“While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with Sensory Processing Disorder, these difficulties are chronic, neurological, and they disrupt everyday life. Often, someone struggling with sensory challenges is categorized as having behavioral issues when they are simply reacting to a neurological sensory overload. These children and adults need proper sensory therapy to learn how to self-regulate so they can improve their quality of life.” —From The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder.
“Most behavioral and emotional problems are neurological, not psychological.” —R. B. Minson, MD.
Glitches in the System
A child’s sensory system is part of their neurological system. How the senses work, or don’t work, can dramatically change behaviors and emotions. They may affect daily life and impact those around them—in tiny to large ways. Senses can be over-burdened, misfired, fired too much, or not enough. Glitches in senses and the nervous system may interfere with behavioral, developmental, social, cognitive, physical, and psychological parts of life.
A minor glitch brings goosebumps at nails on a chalkboard—a common-no-big-deal reaction. When the sounds and brightness of fluorescent lighting cause physical or behavioral problems in school, it’s a BIG glitch. Glitches interfering with learning and focus can be a sensory processing problem, called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Integration Disorder (SID). Both refer to the same thing. I’ll use SPD.
About 16% of US school-aged children have SPD. One or more senses are affected with a combination of over- and under-sensitivities. SPD may exist with autism and ADHD. However, you can have SPD without being ADHD or autistic.
SPD can cause anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, troubled friendships, isolation, avoidance, aggression, impulsiveness, defiance, OCD, postural disorders, dyspraxia, and more. (I’m out of breath here.) Postural disorders affect the body’s stabilization while doing things like sitting at a desk or playing sports. Kids with dyspraxia have trouble planning a series of actions or doing new things. SPD is not a catch-all, but it’s often misdiagnosed.
Sensory glitches—sound, touch, taste, sight, sense of movement, and more—can happen as sensory organs pick up information or as that info travels the nervous system to the brain. Glitches may also happen as the brain receives, decodes, or reacts to the information.
When letters dance across pages because eye muscles don’t cooperate, it’s hard for the brain to interpret what’s seen. School lighting can trigger headaches or distraction. When a child takes in all the busyness in a classroom, he/she can get greatly distracted. This child may not be able to control behavior or focus. Neurological affecting behavioral. This could be SPD.
We Know Sensory Glitches
My son was 12 when he first saw San Antonio Spurs’ The Big Fundamental (Tim Duncan) play. Until then, arenas with cheering crowds and blasting music overwhelmed him. At first, headphones drowned some of the sensory information coming in, helping him calmly sit and watch the game. Finally, he chanted, “Go, Spurs, Go!” sans headphones. Two years later, he occasionally wears them at half-time, to rest his senses. I’ve noticed he’s not the only one in the AT&T Center with headphones. It’s not rude. It’s self-care.
SOUND. My toddlers hated live music, even a lone guitar in small restaurants. They fidgeted, cried, and stopped eating. The response surged through their body, from the toes, up their legs, to tiny sausage fingers plugging ears as they ran away scared and overwhelmed. It was all too much. Sensory overload. Neurological affecting behavioral. (See beginning quote.)
TOUCH. My kids choose clothes by feel. Soft, as a well-worn, threadbare daddy shirt? Perfect! A stiff, non-pre-washed, heavy black Batman t-shirt? (You know the one I’m talking about.) No way. Thin, vintage t-shirts at Target? Yes, please. Hanes no-tag shirts? Can I get an amen? Touch-sensitive souls everywhere rejoiced when they hit the shelves.
One tactile (touch)-sensitive child hated the embroidered back of designs on shirts. When she wore embroidered or appliqued shirts, we covered the inside threads with band-aids. Two kids couldn’t stand tags. We cut them out. When handing down clothes, sizes are anybody’s guess. Gotta do what ya gotta do.
Some kids hate jeans. Seriously hate them. There’s a nuclear meltdown if they’re forced to wear them—the kind that makes you late for family photos and is not worth the trouble. You find ways to deal. A friend’s son wore only comfy elastic-waisted pants and jeans (shout-out to Land’s End). My Spurs fan prefers what his sisters call boy-band jeans. The feel of slimmer, tighter-legged jeans win over baggy denim. He gets it honestly. I hate baggy jeans, too.
Not for Kids Only
Here’s a secret: I choose my clothes by touch, too. They’ve gotta feel right. When I find something I love, I get every color. I once did an excited can-can dance for a specific brand of heavenly hugging soft running socks. (Cough-cough, Balega. The price is terrifying. Breathe easy, my friend—TJMaxx discounts them.)
Then, there’s the thing with noise. I love live music, but my head buzzes and eyes blur when I walk in the house and every light blares; TVs play loudly; ceiling fans bump-bump-spin over and over and over again; computers blast YouTube kittens plunking the piano; dogs bark to come in or go out; and my husband, with muted phone, is calmly listening (I don’t understand how) to a conference call. It physically feels to me like attacking chaos. Flipping switches, I quiet sounds and adjust lights. Let one dog in and another out. I leave calm and stillness behind me. What’s not enough for my husband is WAY too much for me. We have various sensory needs in our family. We usually work it out. It’s a good thing bedrooms have doors.
Everyone has sensory pet peeves. Like those fingernails on a chalkboard, or in my case, touching a microfiber yoga mat. I hate—no, I abhor—microfiber anything. Towels, cloths, blankets, yoga mats…touch them and I lose it. No way! Some pet peeves are stronger than others. Memories tied to senses are strong and vivid. When pet peeves get out of hand, it may be SPD.
One child had more than the normal share of broken bones. The brain wasn’t good at knowing where and how arms and legs moved. Not great at knowing how much space they took up, this child tried to stand up underneath tables; stumbled on curbs, and unsuccessfully balanced on a wooden waterbed frame. (Yeah, we were hippies. Let it go.)
Turns out polar bears aren’t good balancers on narrow waterbed frames. They’re prone to breaking a foot. Who knew? My little cub had a glitch with proprioception (knowing where your limbs are in time and space).
Glitchy proprioception in childhood meant twisted ankles, broken bones, and forehead goose eggs. I walked behind this child, dodging and catching missteps, stumbles, and falls. A sibling with a better sense of the position of their limbs didn’t need me to follow closely, dodge, and catch. Better proprioception. Pssst, wanna see great proprioception? Check out Simone Biles.
Finding seamless socks or cutting t-shirt tags is easy. Gagging or throwing up at the smell (yet another sense) of cooking roast beef is a problem, especially if your family loves roast beef. Life is also affected when the noise, crowd, or nosebleed seats keep you from the Spurs. (So, if you’ve scored extra courtside seats, send them our way in a comment.)
Glitches may fade or change as systems mature; polar bears also get older and more balanced. Or, maybe they give up on waterbed frames. Some even develop adaptations.
We had other sensory glitches. F. was four at her first movie. She begged me to ask the movie guy, “Turn it down!” and was so fidgety and anxious, we left. Not worth it. At eight years old, we tried again. Sitting away from the speakers, with an exit plan, just in case. We brought supportive friends and a little sugar. OK, a lot of sugar. She made it through Shrek, a funny movie with a lovable ugly ogre. She was so very happy and proud.
Adults and kids in our family have sensory sensitivities and even some SPD. With the help of an occupational therapist and play therapist, we adapted, found solutions, and took control. More importantly, we began to understand the senses and how their glitches affect us.
Alamo City Moms Blog contributor Christin wrote a letter to the mother of the child with SPD, showing the wide range of SPD.
The Hard Part
Kids with SPD are often inconsistent and easily frustrated. Life can be rocky. They’re mislabeled “sensitive” or “sissy” to “klutzy,” “quirky,” or “spoiled.” They’re also called “difficult,” “stubborn,” or “defiant” because big glitches make it hard to function like others. It’s not that they won’t cooperate or learn; it’s that faulty sensory systems or a misfiring brain keeps them from cooperating.
The good news? SPD can be helped. Occupational, physical, and play therapy, along with other SPD resources, are available. Headphones, specifically developed programs, and other coping skills help. When others understand SPD, perceptions are reframed, and others more easily accept them. Then, life gets easier.
My next post discusses specific senses, the potential glitches, and red flags for when a sensitivity may be a sensory processing disorder.
Do you or does someone in your family experience sensory glitches or SPDs? What’s been helpful?
After thinking about it, maybe this understanding brings someone’s behaviors into a new light?
Below are some websites and suggested reading:
Information about San Antonio’s Morgan’s Wonderland, from ACMB’s Inga
Great info about playing with your child with SPD, from ACMB’s Christin
Find books and other SPD resources here.
There are many books. I’m personally familiar with these: