By Jennafer Young, OTRL
I recently had a mom tell me her child has never cried at a finger prick, and he loves to bang his head against the wall. Another admitted her daughter has a screaming-and-kicking meltdown if a haircut is mentioned or a new food is presented at dinner. Still another explained her son can’t sit still long enough to put his socks on, let alone eat an entire meal or listen to her directions.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I meet kids like these every day. What do all these children have in common? They’re not spoiled-rotten, picky, high-strung, ADHD-diagnosed time bombs waiting to explode. They have signs of Sensory Processing Disorder. I know, the word “disorder” sounds a little scary...especially if your son or daughter reminds you of any of these kids I’ve met. But research shows that as many as 1 in 20 kids is affected by signs of SPD (Ahn, Miller, Milberger, & McIntosh, 2004). So hang with me - you’re in good company, and there’s hope.
We usually only talk about having five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. But in actuality we have at least seven different senses. The extra few senses (proprioceptive & vestibular) are related to sensing movement. They give us our ability to detect the speed, direction, and position of each part of our body. “Sensory processing” is our brain’s ability to take in information from each of the seven senses, interpret the meaning of the sensation, and respond in an appropriate way. For those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), one or more of the seven senses is felt or interpreted in a non-typical way.
So what does SPD have to do with your child’s unpredictable meltdowns or insatiable thrill-seeking? Kids with signs of SPD may be over-responsive or under-responsive to the sensory input in their environments. Either tendency leads to...well, an unexpected behavioral response.
For those with under-responsive nervous systems, it takes a lot of extra input to help them experience the world at a desirable level. These kids may constantly be on the go (seeking the movement senses), constantly listen to music (seeking auditory input) or constantly chew on gum...or their pencils...or their shirt (seeking oral/taste input). If they don’t receive the input they crave, they have a hard time managing their emotions. It’s like being hungry - if your drive for food isn’t satisfied, it’s hard to keep your attitude in check. But for these kids, any of the seven senses could be what they’re lacking, and until that sensory tank is full, their behavior-truck ain’t running smoothly.
What about the flip side? You know, the super-sensitive kids who notice everything...and complain about it?! They have over-responsive nervous systems to one or more of the senses. It’s hard to imagine, but the long-sleeve shirts he refuses to wear because they “hurt his arms” probably irritate his well-tuned sense of touch. The generic brand Cheetos she refuses to eat may startle and overwhelm her keen sense of taste. And, yes, the sound of the toilet flushing is as unbearable as fingernails on a chalkboard. The world is overwhelming to a kid with an uber-sensitive system, and this child needs to learn how to adjust or manage the input bombarding them before they either shut down or meltdown.
So where’s the hope in all of this? Well, the bright side is that you, Mom, are not crazy. You’re not crazy for thinking your daughter is more observant, more sensitive, more “picky” than her friends. And you’re not crazy for thinking your son is louder, more energetic, or more rough than his peers.
The other bright side is that your child is not a liar. Or manipulator. Or hopeless whiner. He or she is simply communicating how they experience the world - either as exhaustingly mundane for the under-sensitive, or unbearably overwhelming for the over-sensitive. Either extreme makes it difficult to simply “behave.”
Crazy or not, I realize that all these haywire senses can still cause painful meltdowns and family tension. That’s where professional help comes in: Occupational therapists are trained to understand all seven of the sensory systems and how they impact a child’s emotions and behaviors. Through a “sensory processing” or “sensory integration” approach, OT’s can identify, design, and teach you and your child strategies to meet their sensory needs. And when their needs are met, these kids are much more prepared to live, laugh, and learn.
October is Sensory Awareness month. So take a moment to reflect:
When your child’s responses to the world seem baffling, consider if there’s more than “behavior” going on here. Have you seen signs that your child is a super-sensor or a seldom-sensor? Please share your stories!
Ahn, R. R., Miller, L. J., Milberger, S., & McIntosh, D. N. (2004). Prevalence of parents’ perceptions of sensory processing disorders among kindergarten children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 58, 287–293. https://www.spdstar.org/sites/default/files/file-attachments/ahn_miller.pdf