Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sensory Processing: Every Day a New Challenge

So, lets get down to it. My son has a non-diagnosed sensory processing disorder. Non-diagnosed just means he doesn't have a diagnosis code yet. His disorder is called sensory modulation disorder with an oral fixation. Sounds complicated, I know, but it really isn't. In basic terms, when it comes to his mouth, his brain can't understand and apply information the same way we do. Toddlers his age (20 months) usually imitate right and left, probably to the great delight and at times frustration of their parents. My son sees something done, mom saying 'hi,' and his brain sees or understands something else, so he repeats 'goaw' or some other unintelligible phrase or sound. This applies to all sorts of things for kids with SPD, but my son's is specifically an oral problem. He is also obsessed with his mouth, making noises, putting things into his mouth, often things he shouldn't, like his entire fist for example. It is also a problem when he is eating. He loves it when things are in his mouth so much, he doesn't know how to pace himself when eating say, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or chicken nuggets. I cannot give my son chicken nuggets whole, rather I have to cut them into bite-sized pieces and offer him a fork to feed himself. He needs to do just about everything himself. Some of you may not think that is too terrible, but imagine watching your 9-month-old baby shove so many cheerios into his mouth that he starts gagging and choking and while choking continues to shove more cheerios into his mouth. That is quite an unsettling sight, let me tell you. So to recap, SPDs have to do with the way a child's or person's brain understands the information it is given, causing them to have developmental delays or learning challenges, or both.

So, what works? I mentioned cutting the chicken nuggets. I do the same with almost all sandwiches. I monitor, very closely, how much he has in his mouth. He is accustomed to this and knows to open up when I say "show me your mouth," or something similar. I also allow him to freely eat things that I know are good for him, usually crunchy snacks like cereal, chips, crackers or crunchy non-sugary cookies like arrowroot or shortbread. He also is allowed a pacifier at night to help him sleep. His developmental therapist has also given us a lot of great suggestions which, so far, are working very VERY well. Here are a few of my favorites:
  • Rocking in a rocking chair
  • Rocking on the floor: place the child's feet on the shins of your crossed legs and hold their hands while you rock back and forth and sing a song like "Row, Row your Boat"
  • Wrap the child in a heavy blanket, or tightly in a thin blanket or sheet
  • Set up a tent with sheets, blankets and books in the living room
  • Make cookies, the repetitive motion of mixing is calming for SPD kids
  • Helping with household chores; give the child a rag to 'help' dust or wipe off the table. My toddler helps me move laundry into the dryer, microwave his food, 'sweep' the kitchen floor, etc.
  • Bear hugs, or a hug sandwich. If you have two parents at home, have one parent hold the child and hug the other with the child smooshed in between. This is oddly soothing, and is especially helpful for us during tantrums or other times of emotional stress when our toddler needs to calm down. We also squish him behind our back on the couch. He LOVES this and often pulls us back to squish him again and again
  • Bath time is especially treasured for our son. There is something soothing for him about the water.
  • Chew toys (yes, they make these for kids too, not just dogs) just Google Chew Stix or Chewy Tubes
What doesn't work? Traditional parenting techniques that punish the child's need for stimulation. My son needs oral stimulation to maintain a calm and non-panicked state of mind and body. Punishing him for throwing fits too often without allowing him the stimulation that he needs is a lot like punishing your dog for chasing a cat or chewing on the furniture. These behaviors aren't acceptable, but the dog doesn't know any better, and he needs to be stimulated in a way that will replace that bad behavior with an acceptable one, i.e. chew toys, dog bones, chasing a Frisbee or a ball. You get the idea. Redirection is a KEY parenting technique, and when it is done right (you'll know because your child will respond better on a regular basis) the results can be astounding. So find what works for your child, and don't forget to share in a comment below!

There are a lot of great resources online for information on other sensory processing disorders and help for those of us who struggle to parent one (or more) of these children. Check out these websites:

The Sensory Processing Foundation:
The Sensory University:
The Spiral Foundation:

Or check with your local county's early intervention program (kids under 3) or your state department of health's child development clinic.

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