When I began researching autism, leaning disabilities, ADHD and other challenges that my own child faces I continually came across the term sensory processing disorder over and over again. Unsure of what sensory processing disorder was, I continued my reading and learned as much as possible in order to understand what the world might look like in the eyes of my son. Our assigned occupational therapist was also extremely helpful in working through the various sensory issues that my son experiences and through many outlets I have learned quite a bit about this world.
I am not a doctor, not an occupational therapist nor do I have any formal education or expertise in the area of child development or education. I have learned about the issues my child deals with simply as a result of extensive research, reading and discussion with the appropriate experts and my comments below are based on my own personal experience and are not to be taken as any form of advice, guidance or medical expertise. I am simply sharing our own experience based on what we have learned.
I recall reading the “Out of Sync Child” by Carol Kranowitz and being blown away; I felt like it was written specifically about Charlie and after I finished the book I remember telling my husband that I too had a sensory processing disorder. It shed light on so many of the challenges we were facing and continue to face and I often refer back to this book for advice and expertise. In addition, after reading the book I came to the realization that we all have some type of sensory preference or issue ranging from mild to severe. My husband hates tags in clothing, thinks certain fabrics are itchy and used to smell certain foods before eating while I chew gum constantly, need layers of blankets on me to sleep and use exercise as a way to balance my moods and energy levels.
One of the challenges relating to sensory processing disorder is that it is not yet a formally recognized diagnosis by the American Medical Association; this means that services are not offered specifically for SPD and it can be difficult to engage therapists and educators in this area at times. It is, however, very common for children with autism or other special needs to have sensory processing issues so in many cases their sensory needs are being addressed even if indirectly.
So what is sensory processing disorder? I will refrain from getting overly technical and boring and give you the brief definition which is that – sensory processing disorder is the inability to use information received through the senses in order to function smoothly in daily life. SPD is an umbrella term and covers a variety of neurological disabilities and it happens in the central nervous system, primarily in the brain. When processing is disorderly, the brain cannot do its job of organizing sensory messages and the child cannot respond to sensory information to behave in a meaningful, consistent way. Because the child with SPD has a disorganized brain, many aspects of his behavior are disorganized. His overall development is disorderly and his participation in childhood experiences is spotty, reluctant or inept For the out-of-sync child, performing ordinary tasks and responding to everyday events can be enormously challenging. The inability to function smoothly is not because the child won’t, but because he can’t. (The Out of Sync Child, Carol Kranowitz).
I could continue writing in great detail about the common symptoms of SPD, and various findings but to be honest that post would take hours and I am not sure anyone really needs that level of detail. If you think about yourself or your children or anyone you know well, you can probably understand that we all have different methods and varying levels of intaking and processing sensory events. Some of us are highly sensory seeking such as my son Charlie and myself, others may be sensory avoiders (think about those who hate getting sand on their feet at the beach, go crazy over tags in clothing or wearing turtlenecks, dislike the texture of certain foods, etc.). What I will do here in this post is give you an inside view of what it is like when your child has sensory difficulties (and I believe everyone has some level of preference in this arena) and explain certain steps we have taken to deal with Charlie’s specific preferences.
So here is how standard situations typically play out – This month in NJ it has been brutally cold out lately and getting Charlie to bundle up is a major feat and usually an unsuccessful one. We have just this year managed to get him wearing a winter hat (major accomplishment!) but he refuses gloves or mittens and won’t let us put his snow boots on. My husband and I dread the trip to get his hair cut and it typically results in a lot of screaming, yelling, crying, holding down and many parents staring in horror. On the positive side, we can spend hours upon hours at the beach – no amount of sand is too much, no amount of crashing waves will wear him down and its a major bonus for us since we enjoy the beach every weekend in the summer. We have had the experience of going to the playground when he was younger and rather than playing on the slides or swing, our son preferred to play with the rubber mulch and throw it all around and on top of himself; those kiddie gyms with ball pits are his favorite place and he could stay buried under those balls for quite some time. It is quite common for him to pile all of the pillows on the couch on top of him while watching a movie or request to be squeezed/hug overly hard. And unfortunately I have had a parent at school confront me about why my son is squeezing her son and can I please tell him to stop (his squeezes can hurt there is no question but he means absolutely no harm and its really a sign of his excitement not aggression, but I completely understand and respect that this is not always acceptable behavior and may cause problems).
All that we can really do on our end is to find methods in which we can help our son to satisfy his need for sensory input in the appropriate situations and environments so that we don’t have sensory overload at an undesirable time.
For the benefit of anyone who may be looking for ways in which to indulge a child with sensory processing issues, here is a list of things we have done or do in our home in order to help Charlie fulfill his sensory needs, many of which were recommend by our occupational therapist. The goal (which is similar to how we handle his hyperactivity) is to satisfy his input requirements so that he is more balanced and focused afterwards and therefore can do those other activities which will help him learn such as puzzles, music, reading. So here are some of the things we do in our home:
1. Beanbags – great for wrestling, deep pressure, hiding under, etc.
2. Ball Pit – our son could play in a ball pit for hours
3. Sit and Spin
4. Tupperware containers filled with beans – fulfills a sensory need – let them dig their hands in, give them smaller containers and have them pour beans in and out of larger ones
5. Tunnels and tents
6. Shaving cream car wash – results in a very messy kitchen but well worth it
7. Weighted blanket – he sleeps and naps with a weighted blanket
8. Live Sand – they sell it at learning express and its a great sensory tool without the mess
9. Heavy Play – we were told to create activities that encourage our son to carry or push heavy items so one idea is we have pretend food shopping in our kitchen where he pushes a shopping cart and we provide heavy items to pick up and push (large jars of peanut butter, canned goods, bottles of juice, etc).
10. Bath-time fun – lately this has been more challenging but messy paints, pudding in the bath, glow sticks or a bubble machine in the bath can all fulfill some sensory input needs
11. Moonbounce – we purchased a smaller version of the ones you can rent to use in the warmer weather…..he can jump and crash and bounce as long as he wants
12. Baking/cooking – the process of pouring ingredients, mushing or mixing seems to be very soothing
Try some and see if they work for your kids; have fun and forgive me for the potential mess these may create!