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Sensory Processing Disorder: Child Overloaded - The Snap Mom

Sensory Processing Disorder: Child Overloaded

We are so excited to have our dear friend, Lowe Matheson, sharing again with us. Her first article on Autism was a big hit and we have since had many requests for a follow up on Sensory Processing Disorders. Thankfully, she has stepped up to the plate to shed some light on another issue that many do not understand.


To explain sensory issues, I’d like to go back to a conversation I was having with a friend. In an exasperated state, she said “I dont mean to be rude, but I just don’t get this thing called Sensory Processing Disorder! My friend’s daughter can’t go into Target because it is too much for her, and I don’t understand that. I mean, I can feel overwhelmed when it’s crowded too, so I turn around and leave or I know it will be busy so I don’t go… and I don’t have a disorder.” I gently replied, “But that’s the difference isn’t it? That you know what’s bothering you and you know how to fix it – by leaving. A child with SPD locks up and just goes into a fight or flight mode where they can kick, scream, tantrum or just withdraw inside. They don’t comprehend what is overwhelming them and they have no way to control it. Additionally, this only happens to you or I sometimes; for a “sensory child” this happens unexpectedly and constantly in their everyday world… it has got to be very difficult.”  And I know from our own son, it can be exactly that.

Years ago we were walking into an atrium at an aquarium and I remember seeing my son freeze in the doorway. His eyes were huge, his shoulders almost to his ears, his body tight as a fiddle string and rigidly cemented to the spot blocking the door.  So I turned from him to see the dome with new eyes. It was sunbeam bright, with loud, lively children running everywhere in streaks of color and yells with their footfalls bouncing and multiplying off the glass.  I realized that to walk from a cool calm lobby into this burst of sounds and sights was a tremendous change and that although I had subconsciously prepared for it, he could not.  I bent down to him and held his hand. I gave him a huge deep squeeze hug and told him to take a deep breath. He breathed deeply and I asked him if he was ready. He nodded and squeezed down hard, bone-crackingly hard, on my hand. I watched him oh so slowly, so carefully, so bravely step foot by foot into this perceived mayhem. And I saw how the hard work and training that his Occupational Therapy gave him was helping him to deal and work through these sensory moments and move forward.  In that moment I was humbled by his bravery and I have come to think of this as his own special superpower.

So what are sensory issues?

Sensory Issues or Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition where a person’s nervous system cannot appropriately handle the information their senses are giving them. The body tends to overreact or under-react to sensory stimuli. Some examples would be… Imagine if corduroy felt like sandpaper on your skin. Or if when you put your hand on a hot stove, it took 20-30 seconds before that information was processed in your brain. Or if the hum of an overhead light was like a white noise radio turned up against your ear. Or you could hear airplanes in the sky to the point of distraction. If the sensory messages to your arms and legs where so uncoordinated that you constantly fell or had a hard time kicking/catching a ball much less picking up tiny objects with your hands. Now put all that together and think how that could affect your gross and fine motor skills. Your ability to interpret language, directions or just think. Development as a whole…This condition can be difficult to determine because children can have some or all symptoms and even be a mixture of sensory seeking/sensory avoiding. Evaluations with an Occupational Therapist help determine each individual child’s needs and the best way to help their bodies integrate.  Therapists then use “play” to help the child become more balanced with stimuli and to coordinate their body in a way that improves their motor skills.

Like our little guy when he was first evaluated; he did the strangest things. He would get into his tiny toy box and cover himself in toys to sleep. He would eat his toys but was extremely picky about food textures. Sudden loud noises would make him tremble. When his skin was dirty, he did not notice. He would run into furniture all the time.  He never seemed to feel pain and for a time was self-injurious. He watched TV upside down in a handstand on the couch (still does). And jumping… constantly, always jumping!  We learned through his OT that his sensory system was not working correctly, especially his senses of touch, hearing, vestibular (balance/spacial orientation) and proprioceptive (sense of one’s own body).  So we developed what is called a sensory diet (plan) to help give his system the information it needed – and through play! And fun! We were able to help his body integrate. The beautiful thing is, his body learned to interpret his sense signals better and his body functioned better. The best is that he started to understand when he needed more input and ask for it.  With years of therapeutic play and dedicated therapists, Caleb has learned to catch a ball, write, fasten buttons/zippers, use scissors, skip, ride a bike and play… successfully.  Now he will perform at school concerts and go into crowded areas that he would have avoided before.  And everyday we use strategies to help give his body more sensory information when needed.  We tickle and scratch his back to wake him and give squeezes/wheelbarrow walks to help him be calm. He uses a school motor room everyday to stay focused.  We have a jumping mattress and a weighted blanket for sleep.  And we indulge his need to swim and float as much as possible.  By understanding his needs, we help balance his quality of life which has helped him to grow.

 Our internal sensory system is truly integral to the way we live and understand the world. For a child to have difficulty with that is a heartbreaking way to start life.  But with the right sensory diet parents, teachers and caregivers can really help a child blossom.  Sometimes as adults, our superhero power is just being an attentive parent, and that ability can shape, grow and widen their world. Pretty awe-inspiring, eh?



 Caleb bowling and wearing noise damping headphones so it was not too loud.


This shot is from a summer camp where they wrapped him up as a “mummy” to give him proprioceptive feedback, and then turned an industrial fan on him to give him touch feedback!

Feature image photo credit: ©Magi Foster Photography for SFA 



Check out Lowe’s other article- Diagnosis: Autism


For more information on SPD check out The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation by clicking {HERE}

Standard Sensory checklist used by all OT offices




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