5 things that children with sensory issues can't handle

You may be hearing more about sensory processing disorder (SPD) in the news these days - in fact, I just read an article in The Washington Post. It's the first time I've seen the issue discussed in a higher-profile media outlet. SPD is the label used for people who have abnormal reactions to sensory input (sight, sound, touch etc.)

Despite a recognition of the problems that people with SPD face, it has not been included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM-5.) Parents of children struggling with sensory processing issues have a tough time getting pediatricians and other healthcare workers to take their worries seriously.

Although I'm not an expert, my daughter has certainly struggled with her share of sensory processing issues (or as I call them, SPI). You might read these and say "well, my child has trouble with these too!" The difference is that a child with SPI will react abnormally - their distress will be that much bigger, that much louder, and that much more difficult for the parents to handle. When it starts interfering with their daily lives, that's when it's time to seek help.

Every child is different, but here is a list of 5 things that my child has trouble processing, and the ways in which we've dealt with them. (Note: if you are concerned about your child, please get in touch with your family doctor - the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario has a wonderful handout for parents concerned about SPI: Children and Youth With Sensory Processing Issues.)

1. Automatic Flush Toilets: you can also lump automatic hand dryers in here - the newest wave of these devices are not only powerful but LOUD. A child with SPD will often overreact to the noise of the toilet/dryer, as well as the unexpected flush that occurs when they're in the middle of doing their business.

Parenting Tip #1: carry post-it notes in your bag. Paste one over the sensor before your child sits down. This will ensure the toilet does not flush until they're ready!

2. Socks: children with SPI generally have trouble with clothing - the feeling of the fabric on their skin, the tightness of the clothing and tags. And for socks, the "bumps" that the child feels due to the seam.

Parenting Tip #2: always make sure to buy 100% cotton when it comes to any type of clothing. For socks, turn them inside out so the bumpy seam is not felt as much. Try many different brands of socks to find the ones that are smoother and well-made. And don't fight your child if they choose to wear Crocs instead, unless safety is a problem. If the problem is happening at school, make an appointment with your child's teacher to see if sandles can be worn inside instead of socks and runners. And as a last resort, my daughter loves wearing running shoes without socks!

3. Car rides: my daughter was always notorious for barfing in the car. She still gets carsick on the shortest of rides. She is also distressed by the noise (if the windows are open) and the speed of the moving vehicle (she hates highways). Although these issues often get better with time, I found the worst age was under 4 - she screamed bloody murder on every car ride!

Parenting Tip #3: if your child can handle it, make sure their window is open a crack. This allows for fresh air to get in and help with motion sickness. We have found mint gum to be extremely helpful - my daughter chews this in the car and it helps with her tummy. Try to keep trips to a minimum, and consider the alternatives - biking, buses or train rides. We've found my daughter enjoys trains and buses immensely, as she has freedom of movement.

4. Sitting: children with SPI are often diagnosed with ADHD. They have trouble sitting still, and need constant movement. You may notice that they rock back and forth in their chairs all the time, and are constantly jumping up and moving during reading, writing or crafts. 

Parenting Tip #4: make sure your child has LOTS of time to be active. The Washington Post article that I linked to points to the decline in free playtime as one of the possible culprits for SPI. While I personally don't agree with this, I DO think children are not getting enough free time to run and jump outside as they once did. If it's possible for your family, consider alternative forms of education (Waldorf, Montessori, homeschooling). If not, make sure your child is in an active sport (soccer is great, as well as gymnastics.)

5. Active play: of course, the opposite can be true for children with SPI - they are the Masters of Extreme Behaviour. You may notice your child becomes TOO active in a setting where there are lots of children, loud noises and a lot of excitement (think gym class, or a birthday party!) Although children with SPI have trouble sitting still, they desperately need quiet time to recharge their batteries, or they go on sensory overload.

Parenting Tip #5: create a "relaxation nook" designated for your child only. Place a few special books in there, some pillows and a stuffie. Use a small tent or build a little blanket "fort." Let your child enter that space as often as possible. If you find your child can't be alone, make it big enough for a parent to enter as well. Put on relaxation music, and apply deep pressure to your child's body - they often love massages on their arms, legs and backs.

At 6, my daughter has come a LONG way from the baby and toddler years. I don't think we'll ever get a diagnosis of SPD (and we're not seeking one), as she is highly functioning and does well at school, but I'm constantly needing to be creative in supporting her reactions to sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. Some days I fail miserably, and other days we rock! 

Does your child have sensory processing issues? What's your #1 tip?