The Misunderstood Child: Sensory Processing 101
A typical morning in my home begins with the words “My clothes hurt me. They are too loose. I need new clothes.” As a result, I begin the search for the “right” clothes for my 4-year-old daughter. After much time, many tears, lots of tight hugs and a good dose of frustration, she begins her day in the same dress she wore the day prior and many days prior to that. The process of getting dressed, which seems simple to most, is the biggest challenge my child faces on a daily basis.
This situation is one example of what living with a child with sensory processing disorder is like. “Imagine being in an environment where the noise around you is amplified to the highest level, the temperature is the coldest or hottest you have ever felt, you are wearing the most uncomfortable clothing that has ever touched your skin and you are nauseated by a repulsive smell. All at the same time. What would be your response? Most would quickly escape the situation,” Dana Lyons, occupational therapist at Boulder City Hospital, says. “These are examples of what a child with sensory processing disorder feels, but they cannot escape the symptoms. As a result, these children may respond with anger, frustration, or ultimately avoid situations which may cause a breakdown.”
Sensory processing is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. (SPDFoundation.net) “Everyone processes sensory input, but some people process it differently than others,” Carrie Grosdidier, occupational therapist from Infant Toddler Services of Johnson County, says. “When the processing of this information interferes with our ability to function on a day-to-day basis, we have a problem.”
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) can be hard to diagnose because it affects each person differently. “Any of the five senses can be affected by being hypersensitive (over stimulated) or by being hyposensitive (under stimulated),” Lyons says.
Children with hypersensitive response to sensory input may:
- Be distracted by noises that sound normal to others (flushing toilets, clanking silverware)
- Fear surprise touch or avoid hugs
- Avoid swings and playground equipment that others enjoy
- Have poor balance, fall often
Youngsters with a hyposensitive response to sensory input may:
- Have a constant need to touch people or textures
- Have an extremely high tolerance to pain
- Often harm other children and/or pets when playing, not understand their own strength
- Be fidgety and unable to sit still, enjoy movement-based play such as spinning, jumping, swinging etc.
- Seem to be “thrill seekers” and be dangerous at times
Children can have one or many of these characteristics, as well as some from each category and in varying degrees of severity. “Unfortunately, these responses are viewed by others as children’s behaving badly when, in fact, they are not,” Lyons says. “The most important thing to understand is that children with SPD are not ‘bad’ children. They are simply trying to survive in their own skin in a world with heightened or lowered sensations. Typical punishment for ‘bad’ behavior is not optimal and can cause regression rather than progression.”
Stephanie Beaudry, mom of two children with SPD, says “When trying to explain my son’s hyperactivity or clumsiness is due to SPD, we get told, ‘Oh, it’s just his age.’ But it’s actually because his nervous system doesn’t respond as it should in certain situations.” SPD may cause motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression or other impacts if not treated effectively. (SPDFoundation.net)
SPD does create challenges for families, but there is treatment available for kids who deal with these struggles. “We had a fabulous occupational therapist who helped my son. She gave us tools and gave him permission to figure out what worked for him and what didn’t,” Joy Alsup, Olathe mom of four, says. “He has a high need for tight, long hugs, and we understand that this is what helps him. It’s a huge priority for us.”
With the help of an occupational therapist, kids with SPD can find tools that help them balance sensory input. Activities may include swinging, wearing a weighted vest, pushing or pulling heavy objects across the room or jumping on a trampoline. Many of these activities are fun for the child and can be integrated into playtime at home. (SensorySmarts.com)
“The therapy helps more than just their physical strengths, but also their emotional strengths,” says Beaudry. “When my daughter first started therapy, she was extremely shy. She wouldn’t even talk to children her own age when they approached her. Now, four months later, she is a social butterfly.”
An occupational therapist’s main goal is to educate parents about SPD and give families tools they can use to help the child progress at home. Families dealing with SPD may have struggles with things other people see as “normal” activities, and many parents find hope in their child’s progress and support from other parents who are dealing with this disorder. “One thing I have learned after experiencing our journey is that I am not alone,” Beaudry says. “There are so many others that understand what I am going through, and we are there to support each other in many ways.”
As a mother of a child with SPD myself, I encourage others to educate themselves about SPD and to approach the situation from the child’s perspective. Parents can then begin to use the tools needed to adjust their environment and celebrate as their child meets her goals and overcomes challenges.
“When my son was diagnosed, I felt like he would be limited in his future,” Alsup says. “He has worked through many of his issues, and I see his SPD as part of what makes him unique. I wouldn’t have him any other way.”
It takes a lot of patience, persistence and love to parent a child with SPD, but when a child feels acceptance and support, he can work through his struggles and thrive in school and at home.
The inspiration for this article came from Olathe mom Sarah Lyons' daughter, Grace, and her experience with sensory processing disorder. She hopes to educate and encourage other parents who may have a child who lives with this struggle on a daily basis.