"Sensory Issues for $1000"

I’ll take Sensory Processing Disorder for $1000, Alex.” 

I like to pretend that my self-taught ninja-like parenting skills in Sensory Processing Disorder will someday help me win a bunch of money on Jeopardy, but it’s not likely.  That’s OK, because in many ways, I’ve already won.  I just didn’t realize how lucky that first diagnosis was.

The Lucky Diagnosis

When my oldest son Gabriel was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in 2005 I was honestly relieved.   I had finally got an answer that explained his insane meltdowns, his obsession with eating hot salsa (while tears rolled down his face and he begged for more), and some enlightenment for all of the crashing, climbing, jumping and falling.  But more importantly, the diagnosis gave me direction on how to help him.   At the time I had no idea that it would be the first step in learning how to help all three of my sons.  What a stroke of luck.

The Education Begins

That year I began learning all I could about SPD.  Google became my best friend and I relied heavily on parenting groups and websites for information.  First I had to learn what exactly Sensory Processing Disorder was.


According to the SPD Foundation, “Sensory processing (sometimes called "sensory integration" or SI) is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.”
The messages from my son’s senses were not being processed correctly by his brain, which caused what pioneering sensory Occupational Therapist A. Jean Ayres called a ‘virtual traffic jam’, leading to my son’s often inappropriate motor and behavioral responses (like giant meltdowns or running away).  This revelation gave me a better perspective of my son’s behavior.  Another piece of the puzzle was recognizing there are eight senses (Surprised? So was I!).  Learning their names and how they were affected gave me a deeper insight into what my son was going through.

The Eight Sensory Systems

·         Interoception:  The internal sense, responsible for knowing you are hungry, feel sick or have to use the restroom.
·         Proprioception:  In your joints and muscles, responsible for pressure in and out – like throwing a ball, receiving a hug, and using a pencil.
·         Vestibular:  Your sense of balance, of where your body is positioned in space – like lying down, turning upside down, jumping and climbing high off the ground.
·         Taste (gustatory):  Your sense taste in your mouth, responsible for recognizing flavor, intensity and texture.
·         Touch (tactile):  Your sense of feeling, all over your skin; responsible for how your clothes feel, knowing there is food on your face, and having your hair combed or cut.
·         Smell (olfactory):  Your sense of what things smell like, from freshly baked cookies, to perfumes, soaps and skunks.
·         Sight (visual):  How you see things, responsible for picking out one object in many, recognizing facial expressions and adjusting your eyes to lighting conditions.
·         Hearing (auditory):  How things sound, responsible for knowing who to listen to in a crowded room, organizing directions for a task, and taking in the sound of an alarm or siren.

Each sense is responsible for so much more than I ever realized – and definitely things I have taken for granted, like the ability to filter out one voice in a crowd, or knowing how much pressure to exert when writing with a sharpened pencil.  Those were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to helping my son. 
The next step on my path to understanding Sensory Processing Disorder was becoming aware of the different ways it presents in children (and adults).  Since each person is different, and their brain is inherently different, logically their needs would be different. 

Three Subtypes of SPD

Avoiders – people who generally avoid sensory stimuli
Seekers – people who actively crave more sensory stimuli or
Under-responders – people who don’t register the sensory input

Although children often both crave and avoid sensory input depending on the day and the circumstances, these subtypes give an explanation for the basics of how the child’s nervous system is handling the sensory input.  And a starting point for us as parents.

Finally equipped with an understanding of the SPD fundamentals, I was ready to tackle my son’s sensory challenges, and move him from overwhelmed and overstimulated, to calm and organized.  I hit the ground running.

Son # 1: Gabriel.

My son Gabriel is a Seeker, which means his body actually craves MORE input from all of his senses in order to stay calm and organized.  As a preschooler he would crash into things, spin and spin, climb to the highest peak on the playground, jump on the trampoline for hours, and loved being squished in a tight hug.  Behavior is communication, so I took the cues and followed his lead. 

It wasn’t an easy path to be on, but as we moved through it, and through Occupational Therapy, I learned more about Gabe and how to help him learn to self-regulate.  I also found other families raising children with Sensory Processing Disorder which was a huge relief (I wasn’t the only one fighting these battles).  And I finally felt like I had a hold on this sensory stuff.  Almost.

Enter Son #2:  Nicholas.

Nick has always been incredibly precocious, ahead of the game developmentally, independent to a fault (no idea where he got that), and also incredibly sensitive.  I have to admit it took me longer than it should’ve to realize that he too had sensory issues.  Only Nick is an Avoider.

Nick never slept, not even in the hospital when he was born, he is the most insanely picky eater on the planet, surviving on peanut butter and fish crackers with VERY little else (although he can’t actually get the peanut butter on his hands because that would cause a minor meltdown), he hates itchy tags – really any tag at all, his socks have to be on just right (assuming he is even wearing any), and is downright terrified of loud noises – especially fire alarms.  How did I miss that?!  Easy; I’d spent the first two years of my SPD self-education focused on how to help my Seeker; so much so, that I overlooked the little Avoider in the house.
Using what I already knew about SPD, I put into practice the things that Nick needed to be successful and addressed his Sensory Defensiveness.  Much easier this time around, as I was practiced, but following Nick’s lead meant he needed noise canceling headphones, a quiet reading place, practice eating a no-thank-you-bite and eventually I had to just give up food battles completely.  All of which have made life easier for us.  And once again I felt like I had this sensory stuff under control.  Mostly.

Enter Son # 3:  Matthew.

You’d think I’d have it down by now, but nope, Matthew threw me for a loop yet again.

Matthew wouldn’t sleep unless he was swaddled, which forced me to MacGyver a 3 layer Velcro-blanket combo every night around his body tight enough to keep his arms from popping out – virtually impossible.  Matthew also used a pacifier (yes, past the age of 2, but really it was his need to have FOUR of them in his mouth that was the real red flag), loved to snuggle, rubbed my ears, and his brothers’ ears and the dog’s ears, became incredibly overstimulated at night to the point of being unable to sleep, hates loud noises including the vacuum, loved to be rocked, and obsessively gives ‘zerberts’ when overstimulated – try explaining that to a passerby in the grocery store – “Umm, my son is a little overwhelmed, he is actually not trying to spit at you, he just wants to zerbert you.”  Awkward.

This time I had a kid that was equal parts Avoider and Seeker.  And YES, this time not only did I recognize it, but the house was already equipped with spinning chairs, bean bags, weighted blankets, rocking chairs, headphones, balance boards, pull up bar, swing set, and quiet space (now affectionately referred to as ‘Matthew’s Hideout’).  Matthew was raised with the things he needs to self-regulate already in his environment, and fairly quickly found his way. 

I actually did have this sensory stuff under control.  Finally.

As Luck Would Have It

When I look back to that spring day in 2005 and first hearing that Gabriel had Sensory Processing Disorder, I would never have believed that 7 years later I would be parenting three sons with sensory issues – all so very different from each other.  

I also would never have believed that the path that Gabriel started me on would’ve led me to where I am today:  proud of my well-honed ninja-like sensory parenting skills which have gotten me through parenting all three of my boys…. at least thus far. 

….the clue reads, “Getting a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder for your oldest son.”

“What is lucky?”


Little Boy Blue's Mommy said...

Thank you for this post. My son has been exhibiting behavior for the past year or so that is not on the "normal" spectrum of toddler behavior, and we've been trying to figure out what to do. Our pediatrician shrugged us off and said he was a tough case to crack. But when I read something like your wonderful post, my eyes are opened a bit more. I appreciate you being so candid about each of your sons. :) It gives us a little bit of something to look into more. Thank you!

Jen@BigBinder said...

Ahh, yes. Someday we will surely win the Daily Double with all of our knowledge! :)

Patty O. said...

I'm totally with you on this one. I have three kids with vastly different sensory issues. Danny and Charlotte have both been diagnosed, but my toddler hasn't yet. Still, he has major sensory issues up the wazoo! I am so glad, though, that Danny was diagnosed when he was, because I'm pretty sure the other two kids' issues would have gone undiagnosed otherwise.

Mandygirl said...

My oldest is 5 is very many of SPD issues. I also have a 2 1/2 year old. The little one hasn't exhibited any of the same "weirdness" as his brother did at the same age. Have you found that if one child has it, that the other has it even if a lesser degree...or can they not have any issues at all. I'm wondering so I can be more proactive with the little one :-)

Martianne said...

Great post. I continually question with Luke b/c he is both Seeker and Avoider and sometimes both with the same sense, if that makes sense. For example, with tactile, he can be a Seeker in some ways and an Avoider in different ways. his OT says it's b/c of the different neurological pathways... Whatever the reason, it makes things less clear cut!

Hartley said...

Glad you all liked the post! Learning how sensory issues affect each of my kids - and me too - differently has been a huge help in understanding them and their behavior. :-)