If you’re a parent at all, autism or no autism, chances are you’ve experienced sensory difficulties in some form or another. The fact is, many children struggle with sensitivities to light, color, sound, temperature, texture, clothing, food, physical contact, pressure, pain, etc…, any of which can be individually or collectively diagnosed as Sensory Processing Disorder.
And while a child may not necessarily be sensitive to every item on the list, even just dealing with one or two can result in some pretty stressful situations, for your child… and for you.
Where is this all coming from?
In order to help your kids best work through their sensitivities, you need to understand a few things…
- SPD is essentially sensory miscommunication. The brain doesn’t adequately process all the information taken in by the body’s senses (sight, hearing, taste, etc…).
- Experts now claim that 1 in every 6 children has sensory processing challenges! Wow.
- There are two forms of SPD: hyper-sensitive and hypo-sensitive.
- Hyper-sensitive children take in too much sensory information and can become over-stimulated.
- Hypo-sensitive children don’t take in enough sensory information and will typically seek extra sensory input.
- The DSM-V (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders 2013) lists sensory perception issues as part of the autism diagnosis… however, not every child with SPD has autism.
That’s probably enough trivia for now… let’s bring everything just a little closer to home.
A Simple Walk in the Park… or is it?
I live in Atlanta and it’s finally starting to feel like spring. Since we only have this one week of nice weather between the bone-chilling winter and the humid, sticky summer (all right, I exaggerate a smidge, but you get the idea), one of my favorite things to do now is take a long walk through my neighborhood or the park.
Everyone likes walks, right? So imagine you’re taking one, right now.
First, your eyes take in the light source (presumably the sun), which shows you any people or obstacles in your path, and lets you know where to put your foot down. (This is your visual system at work.)
You’re able to keep your balance with the help of your vestibular and proprioceptive systems, two of your lesser known, but super important, senses (you actually have seven, not five senses).
You hear birds singing nearby (auditory) and smell the neighbor’s roses (olfactory) as you taste the sweetness of an ice cream cone (taste/gustatory).
You feel the sun on your face, the cotton shirt you’re wearing, and the temperature of the air, all evidences of your tactilesystem at work.
Funny thing, you actually probably don’t “notice” any of these things, because your brain has trained itself to filter out unnecessary details, so you’re free to think or ponder the questions of the universe, or whatever you like to focus on when you take a walk.
The trouble with Sensory Processing Disorder is that the information gathered by one of more of your seven senses isn’t properly processed, leaving you with inaccurate data about the world around you. Let’s take a look.
Hyper-sensitive: Whoa… way too much!
Okay, same circumstances, with one small revision. You now have hyper-sensitive sensory processing disorder. Take TWO. And… go.
Wow! The sun is super bright, too bright to really focus on what’s nearby… which gets a little awkward when you accidentally run into a mailbox on the sidewalk. Whoops!
You may also have trouble keeping your balance due to your overly-sensitive vestibular and proprioceptive systems, which could be telling you that you’re moving a LOT, when really you’re only moving a little. You might feel really unsteady, and want to hold onto something or someone to support yourself.
Okay, now you’re completely overwhelmed by how loudly the birds are singing; in fact it’s really too loud to focus on anyone who may be trying to talk to you… and the scent of those roses is insanely strong. Yikes!
You might also feel acutely uncomfortable under that hot, bright sun, wearing an increasingly sticky shirt with an unbearably itchy tag. You just can’t get comfortable and can’t really focus on anything because everything is so overwhelming.
So… basically a lot going on there. Now let’s consider the opposite difficulty.
Hypo-Sensitive: Umm… not enough!
Same deal, other side of the coin. Now you have hypo-sensitive sensory processing disorder.
Well, you probably don’t notice the brightness of the sun… which can be a big problem, because apparently you’re supposed to squint or blink often to protect your eyes from its harmful rays. You also may not notice other people/obstacles in your path… and you can probably guess how that goes. Another wipe-out at the mailbox.
Your vestibular and proprioceptive systems might be a little under-fed… and this might lead your body to seek excessive help any way it can. You might find yourself running or crashing into things, even on purpose to get the input your body needs.
And then you may not notice the birds singing, but you also may not hear the ice cream truck (HUGE bummer), or your mom calling you home for homework (less of a bummer, let’s be honest).
You may not really feel the temperature of the summer day, and you might be running around town in a parka and boots, sweating profusely, which is pretty bad… but even worse is in the winter when you don’t notice the cold, and go around in short sleeves and flip flops in 30-degree weather.
Whether your child is hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive, the best thing you can do for him/her is to notice what’s going on. You can train your brain to pick up on things like light, temperature, colors and crazy patterns, pressure, textures, sounds, pain, tastes, and smells, etc…
Once you know your child’s unique sensitivities, you have an immediate advantage. You’ll begin to anticipate his/her sensory needs, whether that means you’ll filter some things out (i.e., with sunglasses or noise-canceling headphones), or provide appropriate ways to add things in (i.e., movement breaks or deep pressure hugs).
Whatever your family’s unique scenario, you are not alone. And now you have some specific tools to make the journey through SPD a little easier.
Always patience. Always love