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Sensory Processing Disorder… different for every child

April 3, 2014



Day 3 of Autism Awareness month!

Yesterday I wrote about anxiety and the challenges it adds to our children’s lives.  Today the second big hurdle is sensory processing disorder.  You’ll forgive my lack of scientific brain facts but I’ll explain it as best I can.


Everyone has a state of awareness that they are in at any given time during the day.  You are either excited, bored, tired, neutral, interested, curious, entertained, etc.  All day as you go about your activities you are doing things that require concentration and lots of brain effort or you’re receiving brain input through things around you that you find pleasant. Sometimes you don’t even realize it!


If you imagine your state of awareness or your sensory cup if you will, starting out half full for the day. You get up, look at the time, stretch, go to the shower, get in, feel the water, smell your soap, wash your hair. All of those sensory things add to your cup.  Unless you stayed up till 4 am and aren’t awake enough for your brain to register it.  After you get out of the shower, you’re hit with cold air, get your towel, dry off, get your clothes on. You smell the detergent you use and feel the different textures of your fabric.  Filling up your cup.   Then let’s say today you have a meeting. You go to the meeting, sit down and listen.  And write notes. And listen. And sit and sit and sit. Your cup is being drained pretty fast.  To keep yourself awake and help fill up your cup, you swing your leg, tap your fingers, click your pen cap, doodle on the side of your notes, look out the window, drink your coffee.  You don’t have as much freedom to seek out sensory activities that would add to your level of awareness so you do what you can.  This is what our kids do all day but on a much higher magnified level.


When you don’t have sensory processing disorder and you start feeling tired at your meeting, you know the little things you can do to help perk yourself up.  As a kid, Rett doesn’t have those skills.  His body drains his cup MUCH faster when he has to sit and do anything requiring concentration.  Instead of swinging his legs, he stands up and bounces around.  He keeps yawning big yawns over and over.  He looks at everything else in the room besides his task, trying to find some input that will be enough so that he can then attend back to something that requires a lot of brain work.  And his brain requires more input than a typical person to reach that.


Or we can imagine the opposite.  You go to a dinner party at a friend’s house.  You go in, there are 10 to 20 people there, you can hear bits and pieces of everyone’s conversation. Your friend has food on cooking and you can smell all the different yummy things you have to look forward to. Music is on.  The lights on the back deck are on. You greet several people you recognize, go out on the deck and start making some small talk with some new people.  Appetizers come around, you eat some new things you’ve never tried. As the night wears on and you’ve had drinks, dinner, chit chatted, the conversations are getting louder and your head feels a little overwhelmed. You go out on the deck where its quieter and fewer people have gathered and find a few people to have quiet conversation with.  You look out at the yard and up at the stars and feel your body relax just having a little bit of quiet.   In this situation you got into over awareness. Your sensory cup was overflowing. Going where it was quiet and peaceful helped you regulate and made your brain feel better.


For Rett this situation is going almost anywhere new.  Where typical people can weed out sensory input as it comes in to us, Rett receives everything at once.  We go to the zoo and I focus on one animal, one path, one experience.  Rett hears things I don’t hear, he smells things I don’t smell, his experience is vastly different than mine. He feels his feet on the pavement and hears the sounds of children running on the playground.  He feels the wind and hears birds up in the trees, he smells pop corn and three people eating three different snacks. And as my cup slowly fills up at this pleasant experience, his cup goes to overflowing VERY quickly.  For Rett, there is no quiet deck to escape onto.  And he probably wouldn’t think to do that at 5 years old anyway.  So he tries to release some of his sensory experience. He jumps, he flaps his hands, he giggles, he claps.  He might start script speaking his favorite movie, that is his way to check out of any situation no matter where we are.  Its his own personal deck he can use at any moment.   And imagine if you tried to go outside after you had reach your limit of noises and someone said no you can’t.  A long time ago we used to tell Rett to stop jumping or stop flapping.   But now we get it.


So not only does Rett’s sensory cup go down faster and fill up faster but he also processes sensory input differently.  He feels temperatures differently.  Textures are magnified.  It would be interesting to experience the world through Rett’s sensory experience.


We now go to OT.  Occupational Therapy is designed to help you figure out what things you can do to help add awareness to your child when they need to focus or to calm them when their cup is full.  And if you do these things throughout the day (a sensory diet), you can help keep their cup at a nice level.  Its different for every child.  But if you watch Rett, you can see how he’s naturally learned what helps him. He crashed into the floor, he bounces into the couch. He would spend hours in a bath tub or swimming pool.  Take him to one of those bounce houses or ball pits, he’s in heaven.  He loves running barefoot on the boardwalk at the beach.  And if we take his natural cues, we can help him both regulate his body and build neural connections so that he begins to process sensory input correctly.


A lot of behaviors that we see from children on the spectrum are a result of sensory overload which result in melt downs as they have not yet learned to make their brain feel better when it is being overwhelmed.  The distracted child who gets up and refuses to attend to their work is trying to wake themselves up because the one minute they worked was an hour long dull meeting for us.


You can catch up for the month:


Day 1: April is for AUTISM!

Day 2: Autism and Anxiety


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