Posted on 03 November 2013.
October is National Sensory Awareness Month. As part of this national education effort, Inside Bainbridge is publishing a series on Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), citing the latest research, information from experts in the field, and personal stories from parents, caregivers, and kids affected by the condition. (Family names have been changed for privacy.) Read the other articles in the series:
Because sensory processing problems range across a wide continuum, with each person’s sensory system as individual as a fingerprint, diagnosis and treatment are challenging. It is common for parents, teachers, doctors, and other caregivers to misdiagnose or altogether miss or dismiss sensory processing “disorder” (SPD), especially since it still is not widely recognized and understood.
We all have different learning styles.
But, fortunately for the people struggling with the condition, this is changing. The National Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation is working to fill the data gap by conducting rigorous studies about SPD and advocating for its listing in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual . A range of caregivers, such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, and yoga therapists, are filling their toolboxes with strategies for helping SPD kids. And, increasingly, educators are recognizing the need to incorporate different teaching modalities in their classrooms to accommodate the reality that all kids have different learning styles and sensory “engines.”
“There Has Been an Explosion of Kids in the Last 5-10 Years Who Are Either Frozen or on Fire”
Monica Struck has been working in early childhood education for 25 years, specializing in parent education. Her extensive experience includes consulting for the Silverdale and Bainbridge Island School Districts in Washington. Echoing the comments of former Bainbridge Island School District physical therapist Sue Steindorf, Struck says she has seen “an explosion of kids in the last 5-10 years who are either frozen or on fire.” And she adds, “Professionals are scurrying to meet the need.”
“SPD Is a Neuro Difference, Not a Deficiency”
Struck sees SPD as “a neuro difference, not a deficiency” and believes “our world is changing so much, there is so much to learn and take in, it is hard to adjust to parenting this kind of kid because of the overstimulated world we live in.” According to Struck, “readdressing everyone’s style of learning needs to be part of larger education reform.”
Seeking a manageable school environment for their daughter with SPD, Iris and Jesse enrolled her in a small private elementary school that values individuality. “The public schools in our community are great, but Emma needed smaller class sizes and a place where she could know and be known by everyone,” explained Iris. Although Emma’s teachers haven’t always understood her SPD, they have been open to Jesse and Iris about ways to accommodate Emma. “It’s been a learning curve for all of us. As we discover strategies along the way, we share them with her teachers, and vice versa,” said Jesse. For example, Emma’s occupational therapist suggested putting a stretchy band at the foot of Emma’s desk so she could push with her feet and get calming sensory feedback in class. Now her third grade classroom has stretchy bands on all of the kids’ desks, and the teachers report that the kids love them. Iris said, “Emma is proud to have introduced something so positive to her class.”
Kid in TV trance.
Catherine Whiting, an occupational therapist on Bainbridge Island, has specialized in working with SPD kids for almost three decades. When I asked her if she sees more SPD kids now than in the past, she said it is hard to say whether the incidence of SPD is increasing or whether it is simply becoming more evident to people now.
Kids Today Are Inside More, Less Active
She pointed to the fact that children today have much less time outside and fewer physical outlets than they did in past decades: “There were more vestibular activities, like bike riding, running, and more vigorous playground equipment. Now kids are inside more, and playgrounds are less physically challenging places because of fear of lawsuits.”
It is not news to anyone that kids today spend far less time outside, have less unstructured time for play, and sit in front of electronic devices much more than they used to. With his 2006 book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv alerted our generation to the alienation of children from nature and the damaging effects of childhoods spent mostly inside, citing obesity, depression, and loss of self-esteem.
For SPD Kids, Less Time Outside Means Less Time to Hone Motor Control
In terms of sensory processing development, less time outside also means less time to hone motor control, gain vestibular awareness, and practice sensory modulation. These societal changes are bad news for all kids but are especially damaging for kids with sensory processing difficulty.
Climbing trees is just plain fun.
When treating SPD kids, Whiting likes to start by evaluating a child first herself, without learning much about preexisting diagnoses or opinions. Because every kid is different, she has a large toolbox. Her biggest priority is giving kids strategies for functioning in the real world. Because many SPD kids form what she calls “maladaptive coping behaviors,” she focuses on teaching them coping strategies that are (1) age appropriate, (2) situationally appropriate, and (3) safe.
Sensory Avoiders Do Best with Directives and Schedules
Whiting explains that sensory-avoiding kids need more structure and help with transitions to make their worlds feel more manageable and ordered: “The sensory-avoider kiddos are taking in so many details they are easily overwhelmed. Change is hard for them, and so are unstructured situations, like art class, for example. They do best with directives and schedules.”
Sensory Seekers Need to Move, to Touch, to Be Involved
About sensory-seeking kids, Whiting says, “these kiddos, on the other hand, need to move, to touch, to be involved. I give them brightly colored markers and opportunities to explore and change things up frequently.”
SPD kids have different filters.
Whiting points out that parents with good instincts find ways to accommodate their SPD children. “They anticipate breakdowns, provide a healthy sensory diet for their particular kiddo, and they realize how hard their child is trying. Telling SPD kids they aren’t trying is the worst thing you can say to them—they’re trying all the time with every fiber of their being to keep their body under control,” she said.
Likewise, yoga therapist Sue Steindorf uses yoga to help SPD kids learn to understand themselves and have an “adaptive response” to their environment. “Their central nervous systems have a different way of organizing information. It is not a pathology, but rather a difference that they need to understand how to regulate,” she explained.
“Extroverts May Lash Out, While Introverts Hold Things in Until They Snap”
Steindorf said that SPD symptoms present in very different ways: “Kids who are trying to figure out motor control move all the time. Others will freeze and sit in a corner trying to regulate.” Without proper sensory regulation, she pointed out, “extroverts may lash out, while introverts hold things in until they snap.”
Freedom’s just another word for running on the beach.
In her yoga practice, Steindorf teaches kids to “come to center, self-calm, and get in balance.” She uses movement, music, breathing, relaxation, pressure pillows, balance techniques, laughter, and imaginative play.
Occupational Therapist Kristi van Niel, who works at Harrison Medical Center in Silverdale, Washington, uses a range of equipment and techniques to help her SPD kids develop vestibular awareness, muscle tone, motor problem solving, and other self-regulating abilities. Her tools of the trade include swings, weighted balls, large therapy balls, climbing equipment, squishy hand toys, balance beams, art projects, catch games, and talking through strategies for coping with real-life situations.
Intervention for Anxiety and Low-Self Esteem Is a Crucial Part of SPD Treatment
Sensory overload can be terrifying.
But for SPD kids, physical regulation is not the only challenge. It is common for them to develop “performance anxiety” around sensory experiences and tasks that they find particularly difficult. SPD kids, though they are often gifted, commonly suffer from feelings of inadequacy. This is why for many SPD kids, occupational or yoga therapies are not enough. Intervention for the anxiety and low self-esteem that arise from their sensory differences is a crucial part of treatment plans for SPD kids.
What Diane, the mother of two SPD teens, concludes about her kids is that what they need most is to be understood and “met where they are.” She believes SPD kids often have parents with similar sensory processing issues but may not know it about themselves.
Kids and grownups playing on the beach.
For parents who have the openness and courage, coming to understand and accept their sensory-different kids is often a journey toward understanding and accepting themselves. Even parents who don’t share their children’s sensory sensitivities have opportunities for deeper insight into what it means to be human. As Steindorf puts it, when sensory different kids find their balance they are profoundly “alive,” a way of being that we can all learn from.
[This article from the archives originally appeared on Inside Bainbridge November 5, 2011.]
Photos courtesy of Ilona, Leonid Mamchenkov, Anne-Cathrine Nyberg, Eric Schmuttenmaer, Sandeep Menon, Mike Mol, D. Sharon Pruitt, and Mike Baird.