The other day at the playground with our two daughters, my husband points out a little girl of about eight. “She's a sensory child,” he observes.
“Why do you say that?” I ask.
“I could tell by the way she fell on the sand. Watch her now,” he points out.
I watch as the girl carefully lays out an old newspaper on the sand and then arranges her toys being careful not to touch the sand. Its a warm day and she's dressed in a long sleeve shirt long pants, socks and tennis shoes. This is in stark contrast to my five year old daughter who is wearing shorts, no socks and no shoes. I'm guessing the other girl is sensory defensive while I know my daughter is a sensory seeker.
I chat at length with the girl's mother and the subject of sensory processing comes up. I explain our journey with our five year old daughter: behavioral issues, eating issues, an uninformed and unhelpful pediatrician, occupational therapy and finally, understanding. As I talk about some of the “quirks” we noticed in our daughter, I can see the light bulb going off for her.
“Its so nice to talk to a mother who understands. There are no other children like her in our family and they just don't understand her,” she confides in me.
I smile and tell her, “There are many like her in my family but its still hard when people don't understand.”
At four, our oldest daughter was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD is a neurological condition that occurs when sensory signals don't get organized into appropriate responses. This can cause problems such as behavioral issues, learning difficulties, social awkwardness, and developmental delays. Although there is no cure, working with a good occupational therapist can help develop successful strategies for coping and helping increase function.
As we have navigated down this winding road, I have encountered many who simply do not understand SPD. Sometimes its a stranger that gives a judgmental stare when my daughter has a melt down in public because the noise is too loud. Sometimes its a well meaning relative who upon seeing her lack of socks says, “She'll catch a cold! You should put some socks on that child!” Or it could be another child who tells her, “Why do you eat that way?” Here are a few things that I would like to share with all of these people.
Yes, SPD can cause behavior issues. What you see: a child having a melt down in the doctor's office. What I see: my daughter being stuck in a ten by ten room with fluorescent lights, no windows, white walls and white floors causing sensory overload. Once she's overloaded, she will react by crying and screaming. Also, she's been here before so she anticipates the experience to be just as bad as it was the last time. Now you can add fear to her sensory overload and the melt down is epic.
No, she doesn't have ADHD or Autism. Most people associate sensory defensiveness and behavioral issues caused by SPD with autism. It is very common for those who have autism to also have SPD. However, not all children who have SPD have autism. ADHD and sensory seeking are not the same thing. A child who is a sensory seeker craves lots of sensory input. When they receive enough input, their behavior improves. A child with ADHD will not improve their behavior with more sensory input. In fact, for most ADHD kids, their behavior will get worse.
I hate labels. Although labels may be a necessary evil when getting appropriate educational accommodations, I don't really find them helpful. All children with the same diagnosis do not have the exact same needs and the label can cause others to view them differently. I believe that all children are wired differently and they will flourish when their needs are met. Period.
No, kids no not outgrow SPD eventually. There are adults in my family who suffer with SPD. One female member of my family suffers from anxiety when in loud and crowded places. She also hates when she's around others who wear perfume and will complain that she can't breathe. She is an extremely picky eater and will only eat from a limited number of food choices. She has suffered much in terms of social isolation and emotional pain from being misunderstood. Her mother still describes her as a child who was very difficult.
The same wiring that gives her SPD makes her an incredibly smart, inquisitive and creative being. I often marvel at the way my daughter sees the world. She was born wide awake and ready to experience the world. She was an early talker and seems to have amazing hearing. At three, she would often name all the instruments she could hear in a song playing on the radio. When she began to color, she would color pictures in a rainbow fashion, never satisfied with boring coloring with a few colors. At three, she told me her favorite color is magenta, a type of purple. She enjoys sensory rich activities like playing in the fall leaves with pure joy. Its such an amazing sight to watch!
The final thing I would like share is to ask that please, the next time you see a mother who is struggling to get her grocery shopping done with a child who is not cooperating or a mother who is trying to calm her screaming toddler who's having a meltdown try not to be so quick to give a disapproving frown. Instead, offer her a smile of reassurance. Just like my recent conversation with another mother on the playground. You might never know how much your understanding has helped her that day.