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Tangled Web of Nerves?

Rainbow swirl of colors

The beginning of our Make-A-Wish trip started with rumbling coming from the belly of the plane. I was nervous because this was our boys' first plane trip, and it was a long one, from California to Texas, and eventually on to Florida. I didn't know it yet, but at age 5, Sean was suffering from Sensory Processing Disorder. As soon as the plane started ascending into the air, Sean screamed, unbuckled his belt and jumped for dear life to the floor where he remained until the forces of gravity balanced and blues skies safely surrounded us.

Up to this point, Sean was unable to ride elevators, climb the stairs to a slide or swing. These activities confused his senses and he would display fearful behavior. He displayed other unusual behavior like needing hard hugs throughout the day, becoming a maniac every time I vacuumed or crying if I suggested he take a shower instead of a bath.

Sensory processing refers to the way in which the nervous system receives and perceives sensory information and responds with appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is detected when sensory signals are not properly organized or integrated. Picture tangled nerve signals like a traffic jam. When the senses are not properly interpreting incoming information, the physical response may be inappropriate.

Sometimes when Sean tried to erase a math problem on his homework paper, he would press too hard causing him to tear in a hole in the paper. This would trigger frustration that would often boil over into a meltdown. He was also suffering from Dyslexia which can cause letters and numbers to look like they are floating in space or switch directions on the paper (the letter "b" can look like a "p" or a "6" can look like a "9"). Maintaining proper behavior during the school day would wear Sean out. By homework time, he could barely work without complete frustration. So I wrote into his IEP that his math problems would be cut in half. I would address his Dyslexia a few years later.

Let's look at a quick list of symptoms you might see with Sensory Processing Disorder:

  • bumping into other kids while waiting in line

  • can't hold a pencil correctly, bad handwriting

  • trouble transitioning from one activity to another

  • can't maintain proper behavior in a room full of kids

  • unable to tolerate bright lights and loud noises

  • clothing feels scratchy or too tight

  • background noises are highly distracting

  • low muscle tone, bad posture, clumsy

  • fearful of surprise touch, avoids hugs or constant need to touch/hug

  • fearful of swings and playground equipment

  • trouble knowing where their body is in relation to other objects or people

  • trouble sensing amount of force they are using (hugging too hard, writing or erasing with too much tension)

  • does not understand personal space or boundaries

  • over-respond or under-respond to pain

  • hyperactive, fidgety, lack of focus

  • loves jumping, bumping

  • craves fast movement or spinning

  • loves being tossed in the air to

Thank goodness for being able to talk and connect to other parents. This was our only "internet" connection when Sean was young. A parent gave me a book to read by the pioneering SPD expert, A. Jean Ayers. I instantly recognized Sean's need for an evaluation. Once evaluated, he received Sensory Integration Therapy. It helped Sean on many levels, but he still needs those frequent, intense hugs and loves to bump into me as he walks by. Understanding why they act this way is helpful so you know it's not just willful behavior but a response to a neurological impairment.

Your child will be evaluated for fine motor activities such as manipulating and grasping objects using the small muscles of hands and fingers. He will be evaluated for gross motor activities to measure the movement and coordination of the large muscles of the body, postural reactions and balance.

Your child will be have his proprioceptive (vestibular) system evaluated to determine head position and movement in relation to gravity. It will determine head stability, muscle tone, postural control, balance and equilibrium reactions, as well as the development of hand/eye coordination and bilateral integration.

Your child will also be evaluated for his tactile abilities. This refers to the sense of touch on the skin. I met a woman whose young boy would scream every time she took him to the beach. After discovering he had SPD, it would discovered that the wind on his skin overstimulated his senses to cause him to overreact. He became tactile-defensive in this area causing him tremendous irritability. Many children are tactile-defensive to certain foods which my be interpreted by parents as simply a "picky eater." Other times, some children may under-react to senses, like heat or cold. I often have to feel Sean's hands in the winter to see if he's too cold because he can't sense if he is.

So now that you've discovered your child has SPD, what do you do about it? If he's had an independent evaluation, you ask for an IEP from the school (in writing of course) to request Sensory Integration Therapy with your doctor's evaluation as "proof." If you've requested the school to do the evaluation (as in our case with Sean), you meet with the school after the evaluation to determine if services are necessary. If they are (in either case), the school will provide the needed services. In our case, the school contracted with an agency off campus. They also provided his transportation to and from therapy.

Although Sean still displays some sensory issues, they no longer ruin his life. He is able to ride on airplanes, swing, climb stairs, ride elevators, and even rides roller coasters. I pray that your child will also obtain more balance with his or her senses to enjoy a richer and more fulfilling life!

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