My daughter is exactly like other kids, she just gets a bit more geeked-out by sensory stimuli. She isn’t damaged or a burden. She isn’t troubled or behavioral. She is just Gwen. Smart, beautiful, kind, loud, helpful, and occasionally dangerous.

When I tell people she has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) everyone always asks, “What is that?” Even after I explain SPD in basic terms most people still have no freaking clue what I am talking about, so I am going to try to elaborate in a way that will hopefully bring this vague disorder more clarity. There are three important points I’d like to make.

Important Point # 1: Sensory processing happens in everybody, and every person seeks and avoids sensory input.

Everyone has heard of the five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell…but there are more.  Proprioception is the feeling of deep pressure through the joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles that gives us a feeling of connectivity to the Earth. The vestibular sense gives us the feeling of balance and motion.  Self regulation manages things like sleep-wake states and our emotions.

This plethora of information travels through nerves that move from the body to a center in the brain that makes sense of the information we are taking in, sort of like a computer downloading a bunch of files and organizing them to do important work. Our brain is the computer, the files are sensory information, and the important work is functioning in everyday life.

Sensory information NEVER stops downloading as long as we are still alive, and so every living person is constantly seeking or avoiding sensations; even those who have typical sensory processing. We turn off the radio in the car when we need to focus.  We put on sunglasses when the sun is too bright.  We go for a walk to calm down. We jump into the pool when we are sick of the hot sun.  We dry off after a shower because we need to put on clothes.

Everyone processes sensory information a bit differently, and a typical brain makes sense of that information in functional ways. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) happens when the brain cannot process sensory stimuli correctly in order for a person to function.  Either the person’s brain is overly seeking sensory input or overly avoiding sensory input, and often waffling between those two extremes.  The radio can never be turned on in the car.  Sunglasses are worn permanently. Walking is never enough to calm down. Jumping into a pool feels like razors. Towel drying feels so fantastic that stopping is impossible. These are just examples, but you get the point.

Important Point # 2: SPD symptoms often look like misbehavior.

Most adults with SPD eventually learn to cope with their sensory issues, but are usually left with a certain level of manageable anxiety because their sensory needs are rarely met entirely.  Children don’t have these coping skills yet, so the seeking or avoiding shows up in odd and annoying behaviors. The sensory system is often inconsistent in kids with SPD, which adds to the notion that the child is manipulating everyone. If the bath didn’t bother her yesterday why is she freaking out in the tub today?

On top of strange behaviors children with SPD usually develop oppositional traits and rigid routines because this helps them establish control and predictability while living in a body that often makes them feel powerless.  Imagine what it would feel like if sometimes the light in your bedroom was just a normal light, but other times it seemed so bright it was searing your eyeballs like a steak on the grill.  Chances are you would eventually insist on darkness. What if every time you lifted a glass its weight felt different? Sometimes it felt too light and your efforts ended up drenching you with liquid and other times it felt so heavy that you couldn’t lift the thing at all.  Chances are you would insist on a straw and refuse to lift the cup.  What if the playground swing made you feel like your body was finally grounded instead of floating randomly in space?  Chances are you would refuse to stop swinging. Children with SPD aren’t being difficult on purpose; they are just trying to navigate the world with a broken compass.

Important Point # 3: The only way past it is through it.

In order to help our children progress we have to help them cope.  Most kids are telling us what they need.  We just have to listen by observing. We need to figure out which behaviors are sensory based, and then find an alternative activity that gives the same result in a more natural and acceptable way. The following chart lists behaviors that Gwen exhibits regularly and also includes our replacement behaviors. Hopefully in sharing our experiences we can help others who are dealing with the same difficulties.

If you suspect your child may have SPD please consult with your doctor and an occupational therapist. You can also message me on Facebook or the contact page at www.onlynowiknow.com for more information.

Behavior

Seeking or Avoiding Sensory Systems Involved

Replacement Behaviors

Throwing  and Chasing Seeking Proprioception (pressure)

Vestibular (balance and movement)

Throwing pushes and pulls the arm joints, giving a sense of pressure.  Running gives movement input and joint pressure.

  • Throw soft items or balls into a laundry basket
  • Joint compressions (alternately pushing the joints in the body together and pulling them apart gently and repeatedly)
  • Play catch with a weighted or spiky ball
  • Throw toys for the dogs
Spinning Seeking Vestibular (movement and balance)

Visual (if eyes are open)

  • Play Ring Around the Rosy or Motor Boat
  • Twist in a swing
  • Spin in a swiveling chair
Jumping Seeking Proprioception (pressure)

Jumping throws jolts of pressure through the entire body.

  • Joint compressions
  • Jumping and crashing body onto couch cushions, beanbags, pillows, or a mattress
Climbing Seeking Proprioception (pressure)

Climbing puts pressure through the entire body.

  • Joint compressions
  • Set up an area to climb safely at home
  • Playground climbing toys
Toe Walking Seeking Proprioception (pressure)

Toe walking puts extra pressure through the hips, knees, and bones of the ankles and feet.

  • Jumping, skipping, or hopping
  • Joint compressions
  • Swimming or playing in a full bathtub
  • Pulling or kicking a Theraband
  • Burying feet in play-doh
Rocking Seeking Vestibular (movement and balance)

Proprioception (pressure)

Rocking puts pressure through the hips and gives calming repetitive motion to the body.

  • Rock in an actual rocking chair or glider
  • Roll on an exercise ball
  • Use a sit disk (cushy seat that gives movement)
  • Kicking a Theraband wrapped around chair legs
  • Walk or run
  • Joint compressions and massage
  • Swing
Being Clumsy (falling, bumping into things, breaking suff) Seeking Proprioception (pressure)

Vestibular (movement and balance)

Being clumsy is caused by a lack of feeling grounded by gravity, and a lack of feeling sensory pressure through the body that gives us proper feedback about our movements.

Any activity that moves the body at a steady pace and gives full body joint pressure:

  • Swinging
  • Jumping and crashing
  • Massage
  • Rolling up in a heavy blanket
  • Playing “squash the bug” with a big bean bag or heavy cushion and take turns being the bug
  • Rolling a ball over the body
  • Frog jumping, crab walking, wheel barrow walking
  • Wall push ups
  • Yoga
Talking Singing Seeking Proprioception (pressure)

Auditory (hearing)

Vocal vibrations give pressure in the throat, chest, and head.

If talking or singing isn’t appropriate to the current time and place use:

  • Joint compressions and massage, especially head and shoulders
  • Deep breathing
Chewing or Sucking Seeking Proprioception (pressure)

Tactile (touch)

  • Offer appropriate items to chew or suck such as balloons, straws, gum, candy
  • Electric toothbrush
  • Facial massage
  • Joint compressions
Refusing  Clothing Avoiding Tactile (touch)
  • Let child chose her own clothing
  • If certain clothes must be worn use joint compressions, massage and brushing prior to putting on the clothes
Refusing Foods or Overeating Seeking and Avoiding Food provides lots of input:

Crunchy – seeking auditory and proprioception (pressure)

Chewy – seeking proprioception (pressure)

Cold – seeking tactile (temperature change)

Overeating usually happens with foods that give needed input such as chewy, sweet, spicy, crunchy or salty. Avoided foods are often difficult to manage orally or are giving too much or too little sensory input.

Avoiding:

  • Look at what your child eats and what those food items have in common and then offer new foods that are similar in the same ways (crunchy, bland, chewy, sweet, etc.)

Seeking

  • Offer non-food oral toys such as whistles, straws, gum, etc.
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