Girl With Autism Sings A Stunning Rendition Of ‘Hallelujah’

“It’s not just good because she’s dealing with autism … It’s good because it’s good — really good.”



I knew all my life that I was “sensitive” and could pick up on things that others did not.  I also knew that my body didn’t handle sensory stimuli the same way other bodies did.  I could easily become overwhelmed by itchy clothes, too much noise or strange smells.  High emotion in a room could send me over the edge.


Sometimes if too much input came at me all at once, it would send me into a full blown panic attack. But it wasn’t until I began studying Sensory Processing Disorder that I really came to understand that being a “empath” isn’t just some woo-woo label that New Agers made up to make themselves feel special. I learned that my nervous system is actually wired differently than most humans.  Yes, it’s actually a scientific reality.


I like to think of Sensory Processing Disorder as science’s explanation for what’s been known by mystics as the “Empath”.  In this space, science and mysticism come together beautifully.

Revolutionary occupational therapist, psychologist, and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., explained Sensory Processing Disorder as a “traffic jam” within the brain.  This traffic jam keeps parts of the brain from receiving and interpreting sensory information properly.

Someone with SPD receives sensory stimuli just like other people do: smelling, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, balance, and the sense of where the body is in space, but when the sensory signals reach the brain, they get scrambled.  Not only does the brain interpret information differently, but the person with SPD may in fact actually be accessing MORE information than the average person. 

Getting flooded with so much additional information can sometimes lead to behaviors that seem odd to other people, even inappropriate.  In reality, those behaviors are completely appropriate given the experience that the sensitive person is having – which may not be the same experience everyone else is having.  In other words, he is literally experiencing reality in a new way.

The Gifted Empath

From here forth, I will refer to Sensory Processing Disorder as Sensory Processing DIFFERENCE because in my view, it’s not a disorder.  It’s a manifestation of human evolution.  Empaths, Sensitives and those with Sensory Processing Differences may well have abilities that regular people often marvel at, including the ability to sense subtle sound, light, and energy vibration, emotional subtlety and even mystical phenomena.  In recent years, we’ve seen a rapid increase in the numbers of children born with SPD.  In my opinion, this is a sign that the human race is progressing toward a superior state.  The ability to take in much larger amounts of sensory data is an evolutionary leap for our species.

Do you have SPD?

– Hyper-sensitive to touch: touch may be uncomfortable or ticklish, may avoid tactile stimulation

– Hypo-sensitive to touch: May crave touch or seek out strong sensory input

– Difficulty with Self-Soothing: Trouble calming self, requires lots of outside help to process life’s challenges, irritability, emotional roller coaster

– Sensory-avoidant behaviors: afraid of heights, loses balance easily, avoids fast movements, avoids hugs and eye contact

– Sensory-seeking behaviors: craves fast movement, spinning, thrill-seeking, chewing on pens, fingernails,

– Sensitive to negativity:  negative talk, scary stories, violence or cruelty on TV, news, etc…

– Social Avoidance: Overwhelmed by sensory input in crowds, likes to spend a lot of time alone

– Hyper-sensitive to noise: Distracted by noise others don’t notice, fearful of noise, shock at loud sounds

– Hypo-sensitive to noise: Doesn’t respond when name is called, seeks loud music or TV, makes noise for fun

– Hyper-sensitive to smell: Offended by body smells, bathroom smells, cooking smells, can smell odors others cannot

– Hyper-sensitive to sights: Sensitive to bright light, enjoys dimly lit rooms, avoids eye contact

– Allergies: Sensitivities to food, environment, medications

– Immune Disorders: Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, Lupus, etc…

– Extra-sensory perception: of any kind

– Mystical experiences: of any kind

– Inner Conflict:  Deep sense of wanting a peaceful world but personally experiences internal turmoil – the two don’t seem to match and it may feel confusing

If you have a handful of these traits, you are probably an Empathic SPD Human.


Self-Care for Highly Sensitive People

empathyIt’s not easy to live as a highly sensitive person. The empathic brain doesn’t filter unnecessary stimuli the way other people’s brains do.  Because of this, highly sensitive people tend to take in MORE movement, MORE voices, MORE flashes of color, MORE scents, MORE feelings, MORE energy.

Empathic SPDs wear out fast.   Their brains use more battery power per minute than the next guy.  They tend to get sick more easily than others.  Being able to pick up so much sensory and energetic stimulation floods them with more information about the world than other people get – which is FUN!  But it can also be exhausting.

If this is true for you, consider abandoning your attempts to fit in and be like everyone else.

You’re NOT like everyone else – you’re different.

When you find yourself in an unbearable situation, instead of forcing yourself to suffer through to the point of exhaustion, anxiety or panic, choose to care for yourself in new ways.  It’s your right, and in fact – it is your responsibility to yourself to design your surroundings in a way that supports your well-being.

Examples of Self-Care

stressedskincareEmotions:   Many Empaths feel other people’s emotion so exquisitely that it can be hard to tell who the emotion belongs to.  Practice asking yourself, “Is this feeling mine, or theirs?”

Merging:  Empaths have a tendency to merge with others.  Some call it “leaky boundaries”, but this label proves a gross mis-understanding on the part of the labeler.  Merging with, and feeling another’s experience as one’s own isn’t a weakness – it’s a superpower!  Society just hasn’t caught on yet. Take care of yourself by choosing wisely who you merge with.

Sensory Overstimulation:   Just living in your own body can be overstimulating. The feeling of digestion in the belly may be interpreted as a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Pain may be felt more intensely than it is by others.  The sound in the ears can be extreme.  Being too warm or too cold may be too much for the brain to process.  Caring for yourself means learning to read the signs your body is giving you.  If your internal sensations feel like too much, take a break and sit alone in a quiet place for 20 minutes.

MWaves-of-Faith-A-Morning-Meditation-Prayerore Wattage:  Living in a body may seem simple enough for most people – a non-issue even. But for you, it may take a certain level of purposefully focused attention just to manage it. Because you are starting out the gate using more attention and energy to manage internal and external stimuli, it means that less is available for regular life.

The brain is literally running more programs than the average human being.  Self-care means getting enough rest and alone time. You may need more frequent breaks or to work fewer hours than other people.

Love and care for the special body you’ve been given!

You are literally the miracle of human evolution happening right before the world’s eyes!



By: Paige Bartholomew,

Licensed Psychotherapist, Certified Hypnotherapist, Sufi Master Teacher





1. Is there an analogy to describe SPD?

Thinking of the brain as a “traffic director” for sensory input can be helpful when trying to understand SPD. In those with intact sensory processing, the brain acts as a traffic director and is able to take the incoming sensory information from all the senses, process it, and then send it to the appropriate location in an orderly and accurate fashion; this allows people to respond to all of the sensory information in an accurate, efficient, and functional manner, and supports their ability to move, learn, and engage socially. In individuals with SPD, however, the sensory information is not processed and sent off to the appropriate location in that expected orderly fashion, causing what you could say is a “neurological traffic jam” (a term pioneered by OT, educational psychologist, and neuroscientist Dr. A. Jean Ayres in her amazing book “Sensory Integration and the Child“). This means certain parts of the brain do not receive the correct information needed in order to interpret and respond to the sensory input, making it difficult to process and act upon the information received from the senses in an accurate, efficient, and functional manner.
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2. What does Sensory Processing Disorder look like in everyday life?

I think one of the simplest ways to describe this is to say that, with SPD, the body can respond to sensory input in one of three ways. It can:

  • Under-respond to sensory input
  • Over-respond to sensory input
  • Seek/Crave sensory input

When a sensory system is under-responsive to sensory input, this means it does not notice and respond to certain stimuli that an intact sensory system would normally notice and respond to. These sensory systems require a greater intensity of stimulation in order to notice and respond. OTs also call this “low registration” of sensory input. A few examples of what this might look like in real life include the child who does not seem aware of his body and is constantly bumping into people and objects even though vision is totally fine (under-responsive proprioception), the child who drags her hand along a fence and doesn’t notice the splinters in her fingers (under-responsive tactile), or the child who can spin and spin but never seems to get dizzy (under-responsive vestibular).

When a sensory system is over-responsive to sensory input, this means it is overly sensitive to certain stimuli that an intact sensory system would think is not that big a deal. An over-responsive sensory system can cause kids to be sensitive to, bothered by, fearful or, or totally avoidant of certain types of sensory experiences. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster! A few examples of what this might look like in real life include the child who screams and cries because the seam in the sock or the tag in the shirt is so annoying or painful (over-responsive tactile), the child who is a “picky eater” or who gags at the smell or taste of a variety of foods (over-responsive olfactory or oral-tactile), the child who defiantly refuses to enter or participate in noisy environments (over-responsive auditory), or the child who is so sensitive to movement experiences that he or she is fearful of being on unsteady surfaces (such as an escalator) or of being out of a totally upright position (over-responsive vestibular).

When a sensory system seeks or craves sensory input, this means it drives the child to actively gain access to certain types of sensory input. Similar to under-responsive systems, these sensory systems need a lot more input than typical in order to feel satisfied or “regulated”. Sensory seekers CRAVE this type of input and do whatever they can to get it. This can often cause them to appear impulsive, fidgety, inattentive, or “naughty”. A few examples of what this might look like in real life include the child who chews on everything (seeking oral-proprioception), the child who touches everything (seeking tactile), the child who leans on everything (seeking proprioception), or the child who just can’t sit still (seeking vestibular).

3. Do all the senses respond in the same way (under-responding, over-responding, or seeking/craving)? Or can different senses respond in different ways?

Sensory Processing Disorder can (and often does) occur in relation to more than one sensory system, however, each sensory system responds to sensory input in its own way. So a child (or grown-up) with SPD may be over-responsive in one or more senses while simultaneously being under-responsive or sensory seeking in other senses. Additionally, a person’s ability to process and respond to particular types of sensory input can vary from day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute.

This can be extremely frustrating for parents, teachers, therapists, medical professionals, and even the children themselves. One day (or one minute) they may be fine with the hum of the air conditioning or the fluorescent lights in the room, and then the next…it is unbearable to them. One day they may be okay eating a food of a certain texture or wearing a particular pair of socks, and then the next…the sight or thought of them makes them scream and cry. The body is constantly working to filter out what is necessary and focus on what is important, and then trying to respond to all of that input in a functional way. For a person with disordered sensory processing, the brain and body need extra help to be able to balance all of this incoming sensory input and appropriately respond to it (often referred to as “modulation”).

As you can probably tell, Sensory Processing Disorder is very complex, and very tricky!

4. What causes Sensory Processing Disorder?

At this point in time, the exact cause of Sensory Processing Disorder is unknown. But we do know from research that SPD is neurologically based; the brains of individuals with SPD are actually different than those of individuals who do not have SPD. In Chapter 13 of  “Sensational Kids”, Dr. Lucy Jane Miller notes that current research suggests three “leading contenders” that contribute to Sensory Processing Disorder – heredity, prenatal and birth complications (such as prematurity or labor and delivery difficulties), and environmental factors (such as sensory deprivation, trauma, or abuse). However, like many conditions, more research is needed to in order to truly be able to identify the causes of SPD.

5. Who diagnoses Sensory Processing Disorder?

At this point in time, Sensory Processing Disorder is not a formal medical diagnosis. That is, it is not listed as its own category in the most current version of the handbook used for diagnosing neurologically-based disorders such as Autism, ADHD, OCD, and Depression. That being said, in my experience, children with sensory challenges who are referred for occupational therapy evaluation and/or treatment often come in with a referring diagnosis code (ICD-9 code) such as “Sensory Integration Dysfunction.” So it does “exist” in that sense. Unfortunately, there is no blood test, DNA test, or other medical test that will come back “positive” for SPD. However, as any parent of a child with SPD will tell you, this does not mean Sensory Processing Disorder is not real. It just means there is still millions of dollars of research that needs to be done in order to demonstrate that SPD is a condition that is separate from the other neurological disorders.

As pediatric occupational therapists, we do not treat the diagnosis; we treat the whole child. So, to be honest, to us it doesn’t really matter what “diagnosis” a child has when they are referred to OT. We look at what the child’s strengths are, what occupations they are struggling with, what skills or abilities are needed to be able to perform those occupations, and then we set goals and create a treatment plan to help them be able to more fully engage, participate in, and enjoy life. This can include addressing sensory processing difficulties and their impact on daily life. That being said, having SPD added to the list of “official” medical diagnoses has the potential to positively impact the lives of so many families as it can open doors to more easily access therapies and resources needed to be able to overcome the symptoms of SPD and improve the child’s ability to participate and THRIVE in daily life.

Answers to commonly asked questions about Sensory Processing Disorder - Mama OT #sensory #OTtips #childdevelopment

7. Can SPD occur on its own, apart from other diagnoses, or does it only come with other disorders? What other disorders does it co-occur with?

Research has already shown that the brains of children with SPD are different (and respond differently to sensory input) than those diagnosed with disorders such as Autism and ADHD. Yes, Sensory Processing Disorder can and does absolutely occur on its own. However, it also can and does occur alongside many other diagnoses such as Autism (at least 75% of individuals with Autism also have SPD), ADHD (approximately half of those with ADHD also have SPD), OCD, Depression, PTSD, Prematurity, Developmental Delays, Learning Disorders, and more.
10. How early can SPD be identified and what are some red flags to look out for?

Sensory processing difficulties can often (but not always) be identified during the first year of life, though it is not usually until late in the child’s first year or beyond that parents or medical professionals suspect a child’s behavioral or developmental difficulties might be related to sensory processing.

As I mentioned previously, kids may either over-respond, under-respond, or seek/crave certain types of sensory input. Dr. Lucy Jane Miller’s book, “Sensational Kids”, has some great checklists in Chapter 2 to help parents identify whether their child might be exhibiting signs of SPD. Below are some examples from those checklists, all of which are commonly known to OTs who are trained to work with children with SPD. For an online checklist, check out this SPD checklist/guide from the SPD Foundation.

Answers to commonly asked questions about Sensory Processing Disorder - Mama OT #sensory #OTtips #childdevelopment

Some red flags related to over-responsive sensory systems can include avoiding or being extremely bothered by certain textures, fabrics, messy substances on hands or face, grooming tasks (tooth or hair brushing, nail clipping), smells, sounds, lights, or movements (particularly not wanting to be laid down for diaper changes as a baby or not wanting to be out of an upright position as a child). Children with over-responsive sensory systems may appear to be irritable (babies often express an over-responsive tactile system by arching), aggressive, impulsive, overly cautious, or overly rigid in their desire for structure and predictability.

Answers to commonly asked questions about Sensory Processing Disorder - Mama OT #sensory #OTtips #childdevelopment

Some red flags related to under-responsive sensory systems can include appearing to not “register” the sensation or pain caused by minor injuries (such as splinters or sprains), seeming to not sense typical body sensations such as hunger/temperature/full bladder or bowel, preferring sedentary activities over physical play, seeming oblivious to what’s going on in the environment, and generally demonstrating a lack of body and spatial awareness. Children with under-responsive sensory systems may appear passive, lethargic, slow, unmotivated, uncoordinated, or disinterested in social interactions.

Answers to commonly asked questions about Sensory Processing Disorder - Mama OT #sensory #OTtips #childdevelopment

Some red flags related to sensory seeking/craving can include excessive movement, fidgeting, wiggling, spinning/jumping/rolling/climbing, touching everything, non-stop talking, seeking out vibration (such as washing machine, dishwasher, vibrating toothbrush or toys), licking/mouthing/chewing non-food objects, consistently smelling objects, seeking out certain noises, seeking out visual input, and preferring strong foods and textures (lemons, hot sauce, pickles, ice cubes, crunchy foods, etc.). This can cause children to behave as if they are impulsive, angry, difficult to calm down, disobedient, or difficult to control.

Answers to commonly asked questions about Sensory Processing Disorder - Mama OT #sensory #OTtips #childdevelopment

8 What should parents do if they suspect their child is demonstrating red flags or symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder?

If you are a parent and you suspect your child may be demonstrating significant sensory processing difficulties, mention it to your child’s primary care provider (usually the pediatrician) and be an advocate for your child!Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for pediatricians to brush off parental concerns regarding sensory processing difficulties. I have heard many examples from parents where the pediatrician either disregarded the concern altogether (saying something to the effect of, “He’ll grow out it, he’s just active because he’s a boy”, or, “She’ll grow out of it, all toddlers and preschoolers are picky eaters.”), or completely overlooked the sensory issues and labeled them as something else entirely (such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder or ADHD) when, in fact, it was the sensory issues that were driving the defiance or the hyperactivity. So, as both a parent and a professional, I strongly feel that parents need to be advocates for their kids. I’m not saying you need to be hostile toward your child’s doctor. Please don’t! But you know your child best. You know how they have been since the day they were born (and before), and you know how significantly their daily life is impacted by their difficulties. Speak up, and keep a record of when you brought up these concerns so you can refer to it later when working with other medical professionals if needed.

If and when you do talk to the pediatrician about your concerns, emphasize how these sensory processing difficulties are impacting your child’s ability to perform activities of daily living such as bathing, grooming, dressing, eating, self-feeding, sleeping, or playing. You can also emphasize any safety concerns you have, such as your 4-year-old unsafely seeking movement by climbing onto countertops or fences and then jumping off, or becoming so overstimulated in noisy environments that she begins crashing her body into walls, banging her head, or punching and hitting people. Once you have shared your concerns with the pediatrician, he or she can then put in a referral for an occupational therapy evaluation and, depending on the results, OT treatment sessions can then begin in order to address the areas of concern and goals that are written as part of the evaluation process.
9. How can occupational therapy help kids with sensory processing difficulties?

As you can imagine, sensory processing difficulties can make completing everyday childhood activities quite…well…difficult. They can impact a child’s ability to perform self-care tasks (such as bathing and washing their face, brushing their hair or teeth, going to the bathroom, being able to dress or feed themselves), participate in mealtimes and receive adequate nutrition, go out into and participate in the community (grocery store, birthday parties, restaurants), or develop the motor and social skills needed to participate and make progress in school.

Answers to commonly asked questions about Sensory Processing Disorder - Mama OT #sensory #OTtips #childdevelopment

Occupational therapists help kids with sensory processing difficulties in a few different ways:


  • Identifying what the big-picture problems or concerns are as it relates to daily function (such as being able to bathe, eat, or play with friends).
  • Identifying what specific patterns of sensory processing patterns are contributing to these big-picture problems. This can be done through a combination of standardized assessment, parent interview, a review of previous medical or developmental records, and clinical observation of the child.
  • Identifying other factors in addition to sensory processing (such as low muscle tone, poor motor coordination, difficulties with emotional control or short attention span, etc.) that may be contributing to the child’s difficulties in the big-picture problem areas.
  • Identifying measurable goals that will support the child’s progress in the big-picture problem areas.


  • Creating a treatment plan to help the child work on specific skill areas in order to make progress on their goals.
  • Implementing treatment activities to target the specific skill areas needed to meet the goals.
  • Monitoring the child’s progress in an ongoing manner in order to determine whether the goals are still appropriate or if they need to be changed.


  • Continually communicating and collaborating with the family members who are involved with the child’s OT treatment and follow-through at home, including monitoring of the child’s individualized home program, often referred to as a SENSORY DIET (what’s that?).
  • Collaboration with other professionals who work with the child, as appropriate (such as educational staff, Behavior, Speech, PT, Counseling, Psych, or other medical professionals).


  • This usually goes hand-in-hand with collaboration, but helping family members and other professionals figure out how to accommodate for the child’s sensory needs (e.g., having an “escape plan” or noise-reducing headphones in a noisy environment, allowing them to sit on an exercise ball while reading or taking a test) or modify the actual environment to improve their ability to participate (e.g., reducing clutter in a visually distracting room, hanging a swing in the room to provide more targeted opportunities for vestibular input, converting a garage into a sensory/home therapy room).

This combination of evaluation, treatment, collaboration, and accommodations or modifications tends to create a holistic, powerful approach to help kids who struggle with sensory processing difficulties.



Talking sense: What sensory processing disorder says about autism

Some children are highly sensitive to sound, sight or touch, whereas others seem almost numb. Exploring the differences may offer insights into autism.

Jack Craven has superpowers. When his mother, Lori, misplaces an item in the house, she asks the 12-year-old to “look in your head,” through the rich catalog of visual information he seems to assemble without effort. Jack always finds the lost object. His astonishing memory for faces enables him to pick out someone he’s seen only once or twice before from a sea of strangers in a crowded school gymnasium. His sharp hearing makes him an excellent vocal mimic. Request that he sing a Beatles tune and he’ll ask if you want it sung in the style of Lennon or McCartney.

But great powers, as any superhero narrative goes, come with great challenges. He endures, rather than enjoys, the arcade birthday parties popular among tween boys in suburban Atlanta where he lives. They’re just too noisy, too busy, too overstimulating. Jack’s hearing is so sensitive that he can’t always eat at the table with his family, because the sound and sight of them chewing might make him throw up. As an infant, he never slept for more than four hours at a stretch, and had to be held upright the whole time, his stomach pressed against his mother’s chest and her palm pressed atop his head.

Jack has sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition that includes people who are overly sensitive to what they feel and see and hear, but also those who are undersensitive, and still others who have trouble integrating information from multiple senses at once. SPD is not an official diagnosis. It isn’t included in the newest edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5). Still, it is widely used as a catch-all by clinicians, and some studies suggest that it may affect  between 5 and 15 percent of school-age children. Children with the clinical label SPD also have a lot in common with children diagnosed with autism, up to 90 percent of whom also have sensory difficulties.

Jack doesn’t have autism, but Ari Young, who lives a few hundred miles away in North Carolina, has both SPD and autism. And Ari, too, has certain impressive abilities, thanks to his super-sensitive senses. His acute visual memory allows him to recite articles from Wikipedia nearly verbatim — although, unless the article is on a history- or science-related topic he’s particularly interested in, he may be able to recall the information only in the order in which he learned it. Ari’s mother, Heather McDanel, says his sensory peculiarities and his autism are all bound up together. With many of his idiosyncrasies, “I don’t know if that’s the autism or if that’s sensory, or a combination of the two,” she says.

Like Jack, Ari also had sleep-related quirks as an infant: He could drift off only while rocking in a baby swing to a recording of birds chirping, and his bleary parents had to restart it every 15 minutes throughout the night. A speech therapist first mentioned SPD when Ari was not yet 2 years old; the autism diagnosis came later, when he was 2 and a half.

Even today, at age 9, Ari tends to hum to himself either when it’s too quiet or to drown out noise. He attends third grade in a mainstream classroom, but his sensitivities sometimes make school a struggle. A few months ago, when an unexpected announcement that class would be dismissed early caused his fellow students to erupt into happy chaos, the hubbub sent Ari running, sobbing with confusion and surprise, to the front office.

Sensory problems can not only disrupt a child’s ability to learn in school and form friendships, but upend the lives of whole families. “These are really challenging kinds of problems for children, whether they’re diagnosed with something or not,” says Grace Baranek, professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And for families, it can be difficult to get help.

Yet SPD also offers an opportunity: Studying people who have sensory problems with or without an autism diagnosis could help these children and provide insight into the relationship between sensory problems and the core social and communication problems seen in autism. It’s easy to imagine that a young child who hardly registers the sights and sounds of the surrounding world may not tune in to her father’s games of peekaboo, and may miss out on these formative moments of communication. Meanwhile, a child for whom those sights and sounds are unusually intense may be too overwhelmed to focus on his mother’s attempts to catch his attention and never learn some of the subtleties of the social world.

In the past several years, the advent of more precise, objective ways to measure sensory responses and behavior, coupled with imaging techniques that pinpoint how the brain processes sensations, are providing a window into how this process goes awry — and perhaps, ultimately, how to get it back on track.

Forgotten history:

Sensory differences were part of the first descriptions of autism, but were ignored for many years. Leo Kanner’s 1943 paper first introducing the concept of autism opens with an account of one boy’s precocious singing skills, remarkable memory for faces, and aversion to ordinary childhood pleasures such as riding a tricycle or sliding down a slide. Kanner and other researchers also noticed that many children with autism were hypersensitive to loud noises or seemed indifferent to pain.

But in the early decades, research on these aspects of autism was mostly descriptive and speculative. Few researchers were gathering empirical evidence about how children with the condition experienced the world. By the 1980s, interest in this area had fizzled.

Meanwhile, outside the context of autism research, an occupational therapist and neuroscientist named A. Jean Ayres was developing the theory that processing and integrating basic sensory information underlies many daily living skills. “It’s hard to imagine now, but people didn’t understand that when a child was having some difficulty moving their hands to button their coat, or to do some kind of school activity, that this could be related to brain function,” says Roseann Schaaf, professor of occupational therapy and neuroscience at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the early 1970s, Ayres first described ‘sensory integration dysfunction,’ in reference to these difficulties with everyday activities. As researchers learned more about the brain mechanisms involved, the term ‘processing’ replaced ‘integration’ and the condition became known as SPD. Ayres developed tests for identifying these troubles, such as asking a person to identify which finger has been touched without looking. She also created sensory integration therapy, which involves activities that engage multiple senses simultaneously, such as finding objects hidden in sand or a bin of beans, or sitting on a swing while batting at a suspended ball.

Ayres’ work became enormously influential among occupational therapists — healthcare professionals who help people with everyday life skills. These days, occupational therapists are primed to consider sensory explanations for a child’s difficulties with, say, handwriting or teeth-brushing. And many occupational therapists still use Ayres’ therapy or something similar to help with these problems.

By the early 2000s, autism researchers began to rediscover sensory processing, thanks to new tools in brain imaging and psychophysics, the precise measurement of the brain’s electrical responses to stimuli. There has also been a growing appreciation that sensory difficulties are a big part of what makes autism so difficult to cope with. Today, they’re such a widely recognized aspect of autism that they are included in the diagnostic criteria for the condition.

Still, many child psychiatrists do not see SPD as a distinct diagnostic label. They say the symptoms are too diverse and there’s too much uncertainty about what SPD is and how to distinguish it from other conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anxiety. “We know that sensory issues are important in a variety of kids with a variety of different diagnostic labels,” says Carissa Cascio, assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Those who have sensory problems without any of the other conditions are rare, she says.

But some parents say this doesn’t jibe with their experience, and that their children’s problems are fundamentally perceptual in nature. Linda, the mother of a child with SPD, recalls that her daughter had always been very particular, almost obsessive, about what clothes she would wear. But these quirks morphed into a full-blown terror of going to school once she entered first grade; she worried about having to go to an assembly, or having to use the bathroom with its loud, unpredictably flushing toilets. (Linda asked that we withhold her last name to protect her daughter’s privacy.) A pediatrician gave an anxiety screening questionnaire to see if Linda’s daughter might qualify for that diagnosis, but initially the label just didn’t seem to fit, Linda says. “She’s not afraid of bears or afraid of dying,” Linda told the pediatrician. “She’s afraid of socks; she’s afraid of hats.”

In fact, a 2012 twin study found that just over half of children with sensory sensitivities do not qualify for diagnoses such as anxiety, depression or ADHD (the study did not consider autism).

Meanwhile, the million-dollar question remains: What’s the difference between children who have autism and the perceptual processing problems that usually accompany it, and those who have the problems alone? Why does Ari have an accepted condition — autism — that includes being easily overwhelmed by noise, whereas Jack has similar struggles but no such diagnosis? Looking carefully at the differences between children like them may help answer these questions. “An approach like that is incredibly useful because it can give us a compare-and-contrast view of what’s specific to autism and what’s more general to sensory differences in a broader sense,” Cascio says.

How it feels:

The controversy over SPD has created a conundrum in pursuing that research, however. “It’s very hard to get funding for research on something that doesn’t exist,” says Lucy Miller, an occupational therapist and founder of the SPD Foundation, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. And, of course, it’s difficult to establish whether SPD should be considered a stand-alone condition without studying people who have it. “These are kids that aren’t necessarily being referred to studies because they don’t have a disorder” as defined by diagnostic manuals, says Elysa Marco, director of the Sensory Neurodevelopment and Autism Program at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s sort of a round robin.” Her group is running a crowdfunding campaign to support their SPD research.

A handful of researchers have been able to investigate SPD as a separate entity, and their findings are advancing the argument that it deserves its own diagnosis. Some children who don’t fit any recognized condition nonetheless have atypical sensory systems, these studies find. Researchers in one study used electrodes placed on the skin to show that children who have this informal clinical label react more strongly to everyday stimuli, such as the sound of a siren or the stroke of a feather across the face, than do either controls or children with ADHD. Another study showed that the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and breathing, is less active in people with sensory processing problems than it is in controls.

The most compelling evidence that SPD has a distinct neurological basis comes from a 2013 study that found that boys with SPD have atypical white matter (long nerve fibers) connecting regions related to sensory processing. “They have real, measurable brain connectivity differences,” says Marco, who worked on the study. A follow-up study published earlier this year adds to the picture: Brain connections are altered in girls with SPD as well, and the more severe a child’s difficulties with processing sound, the more pronounced his or her white-matter alterations.

These studies also show some intriguing parallels between children with autism and those with sensory difficulties but no formal diagnosis. For example, children with autism show dampened parasympathetic nervous system activity similar to that seen in children who’ve been described as having SPD. And children with autism, just like those with SPD, have abnormalities in white-matter pathways involved in processing sensations.

“It’s a possibility that these groups started out very similarly and there’s some sort of protective factor that keeps people with sensory processing differences from becoming kids with autism,” Cascio says. But so far, that’s just speculation.

There are also differences between sensory problems in autism, SPD and other conditions, and these are only beginning to be mapped out. Children with autism have disruptions in brain connectivity along social and emotional pathways, whereas those pathways are intact in children with SPD alone. Children with SPD tend to have more problems with touch than do those with autism, whereas children with autism struggle more with sound processing. This may explain why language and communication problems are characteristic of autism.

Whether a child is oversensitive or undersensitive may also play some role in what diagnosis she winds up with. Dampened responses to a new sight, sound or touch are more common in autism than they are in children with SPD or other conditions, whereas a sensory system that is dialed all the way up is seen across autism, ADHD and anxiety alike. As toddlers, children with autism also tend to have more profound sensory abnormalities than do those with developmental delays.

The notion that sensory problems underlie autism symptoms makes sense, but has yet to be tested, says Sophie Molholm, associate professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “I wouldn’t even want to say that the sensory processing issues are causal,” she says. “We don’t know that at all. We just know that these are symptoms that we frequently see in these disorders.”

It could also be that how perceptual problems relate to autism depends on the child. “I think this is part of the conundrum of autism,” Marco says. “Are kids simply not showing [social] awareness and interest … because they are so sensitive that they have shut it out completely? Or are they really, truly at their base just not interested?”

“These are really challenging kinds of problems for children, whether they’re diagnosed with something or not.” Grace Baranek

Sense and sensitivity:

These questions matter because children who are chronically flooded with sensations, or are distant from the world around them, need help — whether they have autism or not.

Many of the day-to-day struggles of people with autism have to do with perceptions gone haywire, such as being overcome by sounds, or feeling a revulsion toward certain foods. This home truth may often go unnoticed and unaddressed by clinicians, but it has a powerful impact on family life.

Some parents of children with autism are big fans of sensory integration and similar therapies. They say the interventions help soothe the most disruptive problems of everyday life. Jennifer, the mother of a teenage boy with autism and fragile X syndrome, a related condition, says the occupational therapy her son began around age 3 was transformative. He was nonverbal at the time, and thanks to this therapy, she finally understood that her son’s senses were wired in a way to make some things soothing and others bothersome to him. “We realized that’s why he likes his hands rubbed so much, and his arms squeezed,” says Jennifer. (She asked that her last name be withheld to protect her son’s privacy.) It helped her grasp why her son demanded tight pajamas, and would only wear one particular pair of shoes. “It started making sense to us,” she says — and made it easier for her to meet his needs.

Until a few years ago, the evidence supporting sensory integration therapy for children with autism or other conditions was relatively thin.  And some practices of therapies that focus on sensation, such as working with playdough, hanging upside-down, or brushing a child’s skin to desensitize him to touch, can seem unscientific or even downright bizarre. The approach is also difficult to study because it tends to be ad-hoc. Clinicians “come up with treatment plans that are highly individualized, and that’s another challenge for really rigorous scientific study,” says Cascio. “It becomes really difficult figuring out what the relevant outcomes are, how are you going to measure them, how you measure improvement.” And in the past, the field was generally more focused on therapeutic practice than on creating standardized interventions.

Some families of children who lack an official diagnostic label struggle to get any help at all. “There are a lot of people who suffer from this kind of difficulty, and they’re not able to access services or get the kinds of accommodations they need in schools, or early intervention, without the diagnostic label,” says Baranek.

Lori Craven is homeschooling her son Jack because she says it was too difficult to get the public school system to accommodate him. Because Jack doesn’t have hearing loss, he wasn’t eligible for an assistive technology that amplifies his teacher’s voice to help him focus. Because he doesn’t have vision impairments, the school balked at providing enlarged, simple-looking versions of worksheets, or even allowing Lori to prepare them. “I just realized I was spending so much time fighting the school — I was trying to do it for them, and it was too much to ask,” Lori says.

Savvy parents of children with SPD often seek out an additional diagnosis such as anxiety or ADHD — or embrace one when it is offered. Linda says that in the end, it was her daughter’s anxiety label that helped the family arrange an individualized education plan for her daughter. The anxiety diagnosis “seemed to be the language that the school understood best,” she says.

This fancy footwork around labels and diagnoses may become a thing of the past as researchers pursue the ultimate goal: figuring out which treatments for sensory problems are effective. They hypothesize that the right treatments will work whether a child has autism, anxiety, ADHD or no diagnosis at all, as long as the underlying problem, such as being too sensitive to touch, is the same. “You’re trying to establish what the commonalities are,” Baranek says. “And looking to see if those interventions actually help in similar ways despite the different diagnoses.”

That means tailoring the treatment to the child rather than to the diagnosis. “I think [occupational] therapists do this on the fly,” says Alison Lane, associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of Newcastle in Australia. “But we don’t have a systematic way of saying, ‘This child with this particular pattern of behavior and sensory features will respond best to this type of approach.’”

Lane and others have begun defining sensory subtypes within the autism spectrum, in an effort to more systematically match symptoms to treatment. She plans to use this framework to guide therapy in a pilot study later this year.

A precisely defined procedure for choosing sensory therapies in autism will also help make studies in this area more rigorous, says Schaaf, the Philadelphia-based occupational therapist and neuroscientist who led the development of such an approach. She is using it to test whether sensory therapy or a more standard autism treatment is better at boosting the ability of people with autism to integrate auditory and visual information.

A small pilot study of this approach found that sensory therapy in children with autism improves not only their perceptual difficulties but also their social skills. “That was unexpected,” says Schaaf. “We didn’t hypothesize that at all.” In their follow-up, the researchers are collaborating with Molholm’s team to track the children’s sensory integration abilities through electroencephalography to observe brain activity, as well as monitoring how they are doing in daily life. The study, slated to run for five years and involve 200 children, began enrolling participants in February.

Researchers are also applying neurobiology findings to treatment studies of SPD. Marco is collaborating with the SPD Foundation on a pilot study to scan the brains of children with SPD before and after occupational therapy, in order to determine whether the intervention improves brain connectivity.

In the meantime, Ari Young has come up with his own way of managing his highly attuned brain, on top of the therapies he gets for autism. He often wears headphones at school to block out distracting or distressing noises, but he has noticed that most other kids don’t wear them. “I used to feel like wearing headphones would just kind of pin me out of the rest of the group, make me look like I was not paying attention,” he says. They also make it more difficult for him to hear what his teacher is saying.

So Ari has been conducting a sort of informal sensory therapy, challenging himself to briefly take his headphones off during events such as school assemblies and performances. “Sometimes there are quiet moments at loud concerts, when … I decide to peek open the headphones a little bit,” he says. “And then when the next loud part comes, I snap them back on as fast as I can.”



Please Don’t Praise Me for Loving My Child With a Disability

It happens to most of us as we parent kids with disabilities, we hear statements like, “You are amazing, I could never do it.” “It must be so hard.”

I couldn't do it

Yes, it’s true, sometimes parenting kids with disabilities can be hard. We do have extra challenges that most parents of typical children don’t have to deal with, and our lives might look a little different than yours. But I hope you recognize that our lives look similar to yours too.

Can I be honest with you? Some of these comments – after a while – make me feel as if you think my child is not as lovable, and only certain people would be able to love my child or parent her. When you praise me for parenting my child, it says to me you feel fortunate she’s not your child because that would be hard and terrible and tragic. I know that’s not what you’re trying to communicate, I know that, but sometimes it does.

If I saw a friend with her typical child and I pointed at her kid and said, “I could never do it.” I think we would all agree it would be rude. That statement would say a lot about what I thought about her child, most likely not positive because I just said I could never do it. “What do you mean?” She’d probably ask offended. “I mean, it must be so hard to parent YOUR child!” Maybe right then she would have day dreams of punching me in the face. But I would not be surprised if she picked up her kid and walked away from me, offended, and reassuring her child he is loved, and wonderful, and she is lucky to be his mom.

It’s no different when I hear that. That’s how it makes me feel.

You see, the world tells us that disability is bad. When my youngest daughter was born with Down syndrome my midwife cried and the pediatrician shook his head and said he was sorry for giving us such bad news.

When we adopted our daughter who has cerebral palsy, a lady asked my husband, “Couldn’t you find a healthy one?”

Look back in history, we have not treated persons with disabilities as people. We have not treated them as equals. We still fight those messages and ideas today. Ask an adult with a disability how most of our society treats them, and think about how you would feel if you were judged based on your limitations. As the mother of two kids with disabilities, this pains me, because most people don’t know what I know, they don’t see what I see. They’re not part of our Friday night movie nights. Or our family vacations. They don’t see the pure joy of watching them dance and laugh and be kids. Disability is not a tragedy, what is tragic is how the world views disability.

I love my kids.  And I’m not extraordinary for loving them, I’m their mom! How could I possibly not love them? How could I possibly not be their advocate, their teacher, their greatest supporter? You don’t think you could do it? Yes, yes you could do it! You would do it because you love your kids. And I am who you would be if your child had a disability. Having kids with disabilities is not reserved for the special few. It happens to me, to you, to my neighbor, and to the millionaire. Disability is part of life.

Comments that praise me for loving my child suggest that while everyone else got high speed wireless internet, I’m stuck with dial up. I mean that stinks, dial up of all things! “So sad you can’t enjoy the internet or participate in social media like the rest of us, I could never do it, I could never do dial up. I know what high speed wireless internet is like, it must be so hard to wait for the dial while everyone else is already on Facebook.”

My child is not the least desirable option, she’s not dial up, she’s a person. She has a unique personality, gifts, talents, ideas, likes and dislikes,  a temper, a sense of humor, a big laugh, a tendency to melt my heart, and her arms wrap tight around my neck letting me know she loves me too.


Please, don’t hear me say I don’t want your support or encouragement, because I do. If you think I’m doing a good job, just say that, “Hey, you’re doing a great job.” If you think I look frazzled and you see my child is having some difficulties, I might be having a hard day, and if you really don’t know how I do it, chances are I might not know how to make it through the day either, so what about, “How are you doing?” Open the conversation, ask questions, let me know you care.

But please remember, I’m not amazing for loving my child, neither are you for loving yours. It’s what we do, we love our kids.

Look at your child, because you know no matter what happens, you will never stop loving your kids and you would do anything for them. If there was an accident and your child ended up disabled, you would care for them and love them just as fiercely as you do now.

I don’t feel I got the wrong end of the deal, I’m not stuck with dial up. I feel like the luckiest mom to call these kids my own. Please don’t praise me for loving my kids, they are lovable, they are mine.



What is it like being an Sensory Processing Disorder father

I am the father of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). My son Woodrow, “Woody,” is now 23 years old. His diagnosis and treatment began when he was about 6 years old.


As with many fathers of my generation, I helped to raise my sons with my wife, but watched as my wife did most of the heavy lifting. My Father was the youngest of the “Greatest Generation,” and was as traditional as a father could have been back in the 60’s. I helped to raise my boys as a 2.0 version of my Father. I went to birthing classes and was in the delivery room when they were born.  I changed diapers, helped with feedings, babysitting, and fell in love with participating in their early childhood rearing.

But, I was preoccupied with my job and many of the observations of Woody’s early childhood were left to Mom. Having no real training manual for parenting, I was not fully aware of some of the early signs that Woody might have some sensory issues, or that could even be a possibility. I had old-school phrases such as  “late bloomer,” “quirky,” and “sensitive,” bouncing around in my head as Woody grew from an infant, to toddler, to grade-schooler. But, as with molecules, germs, death and The Kardashians, SPD has existed since the beginning of civilization. It just took someone to discover it.

When Woody first started going to the Star Institute, the facility was not the Star Institute of today and the condition known as SPD was not called SPD. The diagnosis and treatment was still in infancy. By the time my wife, Pam, started telling me about SPD, I was more than willing to consider it might be something affecting Woody. We were past the point of thinking that Woody would grow out of this.

Woody has always been very smart. As a child his verbal skills and verbal recognition were off the charts. I’m sure most parents think this about their child, but when Woody was not yet 2 months old, I swear he knew what was going on. He knew me, I knew him. I had such a strong sense of the man I thought he would grow up to be. He started talking at 9 months, and had such awareness it seemed as if he had been here before. Reincarnation entered my mind, though not seriously.  Woody’s brain knew life, while his body’s coordination floundered around like a machine with a short in the wiring. As it  turns out, that ended up being a decent analogy.

When exposed to too much stimuli, I would look at Woody, imagining that he was a computer and we had opened up too many applications, so the little hour glass would just twirl and twirl, trying to process all of this information. But instead of twirling and waiting, or flashing a “frowny face” on the screen, Woody would freak out. An inconsolable, melted down brain. He would cover his ears whenever he heard a noise he didn’t like, as most kids and people do – but it didn’t have to be very loud. Even worse, I started to watch him endure the ANTICIPATION for a loud noise to occur. The fact that it might happen had Woody literally covering his ears with the palm of his hands and squeezing his head like a vice, desperately trying to keep potential noises from entering his brain. He was on constant, high alert.

So, yes, by the time Pam researched SPD, I was very much on board. If brushing Woody’s arms and legs with a soft, plastic brush, and wrapping him up in a blanket like a burrito was going to sooth this little boy, I was all in.

Obviously SPD awareness has spread and treatment has made such great advancements since Woody was diagnosed. This is largely in thanks to the wonderful, brilliant work of Dr. Lucy Jane Miller and everyone at the Star Institute.

With so many medical conditions, each case, each child, each situation is so vastly different. The point of writing this is not to compare the levels or severities or situations. When “spectrum” came into my vernacular, it allowed me to identify more than rank. As for Woodrow, he is and has always been fully aware of his situation. As an “old soul” he seemed as relieved as we were to find out about SPD. We are blessed that he has the awareness, though the responsibility of being able to control or manage it can sometimes be doubly taxing and confidence crushing for him. It’s like he has another mind and body inside his own, where he is a conscious observer, only able to do so much about it. He is hyper aware of how non-SPD/spectrum people behave, and desperately wants to make his mind and body “be like them”, and can lose confidence in social settings because of it.

I’m saying this because Woody has and will always have my heart, because of his awareness . He knows why he suffers from extreme anxiety, paralysis of action, struggles with self-esteem, social interactions, and with school even though his I.Q. is chart-topping. His pain comes from being a caring, loving, empathetic and wonderful young man. He loves, and cares, and hugs, and misses, and kisses, and knows with the emotional part of his brain that feels. It hurts my heart and makes it swell because he has those abilities, when others do not. It’s not the easy way out – it’s the hard way out, but he has the ability to find that light, organize his brain, and walk through that door. Take a “Woody brain” and get it to the light, manage the issues, and you just might have an evolutionary brain. He’s not the only one; he’s just the only one that I know and love.

And, now, with the work that the STAR Institute, and his whole support group, I think he is starting to see himself as I see him.

We can love (both tough and easy), and push, and participate, and cheer, but ultimately it is up to Woodrow to figure this out. The STAR Institute, his Mom, his dear brother, and his wonderful friends all “get” Woody and have given him the tools and the opportunity to know, without a doubt, that he can succeed in life, and more importantly, be happy. He has the ability to be happy and live happy, and that is such a gift. But, it’s up to him. My heart can hurt for Woody, but it’s his heart that will determine his future.

What is it like being an SPD Father? It’s like being the Father of any child that you love and want to provide for their best opportunity. It’s challenging and wonderful, it’s hopeful and worrisome, but I know that I would not want Woody to be anything other than the man he is becoming. There is not an asterisk to being the Father of an SPD child. It’s just being a Dad, and being proud and humbled and blessed, regardless of the ups and downs of his journey. Parenting brings focus, protection, and action to the forefront, and other people, other situations, or anything outside of being there for your child no longer matters. Having the support and knowledge of the STAR Institute gave us an answer and then a goal, and now an idea of how to manage in the future…



Supreme Court to decide: What level of education do public schools legally owe to students with disabilities?

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday in a dispute over the level of education that public schools must provide to millions of children with disabilities, a case that advocates describe as
the most significant special-education issue to reach the high court in three decades.

The question is whether public schools owe disabled children “some” educational benefit — which courts have determined to mean just-above-trivial progress — or whether students legally deserve something more: a substantial, “meaningful” benefit.

To advocates for children with disabilities, this should not be a difficult decision. Although the Supreme Court upheld the lower standard in 1982, Congress has since amended the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law — which outlines what states must do in return for receiving federal special-education funds — is meant not just to open the schoolhouse door to disabled children, they argue, but also to make sure that those children get an education that gives them a shot at equal opportunity, independent life and full participation in society.

That means schools must be required to provide students with a real, meaningful education, they argue. “I can’t even believe that this is really a question for the court to wrestle with,” said Gary Mayerson, a civil rights lawyer and board member of Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization.

The case to be heard Wednesday is Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, brought by the family of a boy diagnosed with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. His conditions complicated his efforts to communicate and socialize, and that left him struggling with phobias and compulsive behaviors.

Endrew F., who goes by Drew, started attending schools in Douglas County — south of Denver — in preschool and began showing an increase in behavioral problems in the second grade, according to court records. He was yelling, crying and dropping to the floor. By fourth grade, the problems had become more frequent and severe; he was kicking walls, banging his head and bolting from the classroom. He went to the bathroom on the floor of a “calming room,” and he was able to escape from the school building and run into the street.

His parents said their son made almost no academic or social progress over that period, and they didn’t see a commitment from the district to find a solution. The goals in his Individualized Education Program (IEP) — a legally binding blueprint that laid out the services he would receive and the progress he was expected to make — hardly changed from year to year, according to court records, and there was little written evidence that he was making gains.

Drew’s parents withdrew him from public school at the end of fourth grade, in 2010, and placed him in a private school that specialized in educating children with autism. He made progress immediately, they said, achieving IEP goals in months that he had been working on for years.

It was a relief.

Drew, now 17, continues to attend the private school, his parents said, where he is learning vocational skills and preparing for life after high school.

Under federal law, Drew’s parents were entitled to seek reimbursement for the private school tuition, which approached $70,000 per year. But they had to prove that their son had been denied the “free appropriate public education” to which he had a right under federal special-education law. And to do so, they had to prove that he hadn’t been making adequate progress.

But the Douglas County School District disagreed, arguing that while Drew was not learning as quickly as his parents would have liked, he was making some progress — enough to satisfy the law.

The family lost its case before an administrative law judge in 2012. They lost again in a suit in U.S. District Court and a third time at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

“This is without question a close case,” Judge Timothy Tym­kovich wrote in his opinion for the 10th Circuit. It is clear, he continued, that Drew is thriving at the private school. “But it is not the District’s burden to pay for his placement there when Drew was making some progress under its tutelage. That is all that is required.”

The court’s endorsement of that low bar was a blow to Drew’s parents. “What is the point of the law, if it doesn’t help the child?” said his mother, Jennifer.

In their briefs to the Supreme Court, Drew and his family argued that schools should be obligated to provide children with disabilities with “substantially equal opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency and contribute to society.” They won the support of the Obama administration, whose Justice Department submitted an amicus brief calling on the high court to find a requirement that children have an opportunity to make “significant educational progress.”

More than 100 members of Congress also support Drew and his parents, arguing in an amicus brief that the just-above-trivial standard is “vanishingly low” and runs contrary to Congress’s intent in IDEA.

The Douglas County School District disagrees, arguing that the Supreme Court’s decision in a 1982 case, Board of Education v. Rowley, should stand. In that case, the court rejected the argument that schools owed disabled children an opportunity to maximize their potential. The justices ruled that Congress intended to ensure “some educational benefit” for children with disabilities, the standard that has been explicitly adopted by five Circuit Courts of Appeals.

“This Court answered the question presented 34 years ago,” lawyers for the school district wrote in a brief last month. “That decision was correct.”

(In Rowley, the justice also said that Congress intended to make “access meaningful” for students with disabilities, giving rise to the “meaningful” educational benefit standard that has been adopted by two circuits.)

The district’s supporters include the National School Boards Association and AASA, an association of district superintendents, which both argued that raising expectations of schools could encourage more litigation.

William E. Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, declined through a spokeswoman to discuss the facts of the case given the pending litigation.

“The District complies with every facet of federal law in making sure that students with special needs are not only provided services, but that educational experts and the student’s parents are maximally involved in the process, and that every Individualized Education Plan is personalized, holistic and ambitious,” Trachman said in a statement.




As moms, the voice in our head isn’t always our biggest supporters. How can we get through the tough moments, particularly the sensory meltdowns? Today I am sharing my one secret trick that has carried me through each and every sensory meltdown my boys have thrown at me.

My One Trick for Moms to Survive a Sensory Meltdown | The Jenny Evolution


Anyone who is a parent has dealt with a meltdown or two in their lifetime.

But parents who don’t have sensory kids or children on the Autism spectrum can’t really understand what it’s like to have a child who is having an honest to goodness sensory meltdown. This isn’t a slight against any parent. It’s just a fact.

Trust me. I’ve seen and experienced my share of severe tantrums. But a sensory meltdown is a whole different ball game.

I was recently visiting my folks, standing in the guest bathroom, and had a flashback to a particularly memorable meltdown my son had while we were visiting.

At this point in my life, I don’t remember what set off the meltdown. The sad thing it was one of hundreds upon hundreds of meltdowns my son has had over the course of his nine years. What made it memorable was it was the first severe one my parents witnessed and it was the meltdown that helped my parents truly understand what my husband and I were dealing with on a daily basis.

It was the meltdown that helped my parents truly understand what my husband and I were dealing with on a daily basis.

During a meltdown, a child doesn’t actually register their environment. They are not mad about not getting the toy or being denied ice cream. They are not due for a nap or acting “like a brat.” They are having such a visceral reaction to their environment, they are sent to a place that is either fight or flight, and their body enters into extreme fight mode.

The thing is that while you are looking at your child melting down, you can look into their eyes and see that they are not really there. They are so deep down the rabbit’s hole that nothing you say or do will register.



On this particular day, I was getting Vman was getting out of the bathtub, and I could see him spiraling down. Before I knew it, he was in full blown meltdown.

At this point of our journey, I already knew I had to ride the wave out. With him arms flailing and legs kicking, I held him tight. Tight compression was my best chance of helping him settle down faster. I also was afraid of him hurting himself. At the time, I wasn’t worried about myself at all (even though he had broken my nose once).

So we settled in on the furry bathroom mat.

My mom, however, wanted to intervene. She’s a mom. She worries for me. And so, as any mom would, she tried to come into the bathroom to see what she could do.

From my perspective and experience, her presence would have only added to the stress of the situation. She would have wanted to talk it out. She would have wanted to try to snap Vman out of it. She would not have recognized that the grandson she knows and loves was completely checked out.

There is no reaching a child in a sensory meltdown. You just have to ride it out.

And so, when she tried to enter the bathroom, I promptly kicked the door closed with my foot and yelled over Vman’s screaming to just let me handle it.

I didn’t know at the time that she waited outside. I didn’t know at the time that she timed how long we were in there (well past 20 minutes). I do know that she was there when the tsunami had passed and I was thankful for her understanding and for respecting my own decision as a mom to keep her out.

When she told me that Vman had been flailing and screeching for more than 20 minutes, she made some similar comment to “I don’t know how you do it.”

But I do know how I got through those meltdowns… and I’m going to tell you how.


Let me take a step back first, though. I was in my mid 20s and working downtown at a ridiculously stressful public relations firm. I’ve never been one for working out, but somehow I got roped into a cardio kickboxing class and found it was one of the only stress relievers I had.

This kickboxing class studio would hold upwards of 100 people. The sound of the class hooting and hollering was deafening. The pounding of the music even more so. I would show up early to that class to make sure I was going to be in the very front row.

The instructor (a ridiculously gorgeous guy, which didn’t hurt) was more than happy to call you out if you were slacking. He knew everyone’s name. And he was the reason I came back to that class time and time again.

It was the quotes he would repeat over and over that became a sort of mantra to get me through.

It wasn’t his good looks (but, again, that didn’t hurt), it was what he said during the class. It was the words he said that reverberated in my head throughout the next day. It was the quotes he would repeat over and over that became a sort of mantra to get me through.

And when I started having to manage Vman’s meltdowns, it was many of his words, morphed into my own, that became a mantra that helped carry me past the tsunami and into the clear.


Much of riding the wave of a sensory meltdown is mental. Sure, it’s physically exhausting trying to keep your child from opening his skull on the nearest cabinet or wall. But it’s the mental challenge of sensory meltdowns that is so unbelievably exhausting.

What I found during these meltdowns was I returned to many of the words my old cardio kickboxing instructor used to say, peppered with my own one sentence affirmations to get through.

I’m sharing those one line affirmations with you. Because you know you’re tougher than you give yourself credit for.

Just because you’re exhausted after a meltdown, even feel like crying, doesn’t mean you aren’t one tough broad. You have the power to get through those meltdowns. You aren’t walking away. If anything, you’re walking into the fire! Don’t you see how amazing that is?!?

It’s time to start giving yourself credit where credit is due. No, you don’t do everything perfectly. No one is supposed to. But the fact is you stay in the fight. You are fighting for your child each and every day. Even though your body is fatigued and your soul is ready for a vacation, you have the heart of a lioness. Don’t forget that.

During your child’s next sensory meltdown, repeat these one line affirmations to carry you through. Before you know it, they will become your own unsung mantra, sprinkled in with your own affirmations. I hope you add some to the comments section of this post.



What Its Feel like Sensory Processing Disorder On Spectrum, Exactly?

With five to 16 percent of children affected by Sensory Processing Disorder in some way, it’s clear that this disorder isn’t limited just to children on the autism spectrum, though it is common with these kids. Children affected by SPD endure chronic disruptions and difficulties with the challenges of everyday life. However, as science learns more about what causes SPD, therapies and interventions make it possible to help affected kids learn to cope and thrive.

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SPD occurs when the brain interprets all sensory input coming through vision, taste, touch, hearing, and smell as being equally important. When this occurs, the child experiencing it is typically overloaded. Some neuroscientists liken SPD to a traffic jam in which all the sensory input being processed by the brain just stops.

The outward results of this traffic jam often manifest in behavioral problems, depression, physical clumsiness, and anxiety. Some children with SPD are hypersensitive, easily distracted, and unable to regulate their own emotions, and parents often don’t know how to help these kids.



A 2013 study at the University of California, San Francisco showed that children with SPD may have measurably different brain structure than other kids. MRIs of the brains of children who manifest SPD without also having autism or other complicating disorders show abnormal microstructures in these children’s sensory white matter tracts in the back sections of their brains. This was a breakthrough, since it provides evidence that SPD is a brain-based disorder rather than a purely behavioral one. The abnormalities seem to interrupt the normal timing of sensory transmissions, making it difficult or almost impossible for the child to integrate sensory information across his senses. The abnormalities found actually differed significantly from those typically found in children affected by autism spectrum disorders or ADHD, which occur in the frontal sections of the brain. These findings help show that SPD is indeed a disorder in its own right and not necessarily connected to the autism spectrum.



Therapy and treatment for SPD often places children in sensory-rich environments to provide play-based interventions. Occupational therapy and listening therapy are commonly part of treatment, and speech therapists or physical therapists may also contribute to an overall treatment plan. Activities involved in treatment often focus on gross motor skills, rhythm and timing, visual and auditory processing, and cognitive skills. Occupational therapists typically design activities to help each child succeed. Work with your therapist to learn what therapeutic activities might be helpful at home and be a part of your child’s challenges and successes.

You can supplement your child’s SPD therapy at home by performing daily exercises with them that focus on the eyes and the major muscle groups. Nutrition and behavior interventions may also make a difference. Give your child some brain training each day, focusing on activities designed to meet their specific needs.

Understanding what’s going on in your child’s brain and how best to help them also enables you to be an excellent advocate for your child in the world at large. Communicate with your child’s teachers about their progress, and suggest activities and strategies that can help your child thrive at school.


Children with SPD can improve their abilities to process sensory output if all their neurological deficit areas are targeted. Addressing sensory processing skills is a first step that opens the door to other valuable treatments, including behavior modification and tutoring. Occupational therapists who specialize in SPD should direct therapy, but parents can supplement that therapy at home and provide a connection to their child’s school in a way that promotes the best possible outcome.



Is Sensory Processing Disorder Considered A Learning Disability?

For some children, playing in the dirt or attending a noisy birthday party feels like the ultimate form of punishment. That’s because, for these children, a sensory processing disorder (SPD) may affect the way they interact with the rest of the world in a major way. And when it’s time to introduce these kids to the bright, noisy expanse of a classroom, parents may be understandably wary. Because SPD may affect your child so strongly,you may wonder if sensory processing disorder is a learning disability. This question is straightforward, but the answer is anything but.

As a quick review, sensory processing disorder is a condition that makes it difficult to interpret and respond to information from the five senses, as noted in WebMD. The signs of sensory processing disorder in kids include clumsiness, strong food texture preferences, and difficulty engaging in play. In general, persons with sensory processing disorder are over- or under-stimulated by everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations.

Although this condition may present all kinds of obstacles for kids in a classroom, the way SPD is currently understood and categorized prevents it from being considered an official leaning disability. For starters, there is dispute over whether SPD should be categorized as a disorder at all. And because SPD is still being researched and not listed as a condition in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), no one can be officially diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, as explained in Child Mind. Sure, your occupational therapist or social worker may informally treat your child for the symptoms of SPD, but it is not yet considered an official diagnosis or condition.

What’s more, sensory processing disorder is also not categorized as an official learning disability. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), learning disabilities are neurological conditions that make the acquisition of knowledge and skills particularly difficult. As further explained by the LDA, conditions such as dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, and language processing disorder are specifically considered learning disabilities. So although a sensory processing disorder may interfere with your child’s ability to learn and function in a traditional classroom setting, SPD does not qualify as a designated learning disability at this time. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), SPD alone will not qualify your child for special education services.

Of course it’s important for experts to carefully consider the factors that make up a true learning disorder, and these reviews take time. Unfortunately, there are plenty of children with SPD symptoms who are struggling in the classroom right now. They probably don’t care whether they have an official disability or not; they just want to understand their lessons. How can you help these kids in the meantime?

There are two broad approaches you can take to get your child official help with sensory processing issues at school. First, be aware that SPD often overlaps with other conditions such as AHDH or autism. If your school is able to test your child for other conditions that are covered by IDEA, then you may be able to secure an Individualized Education Program that provides occupational therapy, as noted by Understood. This therapy may also help address the SPD issues that interfere with your child’s ability to learn. As further explained by Understood, you may be able to get a 504 plan for your child without an additional diagnosis, as these offerings tend to be less restrictive.

Granted, all of this may feel like you have to go around your elbow to get to your thumb. And yes, a lot hinges on official labels and diagnoses. But the end goal — providing a quality education for your child — is worth the hassle.