SPD is a dysfunction of the nervous system and put simply, the way in which the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into the appropriate motor and behavioural responses are affected. The nervous system of individuals with SPD misinterpret everyday sensory information such as touch, sound and movement. It is a complex neurological condition and it is estimated that 1 in 20 children are affected. There is no cure for SPD and individuals with the condition have to find coping mechanisms or avoid their known triggers.
Individuals may have an over-responsive reaction to the environment and be sensory avoiders or they may have an under-responsive reaction and be sensory seekers, or they may have a combination of both depending on the environment and the trigger.
L has an over-responsive reaction to noise, bright lights and the general busyness of places. He has an over-responsive reaction to certain food textures, his hair being touched, certain clothing textures and brushing his teeth. Yet L is under-responsive to pain - he doesn't seek it out, although looking at all his cuts, bumps and bruises you'd think he does seek out pain, L just doesn't feel pain.
O has an over-responsive reaction to tight clothing, loud noises, textures and smells of food, brushing her hair and brushing her teeth. She also has an over-responsive reaction to pain.
How individuals react in different situations differ. Just like no two people on the autism spectrum are the same, the same can be said for SPD.
The one thing that all individuals with sensory processing difficulties have in common is that quite often they will end up in meltdown mode due to the impact of their environment.
The question begs to be asked - what does SPD feel like? Our pediatrician described it as that it isn't that O and L are being fussy, their skin literally feels like it is crawling when they encounter textures that they don't like. Or that it feels as sounds are piercing their ears when they hear them. Or that the tags on clothing feels like sandpaper on their skin. I would imagine that it would be an immense feeling of discomfort.
So what do we do to minimise the impact of these sensory issues on the little superheroes I hear you ask?
Work out what their triggers are......
We worked out very early on what triggered O and L's reactions and where possible we avoid the triggers like the plague.
One of the major issues for individuals with SPD is that they cannot go through life forever avoiding their triggers. They probably could if they wanted to go to that extreme, however that would leave them completely housebound and cut off from the world. It would be a pretty miserable way to live.
At some stage they are going to have to learn how to cope with the triggers and manage their reactions.
If we are going somewhere that we know may potentially become a trigger, we will warn the little superheroes beforehand. This is so that they can be prepared for the environment. If it is a place that we may need to visit frequently, for example a shopping centre, we will start off with short visits and lead up to spending longer periods of time in the environment. It's all baby steps!
Create a Sensory Bag.....
Both L and O have a sensory bag that contains toys, an assortment of objects and sensory tools that help them to cope no matter what environment they may encounter. One of the first sensory tools that we purchased were two pairs of block ear protectors. These go everywhere! If you did a survey of ASD families around the world, you would probably find at least one pair of block out ear protectors in each household!
All of these sensory tools are designed to occupy or distract the little superheroes so as to keep their minds off of the environment around them and assist O and L to focus on anything other than the sensory overload. Some of the sensory tools can also be used to help them concentrate in class.
Give them sensory breaks.....
Sensory breaks are also known as a sensory diet. The term is thought to have been coined by an Occupational Therapist named Patricia Wilbarger. The idea behind a sensory diet or sensory break is that an activity plan is carefully designed and personalised which provides the sensory input that a child or adult requires to stay focused throughout the day. We all need a balanced amount of sensory information in our bodies each day to allow us to work well, some individuals need more or less than others.
Throughout the day the little superheroes take sensory breaks to either escape from the environment or to increase their sensory input so that they can concentrate a little better.
I have heard of a child who does errands around the school when they need a sensory break. Their parent sent a collection of envelopes to school with the child. Each envelope was addressed with office, library, music room and so on.
Inside the envelopes were notes along the lines of - "Please read this quietly, smile at me and then send me back to class."
When the child needed a sensory break, either because they were over or under stimulated by the class environment, they were sent on various errands with an envelope around the school. Just that 5 minute break out of class was enough to get them back on track. Such a simple yet effective idea.
Give them plenty of Encouragement and Reassurance.....
It is so important to let our children know that it is okay to feel a little out of sorts in particular environments - I am sure that everyone at some stage has felt overwhelmed by the environment around them. Individuals with sensory processing difficulties feel overwhelmed on a much more regular basis.
My little superheroes need to be told that everything is okay and that they will get through it. But it is also important to me that I try to encourage them to try to tough it out for as long as they possibly can. As I mentioned earlier, they are not going to be able to go through life forever avoiding their triggers. My little superheroes need encouragement so that they can learn how to manage their reactions.
It is also vital that we don't become stressed about the little superheroes reactions when they are over stimulated or under-stimulated. Us becoming stressed is only going to add to the chaos which will then make the situation a whole lot worse.
So, if you are ever in sensory overload, stay calm and have a sensory break!