Each and everyday we are exposed to so many sights, sounds, smells, and things we touch. Our brains use our senses to interpret the world around us and respond accordingly. If it is cold outside we know to put on something warm. When we are in a noisy mall we filter out the noise automatically and complete the tasks we are there for. When children have difficulty with sensory processing, it means that form of sensory input is confusing, upsetting, or not meaningful to the child. This difficulty in organizing sensory input can interfere with a child’s ability to complete everyday tasks successfully.
When Nora was first diagnosed I learned a great deal about our senses. I, like the general population, was under the understanding we had 5 senses. It turns out we actually have 7! We have 5 external senses which are your traditional touch, smell, taste, hearing and vision. Then we have 2 internal senses which need a little more explaining:
Proprioception ‐ an awareness of your body and where it is in space – so where different parts of your body are in relation to each other and to the objects and people around you. proprioception information comes through muscles, tendons and joint. Vestibular ‐ movement and balance and information comes to us through our inner ear. This tells us about how we move, balance and about gravity.
Just to make the whole thing more confusing, with each of these senses a child with SPD can be either hyposenitive or hypersensitive. So an example would be that in Nora’s case she is hypersensitive to noise (auditory) but hyposensitive to movement (vestibular). She herself was a loud, on the go, never sit still child who did not like birthday parties because they were too loud. I mean she literally could not sit at a dinner table for years without falling out of her chair at least 100 times (and no I am not exaggerating) but take her to a birthday party and she shut down became super quiet and clung to me or her dad. This is a prime example as to why a diagnose of SPD is so tricky and often takes years. Even then because it is a spectrum disorder a child can be high functioning SPD so it will be even harder to notice.
In Nora’s case she showed definite differences in 6 of the 7 areas. Some being extreme like auditory and some being mild like taste. Even at the time of her diagnoses Nora had developed good coping strategies. When a child has good modulation, they can organize sensory input to create an appropriate response. Even though Nora couldn’t always process some types of sensory input she had developed stratagies to help her. From a very young age Nora would have a helmet on her head. It usually started in the morning when she would be outside playing and then stayed on till bedtime. The helmet gave her pressure (touch) which was something she was always seeking. Even today Nora will often have a hat on her head when she is in a situation or environment that overwhelms her. In terms of vestibular processing Nora was always a seeker. She needs to have movement throughout her day. This doesn’t mean that she can’t sit still in a classroom, it just means that she needs times throughout her day where she can move. As a young child that would come in breaks and recess. Now that she is older she is able to sit longer and often that movement comes at recess or after school. Another area Nora struggles with is visual processing. To many things at once visually will overwhelm her and she struggles to organize visual information so puzzles are not her thing.
Once we realized the areas Nora struggled with then the Occupational Therapist gave us the tools to help Nora. We learned that Nora had difficulty taking in sensory information from her surroundings and making sense of it. So completing tasks like getting dressed, listening to a teacher, even walking through a mall where much harder for her than her peers because her brain was having to filter the information around her (something her peers do automatically). This left her expending energy stores quickly and avoiding situations (she would shut down) despite having devolved appropriate coping strategies (liking asking to leave a party rather than having a temper tantrum). Some of the tools we used back then were:
-A sensory diet with OT (and it is not something you eat) -Establish eye contact before giving verbal instructions and keep things simple -Practice responses to overwhelming situations by doing role-playing during play -Allow small amounts of movement during seated tasks like school or dinner table -Sit disk, exercise ball, chew gum, fidget toy all became part of our world -Visual schedules (this was a must for about 5 years)! -Goal and reward system in getting her to complete activities independently -Quiet place to escape too (we literally had a “Harry Potter” cupboard for her in one house) -Weighted blanket (this has been a life saver) Weighted lap buddy for school
We still use many of these tools today but now they are led by Nora herself as she knows what she needs and when. I am often amazed at her ability to self regulate and also to do hard things. If she has a close friend who is having a birthday party she will go and just know that after she will need to have some down time or a bike ride. It wasn’t always like this and there were years before diagnosis and after that we felt lost and unable to help her. Times when we both went to bed in tears but I see her today and know that all that hard work (on both are parts) paid off! She has a better understanding of how to make sense of her world and I learned that the world doesn’t always make sense the same way for everyone!! 🙂
Note: It is important for readers to understand that we all get a little overwhelmed from time to time in this world but for someone with SPD it impacts their lives daily. Before we learned how to support Nora her day to day world looked very different. 🙂