an eye specialist as needed, help strengthen that shoulder/arm/hand area that's so important, and help you develop home exercises to meet the needs of your child. Contact us today for more information on our services or to schedule a tour of our center in Manalapan, NJ.

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How Music Therapy Classes Help Children with Autism

December, 2016 | By Gail Spina, OTR/L

kids music

Twinkle, twinkle little...

Did you finish the song? Most likely you did.

This is one powerful use of song we use with our children with autism in music therapy at the Sunny Days Sunshine Center. Having a child fill in the gap is based on the concept that "structured musical experiences may be utilized to provide clear cues to anticipate a response, giving time to plan and sequence a series of actions as needed for social interaction" (LaGrasse, 2014, p.254). "Lai and colleagues (2012) demonstrated that children with autism, ages 5 to 10, have stronger activations of the cortical speech and auditory areas when exposed to song, exceeding activations in neuro-typical children" (LaGrasse, 2014, p.253). "If persons with autism can better process musical stimuli, then music may assist learning in areas of deficits, including social skills groups" (LaGrasse, 2014, p.253). With this in mind, the Sunshine Center offers music therapy for our children with autism.

Learn the definition of music therapy and how it's helpful

The American Music Therapy Association ( describes music therapy as a "research based discipline that actively applies science to the creative, emotional, and energizing experiences of music for health treatment and educational goals" (AMTA, 2014). "Music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals" (Gauntt, 2012).

"A hallmark characteristic of autism is a deficit in social and communication skills, including difficulty reciprocating social interaction, problems establishing and maintaining relationships and abnormal communication behavior" (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). According to LaGrasse (2014) "Tomchek and Dunn (2007), found that over 90% of children with autism demonstrate behaviors related to poor sensory modulation including self-stimulation (rocking or hand flapping), auditory/tactile defensiveness (hand over ears, avoiding touch), sensory seeking (crashing, creating sound), and "tuning out" (not responding to name or environmental cues). These behaviors can directly compete with social interaction opportunities" (2014, p.252).

See how we work with kids with autism through music therapy

Music therapy at the Sunshine Center is the tool used to draw children in, engage, and explore and experience joy. Avoiding interaction one day in music therapy may be replaced with curiosity, exploration of instruments, pleasure in listening, and a cathartic reaction in subsequent sessions. Rocking and hand flapping can be replaced with functional movement patterns, friendly volumes and sounds can be established, opportunities to move, crash and make noises can be explored while finishing a familiar song may refine ability to respond to environmental cues.

This deeply individual experience is shared with peers in a safe, loving environment. At the Sunshine Center we use music therapy as a social experience where children gather around the music therapist, march and move to different beats, follow hand and body gestures, sing however they want, and laugh. Our children learn how to communicate hello and goodbye, become aware of self and body parts and learn about friends in the room. Our children are drawn out of an internally driven existence to one where there is a relaxed but structured opportunity to interact with others and develop "joint attention" (La Grasse, 2014). Music therapy is a valuable treatment approach since "many children respond positively to music experiences potentially increasing engagement for learning" (LaGrasse, 2014, p.253).

The Sunshine Center is dedicated to providing an assortment of services that serve to contribute to the holistic development of our children with autism. Music therapy is a powerful tool used to prepare our children for unpredictable social and academic challenges.

Join one of the Sunshine Center's music classes coming up in January 2017 and see what all the fun is about. Visit our website or call the center at for more information at 732-761-0302.


  • American Music Therapy Association (2014). AMTA press release on music therapy.
  • Gaunt, J., (2012). Music therapist works to give children with autism a voice. Retrieved from: Sam Houston State University. Para 23. www/T@S/sliders/2013/lim/html
  • LaGasse, A. B. (2014). Effects of a music therapy group intervention on enhancing social skills in children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy, 51(3), 250-75. Retrieved from edu/docview/162 7710689?accountid=28402

Clumsy kids need our help.

April, 2016 | By Gail Spina, OTR/L

clumsy kids playing

In our OT sessions at the Sunshine Center, we sing a song "let your eyes tell your body what to do". We use this song to gently remind our children to look around, take note of the area and then move. We are trying to replace "on the go" actions with conscious awareness of the room. However, this process of reminding your eyes to look around before moving is so exhausting. We usually do this automatically but if our kids forget to look around we have to lovingly remind them. Our children would much rather run around and crash into a walls, floors, tables or people then take the time to look around and make postural adjustments safely around an obstacle. This crashing into things uses the proprioceptive system in place of the visual system. Once you crash into something you know where it is which is much easier to do than to use your eyes especially if the eye muscles are weak.

The proprioceptive system is made up of muscles and joints. The muscles move the joints and together they move the body from one point to another. We can move quickly, slowly, make sudden stops, scale couches and jump off of curbs. We use our eyes to decide how much force we need to generate to jump over a toy, and we use the information from our eyes to walk around obstacles that are in our way. Sometimes our kids bump into things because their muscles and joints are not working well together and this interferes with fluid movement. Our children have no way of figuring out how to get their bodies to work right so we can help them by making exercise fun.

Create an obstacle course in the house and have them complete the obstacle course over and over so they have to make a number of different movement decisions. You can change the challenges of the obstacle course often so they have to discover new ways to move their muscles and joints. Place a crash pad of pillows at the end to make it fun and silly. An obstacle course will help them train their visual scanning system to look around to see what they need to do next and the course will train the muscles and joints to navigate around obstacles. If they lose their balance on any part of the course, the vestibular system detects this change in position and immediately sends information to the the muscles and joints so the body stays upright. The vestibular system knows when the body is off balance and the muscles and joints help the body regain balance.

The visual system, the proprioceptive system and the vestibular system need each other to help our children move easily and efficiently. If any of the systems are not working well, it's our job to provide our kids with fun gross motor experiences that help build body awareness, help the body move efficiently, help them to use their eyes to be aware of the environment and to coordinate these 3 systems for interactions in the community. The end result is for the child to be able to move and respond to challenges in a way that leads them to wanting to engage more, play safely and ultimately gain a sense of joy and accomplishment.

So when you see your child is running around and they bump into a wall, or trip over obstacles simply start singing "let your eyes tell your body what to do", set up movement challenges and let them move through an obstacle course until they tire. You could also help the vestibular system by taking them to the playground making sure that they spin, and swing side to side and front to back. Have them roll over on the ground, do a somersault, lean back on a ball or walk on a balance beam/curb. Empower your children to be the boss of their bodies, praise them for looking around, and challenge them to a relay race where they have a visual target and have to speed up and slow down at different points. Clumsy kids need our help to create that just right activity that is fun and challenging. Tug-o-war, hiking, swimming, rock climbing, wheel barrow walk and bouncing on an outdoor trampoline are excellent ways to strengthen a clumsy body. Have fun!

Sensory Processing

December, 2015 | By Gail Spina, OTR/L

sensory perception

Sensory Processing: When the nervous system is developmentally mature, sensory messages are delivered efficiently to the brain where the brain interprets this information and allows the body to respond appropriately (behavior). A developmentally mature system means that the myelin sheaths surrounding the nerves are healthy and allow information to travel smoothly and intact to the brain for interpretation. Developmentally mature means that at 3 years of age the system has a typical level of maturity which is different than the 23 year old system. Knowing typical development is important so that we do not expect a 3 year old body to interpret sensory information in the same manner a 23 year old system would interpret information.

Sensory messages are gathered through our 5 senses such as taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. (vestibular, proprioceptive and internal receptors are 3 more extremely profound senses that will be discussed in great detail at another time) It is a sensory concern when all structures are intact with no apparent damage to any part of the sensory gathering structures. Sensory messages can be gathered poorly at the level where body meets environment, sent to the brain for interpretation poorly since myelin sheaths are not efficiently developed, or are interpreted poorly by the brain and therefore, behavior will be atypical and will not match the demands of typical sensory experiences.

Behavior in the sensory world is described as our emotional, social and physical responses to sensory information bombarding our systems at all times. This outward behavior gives us insight into how the nervous system is handling sensory information. This is a subconscious response. But this subconscious response can turn into a learned behavior. So we organize the sensory system and brainstem and expect "behaviors" to move towards typical so that the 'behavior" eventually matches the demands of the sensory stimuli. A behavior can be a flight/fright or fight response. Again, it is a completely subconscious response to seemingly typical stimuli. The body interprets the sensory experience (stimuli) as dangerous and wants to respond to protect. At the Sunshine Center, we treat to organize all aspects of the unorganized sensory system so all incoming information is responded to in a developmentally appropriate manner. This then leads to a peaceful, joyful, challenge seeking system (refined self). Skill development occurs meaningfully on top of an organized sensory processing system.

If the behavior is deliberate, meaning that the child makes a choice to dart, ignore command, and/or use learned behaviors to avoid such as crying or slinking down to the ground, then a strong behavior plan is used to manage and shape up behaviors. This is conscious and the child becomes a partner in the plan. We extinguish what we do not want by ignoring or looking away from mild transgressions (there are unlimited variations imbedded in this process) and we praise and respond to what we want the child to continue to do. We follow the "children repeat what is responded to" approach so the actions by a therapist (and parents) are fluid and always purposeful. It's a very delicate and artful process that is intuitively different from what we are used to doing. We have a tendency as parents to correct to what is wrong and ignore the on target behavior. A behavior plan approach ignores the negative and responds to the appropriate with praise and attention. The child is seen through a lens of perfect, develops a confident sense of self and will want to gain your attention/praise with good behaviors. The "wrong" behaviors become secondary. Remember to praise the appropriate and ignore the incorrect. The appropriate will become paramount and the incorrect will minimize. When behaviors are intense and aggressive, sensory and behavior plans are intertwined in an artful, skillful manner always looking for the opportunity to organize and shape up behaviors.