Bill and Leslie are the parents of a two-year- old daughter, Dora. Bill’s mom stopped by for a visit. She brought Dora a new sweater; a pink thing all pretty with embroidery and embellishments. Eager to please grandma, Leslie dutifully tried the sweater on Dora, tugging the woolen garment on over her daughter’s head.
But Dora wouldn’t have any of it. With the sweater on half-way, she struggled away from her mother’s grasp, flinging herself toward a corner of the room. There, she wrestled helplessly with the sweater, crying and pulling wretchedly at the dangling sleeves as if she were being strangled.
Bill hurried over and pulled the sweater off of Dora’s head, but she still wasn’t satisfied. Planting herself on the floor, Dora pulled off her t-shirt, pants, socks and shoes. The snaps of her little onesie flew open under her persistent tugging, and before anyone could blink, she had stripped herself down to her diaper and is trying to take that off as well.
With sheepish apologies to Grandma, Bill and Leslie hauled their screaming daughter up the stairs to her room, hoping to sweet-talk her back into some clothing. But three hours later, Grandma had gone home, Dora was fast asleep clutching a cup of juice on the bedroom floor, and still not wearing anything but a diaper. Bill and Leslie looked like they had just come out of a dryer on high spin cycle.
Bill and Leslie are not alone in this challenge. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are the parents of a child with sensory processing differences.
If you can relate to this story, you are like many of the parents of children with sensory differences. Sometimes, your child reacts strongly to seemingly harmless stimuli. This might be a new article of clothing, new food, or even the smell of perfume. These reactions make you wonder:
- Does a cool breeze across his forehead create a pleasant tingling sensation, or does it feel like an alarming wake-up call?
- Does an ice cube in his drink make it pleasantly chilled, or frighteningly different?
- Is the tag inside his shirt a mild nuisance, or does it feel like his whole body is being rubbed down with sandpaper
Trying to understand how it feels to be in your child’s skin is like walking right up to the edge of a mental precipice. There is no way to know what it is like to be someone else. However, if you give it some time, experimentation, and careful observation, you may be able to understand some of your child’s differences and unique sensory needs.
The human sensory system acts as a GPS to help us locate ourselves in our environment. I know who I am because I can feel. I know where I am because I can see and sense motion. I know where you are because I hear, see, smell, and feel you. I know when I am moving, and when I am upside down or right-side up because of my vestibular system, located in my inner ear, detects gravity and linear movement. These sensory messages guide me through every step of my waking operations. And if these messages came through to me very differently, my behavior would be drastically different.
Children with sensory differences are behaving in proportional response to the sensory messages they are receiving. Because you and I cannot feel and see those messages, it is almost impossible to predict these reactions. However, as I stated earlier, careful observation and analysis can give you a little more understanding of how your child experiences the world.
Often, an occupational or physical therapist uses a tool called a sensory profile to give you a clinical assessment of your child’s needs. The sensory profile works by having the parent answer a series of questions about the child’s responses to a variety of activities and routines. This tool helps zero in on what kinds of sensory input your child is seeking and what your child is avoiding. It helps you understand your child’s unique GPS and why s/he reacts to the world the way s/he does.
Once you have the keys to understanding, you can help your child learn to regulate, tolerate, and take control of his or her sensory needs. It’s a process that does not happen overnight, but it can begin at any time the parent takes the initiative. You can start with a sensory journal. This creates an anecdotal record that can later be analyzed with your behavior specialist, occupational therapist, or other team members.
In your journal, log your child’s unusual or concerning behaviors. Make sure to include as much contextual information as possible. Your entries may look something like this:
- 5/8: Went to the library. Dora wouldn’t quit putting books in her mouth. She refused to turn the pages and just wanted to chew them. So I took her to the water fountain instead, and she seemed to enjoy drinking from the spout. She didn’t even mind that her shirt was getting soaked from the dribble and spray.
- 5/9: Dora crawled behind the new bookcase and stayed there for a long time, squeezed between the bookcase and the wall. Then she squeezed herself under the TV table and hung out there for a while.
- 5/9: She didn’t eat any food today but a few bites of Cheerios. She did drink three full bottles of milk and chewed the nipple until she’d torn a hole in it.
The anecdotal record allows the team and family to detect patterns. For example, Dora’s record indicates that she is seeking oral stimulation, deep pressure, and avoiding textured tactile experiences. This understanding allows the team to develop strategies around Dora’s unique needs.
Not every case is as profound as Dora’s. Sensory differences can be subtle, and they can also change from stage to stage or even day to day. As a parent of a child with sensory processing differences, you’ll want a robust and supportive team around you to hold your hand as you navigate this maze. Don’t be afraid to be persistent, ask questions, brainstorm, experiment and come up with out-of-the-box solutions.
After all, it’s your child. And doing everything to help them just makes sense.
By Chaya Glatt