Sherri Pruner: On a Mission (Interview & GIVEAWAY)

Welcome to my blog Sherri--a big THANK YOU for doing this interview with me! It is always great to meet another mom out there campaigning for Sensory Awareness. And you are really “On a Mission!”

I was so excited when I came upon your website and saw the work you are doing to make life easier for us moms out there with SPD kiddos. I can’t wait to talk about the fantastic pack you’ve made (and are giving away for FREE to one of my readers!), but before we get to the “business” let’s talk a little bit about your family’s SPD journey.

Can you tell me about you and your family? Kids, hubby, pets, where you live, favorite movie line, favorite color, and favorite book, you know the basics. : )
My husband and I have been married for 8 ½ years now, he’s been active duty in the Army for 13, and our son is 4 ½ and about to start Kindergarten! My husband is deployed right now so my son and I share a one bedroom apartment with our two dogs: My Rhodesian mix, Peanut, and my silver Cairn terrier, Milo.

We lived in Hawaii for 6 years—that’s where our son was born, but for this third deployment we decided it would be best to move back home for some help, so now we live in the gorgeous Hudson Valley in New York State. I adore old movies—I prefer them to today’s movies as a matter of fact--I could never choose just one favorite. I love to read---I am a huge history buff so we are always visiting historical sites and I am usually devouring a book on some sort of history. As for my favorite movie line--I always say that there is a quote in the movie “Spaceballs” for almost any situation in life. I love to laugh and enjoy the simple things in life—the smell of hay, eating apple pie, taking a drive, and being with my family.

Looking back, when did you know there was something “different” about your son? Where did this journey begin for your family?

My son was born with a heart defect called Tetrology of Fallot which was repaired through open heart surgery at 5 months of age, and then a catheterization at the age of 8 months to repair another problem.

We knew that because of these major surgeries there was the possibility that he could be delayed in one or more areas down the road. When my son was around 15 months old I started to really notice that he was not meeting milestones for his age. His fine and gross motor skills were delayed and he didn’t have any words—he was just babbling and that wasn’t progressing as it should have either. He never called for me or my husband, never reached for us, or even seemed to notice if we were in the room or not. He didn’t make eye contact and he never had gestures—he never pointed, waved, or reached. He also wasn’t interested in things going on around him---his interest was never caught with things that most kids would delight over—puppies, lizards, airplanes and such.

I can also look at his baby pictures and see a difference in him. He was a happy infant. His pictures through his first birthday were of a smiling and happy boy. After that time, he mostly has no facial expressions or emotions. I watched him descend into repetitive behaviors and it was beyond me at that point to deal with these things as a first time parent so I asked for help. I had heard of Autism and did some research on it on my own and it was scary because it sounded like my son so I talked to his pediatrician and I am eternally thankful that she took me seriously and didn’t treat me like just another worried mom.

So then we went to speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, a developmental pediatrician, and did DNA testing. All of those evaluations let us to a child psychiatrist who along with a panel of specialists observed my son within a peer group weekly for a month. The diagnosis for the full Autistic Spectrum was made—it was not a surprise to me, but it was still devastating.

From there we went on to Early Intervention. The sensory needs were always there---he loved his Jumperoo and would go to town in that thing for a half hour. He always loved to swing, spin, bounce, anything that lit up and spun, and music. He was also very strong and could pull 100 pounds when he was just a couple of years old. His case manager and team at the Department of Health were fantastic and always had my son’s best interest in mind---I am eternally grateful to them. His case manager noticed the sensory stuff and helped us with that and it made perfect sense to me. Later, we had him evaluated by an occupational therapist so that we could have the diagnosis of SPD on paper.

I want to thank you and your family for your military service to our country. My husband is a former Marine (HOO RAH!) and we respect and admire what you are doing for all of us. Does being a military family have a big impact on your SPD journey? How is it different than being a “civilian”? Are there different resources for military families?

Oh my gosh, being a military family impacts every nook and cranny of our lives. There is always a cloud of uncertainty hanging over your head in the military because deployments or orders to move to a new duty station can come at any time. It is a cruel sort of irony to have a child with Autism and SPD because they crave and need routine and structure and the military offers exactly the opposite. You also don’t have an ongoing sense of community in the military because people are always coming and going so you never get a solid support network with the same people to establish relationships. There are many families that have kids with special needs and they get through it.

Moving to NY has been a turning point. He is happy and content here and has flourished with all of the family and friends around and he loves to do things here—it is so different from when we lived in Hawaii. My husband and I see our bright, happy, and smart boy and we look at each other and wonder if he will ever reach his full potential if we uproot him and drag him from one duty station to the next, throw in a couple of deployments here and there and do it all with no family around. That is asking a lot for any civilian child with Autism and any child period.

I always use “Sherri’s Rule of Three” when dealing with the military---I ask three different people the same question and if two of them are the same it is a reasonable conclusion that it is the right answer. On my website there is a link for resources specifically for military families where they can see some of the programs that are available to them.

Many of my readers email me when they are moving across the country (or state) and are in need of new referrals or resources to find therapists in their new location. How has your military life style impacted your ability to have good therapists available in each new town for your son?
Well, being military, like anything, has its pros and cons but they have a program in place to help your child no matter where you end up on orders called the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). They can help you find resources in your area and being enrolled in the program makes the branch of service confirm that whatever duty station you go to the resources are available for your child to get what they need. On the other side of that, we are on a fixed income so we are unable to just go and pay out of our pocket for therapists and special schools.

We went through Early Intervention and when my son aged out of EI he was transitioned to the preschool at the Department of Defense school on base, because we lived on Wheeler Airfield at the time. There were heated discussions and some threats on my end to get what he needed at the IEP meeting, but in the end my son got what he needed.

I know my son’s strengths and weaknesses and I know when I see that person with him if it will work or not. And because Autism and SPD each present differently in each child, what works for one family and child may not work for another. I would urge parents that can’t financially afford to pay for special schools and therapists to use the resources that are available.

What are your biggest struggles now with your son? How have you learned to cope with his sensory needs?

Well, right now my biggest struggle with my son is that he is a 4 ½ year old mini-me. We are very much alike so we get into power struggles and we are both very stubborn, but at the end of the day, I am the adult, I am the parent. It can get pretty dicey though as any parent knows!

Our other big issue is potty training. Again, because I know my son so well, I understand that I have to back off---I can’t push him because potty training will turn into a power struggle and he’ll be 12 before it happens. People that I talk to give me looks though when they find out he isn’t potty trained and I get the inevitable “well, I took the pull-ups away and….” story. I stick to my guns though, because when he is ready, he will do it. It is hard as a parent to be comfortable with that because it feels like your child is calling the shots, but it is his body, so he is calling the shots on that one.

As far as my son’s sensory needs go, each day is different. I know what kind of sensory work he needs and his cues from day to day tell me what he needs. When you get to a point where you think you have one need managed properly, that way of doing it stops working and you have to find another way. I just take things day by day. Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely not a pillar of patience and strength, there are days where I have just had it and don’t want to deal with his needs. It is hard, basically I’m a single mom and sometimes I don’t have the energy.

I am always getting questions about “Sensory Diet”, something it seems you have figured out—so tell me what are your “go to” items during the day to help your son stay regulated?

I don’t have the sensory diet figured out! I get the basic idea of the sensory diet---A and B are my son’s problems and C and D are what he needs to help A and B. Often though, it is not so simple.

When we lived in Hawaii, they said my son was actively sensory seeking---as a matter of fact, I always said that he was on a “sensory mission.” When we got here to NY, his OT told me, he is definitely not a sensory seeker, he is sensory defensive.

When we came here to NY he started to revert back to the repetitive behaviors that made him feel safe: Chewing, spinning, and bouncing. I watched those behaviors take him over through his transition to living here and it was so hard to see; when he emerged his defensive vestibular system took over. He still has to push and pull things, but not to the degree that he did when we were in Hawaii. Because his vestibular system was very defensive his OT worked on that and I have seen my son come through that therapy a very confident boy, more sure of himself, and willing to try new movements. It truly is amazing.

My go to item, ironically, is to always have a toy car or train with me. It keeps him occupied—if he has several he can line them up to his hearts’ content. As for managing the sensory aspect, he is a chewer so I always have something for him to chew on such as a Chewy Tube, Super Chew, or Tangle Ball. He also is very sensitive to textures, orally and through touch so meal time can be trying. I always try to have something with a unique texture with me for him to fidget—a velvet slime anemone, fuzzy morph ball, and a cool new item made from sheepskin.

Now on to the business at hand—where did you come up with the idea to have a “Sensory Assault Pack” (SAP)? And please tell us what is in it?!?

When we first got all of these diagnoses I was overwhelmed with information from every place—the internet, TV, friends and family---as well meaning as they were----everything overwhelmed me because everything or everyone said something different. I decided to listen to my son and what his activities and behaviors were showing me. Because he was a sensory seeker he was always moving, always seeking hard work and so forth, I always always said that he was on a “sensory mission.”

I had the idea then for some sort of sensory bag, but because we were so isolated in Hawaii it was not feasible to pursue it, and I wasn’t ready either. When we moved back here to NY, in January, after things had settled down with family and such, one morning I woke up at 2:30 in the morning and the wheels were turning. I got online and I went from looking at purses made from my husband’s ACU’s to formulating the concept for my business and flagship product, the Sensory Assault Pack. Everything came together and clicked. Right away I knew my concept and where I wanted to go with this idea.

I tried my idea out on family and friends and incidentally, the International Toy Fair was the next week so off my dad and I went to the city. It snowballed from there. I am a true believer in Karma and I also believe that the Lord has blessed me with an open heart and an open mind. My mom had an old musette bag from Vietnam that she used to carry around---I borrowed that to use in the beginning as the concept for the pack. I was going through it--flipping it open and looking in pockets---she hadn’t used it in a few years---and I pulled out a piece of paper from the back pocket. It was an article on sensory issues. I looked up and said “I read you loud and clear Lord!”

The tools in the SAP were very carefully chosen---I didn’t just say, hey this looks cool lets have one of those, two of those. The tools in this pack are a combination of tools that I use with my son and unique tools that have great potential to help kids with their needs—tools that they would intuitively reach for. Everything comes packed in an authentic canvas military medic pouch with a dog tag and there is one of each item: Find It game, Fishstick, Smart Smencil, Balloon Bags, Nature Guy Studio CD, Tangle Relax Therapy, Propaganda Pad, Mini Duckie Massager, Chewy Tube, and a Light Show Stick.

How did that original “idea” turn into a business?

Once I clarified my concept, I came up with the name Sensory Assault Operations and I knew right away what my logo would be. Sensory Assault Operations is the name of my company because in military jargon something ongoing is an “operation.”

My ongoing mission is to offer affordable and empowering products and helpful resources to parents and their sensory kids.

It was just natural that Sensory Assault Operations is “gear for kids on a sensory mission.” The wings on our logo are actually taken right from the Air Assault Badge which is a course in the Army that involves doing assaults from a helicopter. Obviously our kids aren’t going to be using helicopters, but the assault part made sense to me because there are many kids whose senses are being assaulted by stimuli and their body can’t process it fast enough or at all.

The brain centered in the wings is there because the brain is the hub of the central nervous system. I offer empowering products with the underlying military theme to get kids geared up for a sensory mission so that they can face their needs head on and own them. In turn, they can begin to self regulate their needs and not be ashamed to do so.

I have seen the military change lives---it has literally saved kids from going down the wrong path: It gave them food, clothing, structure, a purpose to their lives, direction, and pride in themselves. That is the aspect that I wanted to capture and share with our sensory kids. I want kids to go on a “sensory assault”-- face those needs head on, “assault” them, and basically show those needs who’s boss!

With the name, logo, and concept nailed down my next step was to make it legitimate so I applied for my DBA and NYS sales tax certificate. That was the easy part--the hard part was coming up with the money to buy product. Eventually I got it worked out and started establishing relationships with my suppliers—many of which I sourced at the Toy Fair. I also have family that owns a business here and they introduced me around to people they do business with, which is how I found my web guy. I am eternally grateful for his time, work, and advice. He believed in me and went above and beyond to help me get started. Setting up an e-commerce business is not easy nor is it cheap, but he helped me step by step and believed in me.

Every family is different. I have really learned over the last seven years (gulp) that just because you have sensory issues, doesn’t mean every kid with SPD is the same. How does your SAP address the different kinds of kiddos out there? What if my kiddo is very oral but doesn’t have any issues with taste? Do you customize your SAP?

Well, that’s the hard part because SPD presents itself differently in each child---like Autism. I decided that I could either focus on one area or I could find tools that had the possibility to help the many kids. The great thing about the tools in the SAP is that each child will find for themselves which tool works for each need.

The way your child uses one tool could be completely different from the way mine uses the same tool. The Chewy Tube, Super Chew, and Tangle Ball can be used for chewers or those that mouth, the peppermint scent of the Smart Smencil helps kids focus, the weight of the propaganda pad calms and the aroma comforts while the hot or cold gives additional input, the Nature Guy Studio CD is soothing, etc.

Sometime in late fall we are going to be offering a fully customizable SAP so that parents can choose the tools that best suit their child. We will also be having new options for parents with younger children or those with kids that are more delayed.

One thing that I want to stress is that you won’t find clinical tools in the SAP or in our store—the Chewy Tube and Super Chew are as clinical as we get. There are times where clinical tools are appropriate, but most kids don’t like to use them because it makes them stand out among their peers.

We also will have a wider variety of tools to choose from when we unveil the customizable SAP so that parents or teachers aren’t constrained only to the items found in the basic SAP.

I want parents, teachers, and therapists to know that their opinion and feedback are very important to me. I am here to help you help your kids and I will always go out of my way to help you find what you need. I am constantly on the lookout for new products that have the potential to be beneficial to our kids, but hearing from parents and professionals has a lot of impact on what we bring to our store and our customers. Your success is my success period.

How do you see the SAP being used by an average family? Where will moms (and dads) like us most likely take this pack? Is it for school? Play dates? Overnight visits? Vacations? What kind of ideas do you have?

The SAP was put together so that kids could have their tools in one place so they can just grab their SAP and go. Knowing that they have tools they are comfortable with to help them manage their needs while they are away from home will give them confidence.

The great thing about the SAP is that the bag is an authentic military bag but it is also a hot item for kids and tweens. The tools inside can be used by your sensory child to manage their needs, but their friends can use those tools too because simply, they’re cool. The SAP isn’t going to make your child stand out from their peers and neither are the tools in it---that is very important to kids especially as they get older. Mostly, the other kids are going to be trying to grab the tools and use them themselves!

If a parent is going to have the bag I would make sure it was always in the car or have one for each car so that no matter where you are taking your child you always have those tools with you to help your child cope. Another great thing about the SAP is that kids can take it anywhere---to the library, shopping, running errands, on vacation, to Grandma and Grandpa’s, sleepovers, camp, wherever their lives take them. I always encourage parents to help their child use the tools in the beginning and try them in many different situations to find out where each tool can work best for their child. Once your child knows what to do and how to use these tools, they can stow their gear and be ready for whatever comes their way!

What other things can we find on your website? Resources? Other items for sale?

We have resources for those who have or know children with Autism, SPD, ADHD, and for military families. Of course, these kids aren’t the only ones that have sensory needs. Children that have physical limitations due to medical reasons or disabilities and those that have Downs Syndrome also can have sensory issues. Even children with no underlying medical issue can have SPD and the resulting effects on a child with unrecognized SPD can mimic the symptoms of Autism, ADHD, and other neurological disorders. It is very important to me to raise awareness about SPD; left undetected, the child will act out their frustrations or withdraw into their own world.

All of the tools inside the SAP are available for purchase separately and we also have some great new products like Brain Noodles and the Original Fortamajig. Be on the lookout for more great new products coming later this fall with the debut of the custom SAP!

Sherri you are a true inspiration to all of us moms out there struggling to keep our kiddos regulated each and every day! It is a great reminder that each of us can spread Sensory Awareness and make the world better for all of our kids. It has been my pleasure having you here. Thank you.

Thank you so much for having me, you are helping many parents with your blog--It is an honor to be a part of it!


Ok, now for all of you reading this, Sherri has graciously offered to GIVE AWAY a Sensory Assault Pack to one of my lucky readers (I know, how cool is that?). Here is how you can win:

1. You will need to join this blog (if you haven’t already) and
2. Post your answer the following question as a comment to this post:

What tools are most helpful to your child in managing their needs and what kinds of products do you still see a need for?

OK, once you have joined and answered, you are officially entered. The contest will run 2 weeks and will end at 7am PST on Friday, September 18th. Sherri will have the honor of narrowing down the best 5 answers and then we will select the final winner by RANDOM drawing. Please remember to CHECK BACK to see if you won!

So now that your minds are full of Sensory excitement, get typing!