As a baby, I had colic. I would cry no matter what my parents did. As a toddler, I would rip my clothes off, screaming and thrashing until I was free from them. As a child, I became quickly overwhelmed. By lights, sounds, smells. By groups of people. I wouldn’t eat most foods. I would only sit in certain seats at restaurants. I would have meltdowns on a daily basis.
What my parents and I didn’t know then was that all of this was linked to my sensory processing. Beginning when I was a child in the 80s, and throughout my young adult life, doctors would nonchalantly say I had sensory overload, but it wasn’t until I was 35 that I was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD).*
While my parents and I naturally did some things to help with my sensory processing, looking back, these are 10 things we wish we would have known:
Get help. Take your child to see an occupational therapist (OT) and get a sensory diet started as soon as possible. An OT will be able to understand which parts of the nervous system your child’s sensory difficulties stem from, help her understand how her body reacts to sensory information and give you things you can do with her at home to help her engage her senses. Also, find a psychotherapist who will help you and your child understand her unique way of thinking.
Establish routines, avoid interruptions to the routine when possible and give her the option of completing one or more tasks within her routines. For example, while I can only complete one task at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed, someone who is sensory-seeking may need to complete multiple tasks at once to avoid getting underwhelmed. Also, help your child to manage expectations for future events and to plan ahead: what she will eat, what she will wear, where she will sit, etc. There is less chance of a meltdown if she can stick to routines, has an idea of what to expect and can feel prepared.
Give your child alternative ways to communicate when speaking is not an option for her. Even if she usually speaks, she may not be able to when her processing is difficult. You could use pictures, establish gestures, learn sign language together, or if she’s old enough, allow her to write or to text.
Realize your child will get overstimulated easily and will need to engage with her senses in order to reset and to avoid a meltdown. For example, when I’m overstimulated, I need to close my eyes and breathe deeply, apply pressure to a part of my body such as my hands, smell my lavender essential oil, listen to music and drink cold water through a straw. All without anything further stimulating me.
Create a safe sensory environment for your child at home. This may mean incorporating more or less sensory stimuli (depending on what your child’s sensory needs are) and having a place she can go to control the sensory stimuli on her own. For example, I need a place to go where I can be alone, use my weighted blanket, and have it quiet, dark and odor-free in order to reset my senses.
Encourage movement and exercise to help with your child’s arousal levels. For example, I’ve had a small trampoline since I was a child that I can jump on when I’m overstimulated, or over-aroused. I also do handstands and yoga to help calm my system and to help myself process.
Ask your child what she, he, they need and never assume you know what is best. This will be hard as a parent, I’m sure, but children with sensory difficulties know what they can’t tolerate even if they can’t explain why. For example, I have a difficult time being around people for extended periods of time, but as a child, I didn’t know this. I simply knew I needed a lot of time alone.
Determine what foods your child can tolerate and don’t try to force foods she can’t. While this becomes a challenge when trying to get her to have certain nutrients, if you understand what she will and will not eat, it can help you know what to try. For example, as a baby, I wouldn’t eat meat. Even if my parents hid it in my mashed potatoes, I would spit it out, so they started giving me vegetarian forms of protein instead. Also, keep snacks with you for when overstimulation causes her blood sugar levels to drop.
Buy tagless clothing and seamless socks made with natural fabrics, and when you find something your child will wear, stock up. That way, she has the option to wear the same thing every day. For example, I wear the same cotton leggings and cotton shirts or dresses every day, so I buy them in bulk so I always have a clean set to grab.
Celebrate your child’s strengths. Children with sensory processing difficulties can feel like everything is a weakness, which can lead to poor self-esteem. Understand that your child’s sensory processing is part of her unique way of thinking and that she has many gifts to offer.
*Since there is currently not a diagnostic code for SPD for adults in the DSM or in the ICD, my doctors use, “disorder of the central nervous system, unspecified,” code G969.