Sensory processing difficulties are a common concern for children with neurodevelopmental differences, but they are also characteristic of children who are gifted or who are considered twice exceptional (having a disability and an exceptional ability/giftedness).
Sensory difficulties can present as differences in how intensely the child processes the sensory information; differences in their ability to filter out extraneous sensory information; differences in how easily overwhelmed and disorganized they become with sensory input; and/or differences in how much sensory input they are seeking. Often there is a combination of these difficulties, and they may change across time. Pediatric occupational therapists specialize in identifying and treating sensory conditions in children.
In our family we have a very personal experience with sensory challenges. More than seven years ago our family began a lifetime educational course on sensory processing difficulties. Our son, whom we lovingly refer to as Mr. Sensory, was born with significant sensory differences from other children. When Mr. Sensory was born, unlike his siblings, he appeared uncomfortable when rocked, cuddled, or hugged. He couldn’t tolerate change, transitions, or ambiguity. He seemed “allergic” to every food he ate and mealtimes were generally a source of distress for him. If any sound or light changed when he was eating or playing, it was overly distracting to him.
Mr. Sensory was such a conundrum as a preschooler because he was social, bright, and musically talented, but when he turned three his sensory difficulties became even more pronounced. Our daily lives were peppered with his sweet charm, his kernels of brilliance, his rigid inability to tolerate change or transitions, and his superhero sized meltdowns and tantrums. These appeared related to sensory overstimulation, anxiety, or fatigue.
As his sensory characteristics became more pronounced, we became a little wiser about what sensory situations to avoid, what type of stimulation would overwhelm him, and what type of stimulation would anchor, calm, and organize him. Some of our early efforts included:
• Unexpected or loud noises were often a source of stress for him. He was afraid to flush the toilet due to the noise, yet he begged to go to tractor pulls (which if you don’t know are very loud)! So we took him but with sound cancelling headphones. We also avoided bathrooms with automatic flushers and loud fans.
• Hugging him unexpectedly would overwhelm him, so we made sure to invite him for a hug rather than surprise him with one. And, we also found that heavy and hands-on work would calm his tactile overstimulation, such as using play-doh or helping us work around the house.
• He was very overwhelmed by visitors within the home, which would cause him great stress. However, we noticed that he would be calmed by wearing a costume, so we modified his room to give him easy access to costumes when company/family was over.
• We made sure sleep was well regulated and we kept his sleep routine as consistent as possible. We also continued daytime naps for as long as possible.
We were excited when Mr. Sensory started preschool at age four. However, his preschool and kindergarten teachers noted, just like we had seen at home, Mr. Sensory was smart but ruled by the sensations around him. Unfortunately, those sensations had little to do with letters, numbers, or the other academic things. He appeared bombarded and easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation that to us was barely noticeable. The kids in the classroom overwhelmed him, and he did better in an individual setting than in the whole classroom setting.
During his kindergarten year we had his first pediatric occupational evaluation. Mr. Sensory’s OT therapist identified significant sensory hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. Therapeutic services were initiated with the OT as well as through the school. We continued our home modifications, began sensory enrichment at home, enrolled him in adaptive tumbling (which he loved!), and began a home listening program called “Integrated Listening Systems” (iLs) at home and school.
We continued this combination of services, strategies, and modifications this past year. Since that time Mr. Sensory went from being unable to complete a single jumping-jack due to coordination difficulties to being able to do 20! He no longer expresses distress at loud/unexpected noises, and now asks us to sing to him at night (Yeah!). And, most poignantly to us, he has even started asking to be rocked at night. (It only took us seven years to get there, but we will take it!)
It has been quite a journey over the past seven years with Mr. Sensory, but we wouldn’t change a thing. He is not the same as other children but that doesn’t make him less — it just makes him exceptionally unique. Mr. Sensory has been and continues to be the best teacher about sensory challenges, and with the help of his home and school team, although there will likely still be obstacles in our path, we are proud of how far he has come and are feeling hopeful about his future.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Huffman
Originally published by Dr. Huffman in Healthy Cells Magazine, May 2, 2015
Published with permission from "Mr. Sensory"