Sensory issues were new to me when my son Liam got an autism diagnosis at age 3. When his occupational therapist gave me Carol Kranowitz's fantastic book The Out-of-Sync Child, I learned Liam's overstressed sensory system might be causing many of his behaviors. It was a life-changing realization. I had the chance to speak with Kranowitz recently, and I'm excited to share a bit of her wisdom here.
1. Let's start with the basics: What is sensory processing disorder?
Difficulty in the way the central nervous system takes in, organizes, and uses sensory messages from one's body and from the environment. The brain-behavior connection is very strong, so when the brain (at the head of the central nervous system) reacts in unusual ways to ordinary sensations, the person's behavioral responses will be ineffective. SPD interferes with movement, emotions, attention, relationships, and doing what one wants to do.
2. How did you get started working with and writing about "out-of-sync" kids?
I taught music, movement, and drama to preschoolers for 25 years, and I wondered and worried about children who seemed to be "out of sync." To help them become more competent in their work and play, I studied sensory processing and sensory integration ("SI") theory. I learned to identify my young students' needs and steer them into early intervention.
3. What advice would you give to a parent who thinks their child has SPD?
- Find a pediatric occupational therapist who uses a sensory integration approach in her practice. You can find an OT practicing OT-SI at www.spdfoundation.net.
- Pediatricians may not know to suggest this kind of treatment, so if a doctor can't or won't help, don't be discouraged. Doctors need a lot of educating. Also, keep in mind that while SPD is a neurological disorder, most neurologists do not know what to do about it.
- Read, read, read! Along with my books these are also great resources: Sensational Kids, bt Lucy Jane Miller, and Raising a Sensory-Smart Child, by Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske.
- Be assured that you are not alone. There are thousands of families like yours. You can join or start a parent support group (SPDfoundation.net has info on finding one or starting one).
- Put on imaginary "sensory goggles" and ask yourself: What sensations (touches, sounds, etc.) may be putting your child on overload? Can you minimize them? Lower the sensory load by dimming the lights, turning down the TV volume, not bringing fresh lilacs into the house...
What sensations may your child NOT be getting that he or she really needs? (such as movement, fresh air, the taste of healthful foods) Some kids, with or without SPD, need a lot of vigorous activity every day. Everybody needs to stretch and move around for about 10 minutes out of every hour. Lack of movement may be making the child fidgety, inattentive, irritable, and out of sync. Can you maximize sensory experiences for the child who needs them?
4. What are some ways to help children and parents better live with SPD?
- Get your child moving and go outdoors, everyday. Swimming pool, sandbox, swing set. Walk the dog, jog to the corner.
- What is your child's passion? Go with it! Dinosaurs? Make an obstacle course in the back yard featuring dinosaurs' habitats. The wading pool becomes an ocean, the mud puddle a swamp, the sandbox a desert, etc. Make Dinosaur salad. Build Dinosaur skeletons with ice cream sticks and toothpicks. Honor passion wherever you find it — and make it sensory fun.
- Limit electronics. Sitting in front of computers or video games is bad for vision, posture, gross-motor development, social development, communication skills, and I could go on and on. Electronics engage two senses (visual and auditory). We have eight senses. Let's use them all!
- Make sure the child gets sufficient sleep. Children should wake up in the morning refreshed, without an alarm clock.
5. How would you suggest helping children get over frightening sensory experiences?
It depends on the experience, but here are some examples that parents can draw from. Is your child is afraid of going to the playground? Being amidst lots of moving, shouting kids can be overwhelming, so go to the playground in the early morning or late afternoon when it isn't crowded. Stay close to your child. Bring a ball with you.
Is your child over-responsive, tending to avoid ordinary playground fun? Let him sway on the swing on his tummy, or clamber back and forth over the edge of the sandbox a dozen times, or duck into the little house and just sit there for a while.
Is your child a sensory craver, always seeking new, exciting and maybe dare-devilish activity? Let her swing high, but not for too long. Let her dig and get muddy in the sandbox. Let her slide headfirst down the slide and be there to catch her!
Get a therapy ball and gym mat and practice movement experiences at home. There are many ways to gently get a child comfortable with being a little off balance, or moving a little bit in new directions.
Trying a new food?
Start with putting one small floret of broccoli on the plate. Your child doesn't have to touch it. Next week, she does have to touch it. The next week, she needs to bring it to her lips. Then, kiss it. Then place it in her mouth.
Being hugged and kissed by a relative?
Squeeze your child yourself, really really tight, before Grandma comes. Rub the child's arms and legs with sponges and washcloths to desensitize the skin. Have the child shove furniture around, vacuum the rug, or suck applesauce through a straw to get some calming proprioceptive input. Think "calm," especially before a transition or an exciting event.