When my daughter’s sensory issues first started, I wasn’t able to see her struggles until it became too late..until we got to that meltdown moment where the overload could no longer be tolerated. When this eruption would occur she would simply have to be removed from whatever situation triggered her meltdown. But over the years, as I have learned more about SPD, I have been better able to see that before this breakdown occurs there are tons of signs along the way that warn me that a storm is brewing. I am starting to see what exactly makes her tick and what to do to counteract the overload that is going on inside of her to avoid a complete and total sensory related meltdown. And, as she gets older, I am starting to teach her to read her own sensory signs and to find proper ways to deal with them on her own.
Recently I read an article that explained a common misconception people have about Sensory Processing Disorder. Almost always, people will tell me stories about things their own kids don’t like and how, in time, their child grew out of their intolerance to certain things. And these stories constantly make me question whether or not I am reading too much into what goes on with my daughter. But this article explained that there is a vast difference between sensory “preferences” versus sensory disorder. All people have sensory preferences. I hate bright light and the smell of perfume. However, I have been able to function throughout life when met with these unpleasant sensations…they are just a couple of my many sensory preferences. My daughter’s situation is completely different. Her sensory processing deficiencies interfere with her daily life. Her overload presents itself in hyperactivity and impulsivity that make it difficult for her to function appropriately in school. She will engage in activities that are unsafe because her body is seeking out sensations to calm her overactive nervous system and this need to find calming input overrides her rational thinking. Her sensitivities to noise prevent her from going to parties or participating in certain social situations that are typical for children her age. When her nervous system is in overdrive, she becomes more emotionally sensitive. She will cry when watching TV or when listening to certain types of music, telling me that what she saw or heard was “just so beautiful.” And, when she reaches a point of total overload, she will completely and totally fall apart.
The more I learn about sensory processing, the more I understand that almost everything I find my daughter doing serves a purpose for her. Behaviors that I used to be quick to correct I now realize are being done for her own benefit. For example, hanging her head upside down off the couch was a behavior I constantly found myself correcting until recently. I was reading a daily “sensory tip” that I received from a well respected occupational therapist where she explained the benefits that inverting the head has on the nervous system. She went on to list ways in which you can receive this input and one of the things listed was hanging the head off a couch. In doing so, my daughter is seeking vestibular input, one of the areas of sensory processing where she is deficient. In the last few months I have been making a mental note of every move she makes..the way she hangs all of her body weight from our arms when we are dancing or the way she leans all of her body weight on me when we sit together watching TV. In learning more about what her body needs I have been better able to give her ways to find the input she seeks in a safe and appropriate way. So, when I find her leaning on me I cover her in a heavy blanket and the pressure from the blanket instantly calms her. I have been able to replace her putting things in her mouth by offering her gum or a lollipop. As I become more educated, she becomes more educated and I am starting to hear her ask “Can I crash on some pillows?” instead of jumping on the couch. And yes, all of this takes an extreme amount of time and effort but the end result is a calm and organized child and that is something I never thought I would see.
These days when I see my daughter in an overstimulating environment, I can immediately see the way it is effecting her. She gets quiet, something that is VERY unusual for my extra chatty little girl. She stops moving and a wave of tension washes over her body from the head down. Her face tightens and she tucks in her upper lip. Her eyes become glaze over and she stares off into space. And it is in that moment that I will now offer a break or give her some sort of sensory input to counteract her over stimulation. Sometimes we will discuss what is happening around her to try to make sense of where the noise is coming from as she finds things easier to handle if she is aware of their source. Or sometimes we will say nothing and I will just give her a chance to take some breaths, calm herself down and tell me when she is ready to expose herself to that environment again. Most times she is successful. Other times she is not so fortunate and, despite our combined effort, the environment wins. That happened just the other day when we went bowling, an activity she has done before and enjoyed. We arrived earlier than our friends and while waiting, I saw “the change.” We took a break, discussed what was going on around her, and decided that we would give it a try once our friends arrived. She did great for a while until she played a video game and lost. That minor disappointment was the trigger that tipped the bucket and, within seconds, she was flooded by her sensory overload. She screamed, gagged and bit me. She became lost inside her meltdown and any attempt to reason with her was unheard. Despite my best efforts I could not reach her. She eventually stopped moments later but I could still see in her face and body that this meltdown was not over. Sure enough, after another minor disappointment, she began again. This time she screamed at me, “This is all your fault.” My heart broke. We left moments later and she screamed all the way to the car and half the ride home. She cried at home again when we spoke about what happened and then spent the rest of the day quiet and still. While a meltdown may last mere minutes, the physical and emotional toll it takes on her lasts far longer. And I realized in that moment that while I have learned so much about SPD and how it presents itself in my daughter, I am far from an expert.
The tricky thing about SPD is that it is ever changing. Something might bother my daughter one day but not the next. Sometimes her over stimulation might make her emotions run high and other time it will cause her to bounce off the walls. Some days my daughter may feel like taking the chance to overcome a sensory challenge and sometimes she just wants to avoid it altogether. Just when I think I have her figured out, she surprises me. But what remains the same is my determination to understand it as best I can and to educate others to the fact there is more to some children’s behaviors than meets the eye. And what I am most proud of is my daughter’s determination to live life to the fullest as best she can. She is learning to embrace who she is and her confidence is growing. She is happy with who she is…and I couldn’t ask for anything more.