Tonight I though I was going to write about balance, but then I was talking with a friend about something else and I think there is more of a need to share more about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). In this series, I'm going to give some insight into how to tell if a child might have SPD. Please understand that my only experience in this area is that I am the mother of 2 children with SPD, both on opposite ends of the disorder. I do not claim to know everything about the disorder, be an expert, nor will I tell anyone what to do about it. I will share my experience and what has worked for us. It's an exhausting road to travel. I hope and pray that sharing some of our voyage might help someone else.
It's hard for me to not let my life revolve around it. Yet, it takes up so much of my energy that my life does revolve around it. I see so many others whose lives revolve around it as well and they don't even know it. So let's talk about it.
What do I mean that many don't even know it? How could they not know? There are a lot of behavioral "issues" that are present in kids with SPD and it can be very difficult to differentiate between a behavioral problem and an unmet sensory need. Sensory kids don't tend to accept correction as easily as even strong-willed kids do. Here are some examples of what a sensory kid might do that you're trying to teach them not to do:
- A child who frequently hugs or squeezes others too tightly, even though they've been told to loosen the grip.
- A child who turns the volume on TV up very loudly.
- A child who knocks other children down or lies on top of them.
- A child who bumps into things (doorways or tables) or knocks stuff off of flat surfaces.
- A child who jumps on the bed or couch or projects off of the bed or couch onto the floor.
- A child who spins and spins (with or without getting dizzy).
- A child who leans against you or is nearly on top of you as you stand or sit together.
- A child who crams food into the mouth.
These are examples, though certainly not complete, of a sensory-seeking child who has an unmet need. Yes, all children enjoy many of these and they are normal childhood activities. However, it is when a child continues to do them in excess or without learning the correction (such as not squeezing another child too tightly, not turning the TV volume up past 4, not knocking other children down, not jumping on the furniture when told not to, etc.) that it may be time to start questioning if there is something else going on, something the child does not know how to control. There may not be a discipline problem with the child, although it may very well seem that way when the child doesn't heed to the correction.
Conversely, there are children who resist or are sensory-aversive. These children do not like various sensation and will often do anything to avoid the offensive sensation. This may look like:
- A child who doesn't like to wear socks, shoes, or a coat.
- A child who will only wear the same clothes over and over again.
- A picky-eater.
- A child who doesn't like close contact or hugs or kisses.
- A child who covers ears or frequently believes that normal sound is too loud.
- A child who turns off the light as they enter the room.
- A child who insists the seat belt is too tight.
On the surface, any parent would read the lists above and say that their child is just like this. However, it is important to know that we all have preferences about our environment. A wise friend once told me that we have very complex nervous systems and we all have things that bother us. That is so true. What makes a difference between it being bothersome and a disorder is how well a person can function throughout the day. The child who is sensory-aversive will throw more tantrums than a child who isn't, because the feeling is so offensive and bothersome.
Don't all kids throw tantrums? Absolutely.
Should the tantrums rule the child's life? Absolutely not.
Shouldn't these children be able to learn to control themselves? Absolutely.
Let's look at an example of how this impacts a person, okay?
If you were starving, and I mean you haven't eaten for 3 weeks, and someone told you that you couldn't eat the bowl of food in front of you or you'd have to sit on the time-out bench, would you have enough self-control to not eat that bowl of food? Chances are, with a physical need for food and nutrition, you'd take the chance on the discipline in order to meet your need. It's the same thing with these sensory kids. No method or amount of discipline is going to be effective if their sensory needs aren't being met. With a functioning nervous system, a person can cope with a minor (or even major) discomfort for a period of time. However, these kids are trying to deal with it all the time. Yes, all the time. Imagine, for a moment, a straight pin stuck in a seam. You notice something poking your skin and it's irritating. You re-arrange your clothing, perhaps rub or scratch where it was rubbing, trying to be discreat. Eventually, you might excuse yourself and take a closer look at what might be causing the discomfort. If you don't find it, think about how eager you are to take off that piece of clothing when you get home. Looking back over the day, were you distracted at all? Were you able to give your undivided attention to those around you? Did you fidget at all? Do you think that fidgeting was distracting to others?
Now let's take that one step further, to a child who has a sensory disorder. They might feel that way all the time, but not just in a small place where the pin was in a seam. Maybe it's every seam. Maybe it's all over their skin or under their skin. They cannot get away from it. Imagine the only relief being when they have pressure on the areas that are bothersome - so they hug another child too tightly. It feels so good to get that relief they are oblivious that they other kid is squirming, maybe even crying, to get away. The spinning gives a calming sensation as the wind hits their skin and they can feel something different. They will risk the discipline because they have a basic need that isn't being met - just like eating.
Sensory children can have a very difficult time functioning throughout the day and this often isn't recognized until a child is old enough to participate in a full-day classroom at school. These kids often do not begin having these sensory needs met until the end of first grade or later. Instead of being able to focus on the activities and materials presented in the classroom, these kids are focused on filtering our their own nervous-system distractions. They are not free to learn; they are imprisoned, in a sense, within their own bodies. Some of them will learn, through their own devices, how to cope and filter out that distraction. Some of them will not learn as well in the classroom because they are busy trying to figure out how to pay attention when they are so otherwise distracted. It's a sad place to put a child, in that position, to figure that out on their own. Some of them will have social awkwardness or be teased because of what they may do to find relief. Some may receive some therapy through school to help them and it may be limited to helping them get through the school day and not be distracting, not how to get through life. If the child is otherwise smart and developmentally on track, chances are that the child will not receive therapy through the school.
It doesn't mean you aren't doing a good job as a parent. It certainly doesn't mean something is "wrong" with your child. Would you feel that way if your child had cerebral palsy or was without a leg? No. It just means you have an extra obligation to help your child learn some things that come easier for others. And guess what... there are some things that will come easily for your child that are more difficult for others, both with and without sensory disorders.
Does having a sensory disorder excuse any poor behavior that come about while the child is trying to meet those needs? No, it doesn't. And we'll get to that.
Next in this series:
Sensory Processing Disorder: What has helped our kids
Sensory Processing Disorder: Discipline
Sensory Processing Disorder: Recommendations