Dried lentils in a sensory bin

It occurred to me while sitting in the hospital diagnostic lab waiting for an x-ray on the Princess: I’ve never done a post on sensory issues.

Given that sensory issues were why we were getting an x-ray in the first place, it seems appropriate to discuss what sensory needs we have and what therapies and toys help us cope and acclimate.

Going back to the x-ray thing – we were tracking the progress of a penny that the Princess swallowed.  It’s taking the scenic route but no medical emergency to worry about for now.

The Engineer is our only kid with a firm diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder.  The other two have varying degrees of sensory issues, but not to the intensity of the Engineer.  Read up on Sensual Overexcitabilities and that might give you a little bit more information to work with.  As far as I can tell, the only major difference between Sensual Overexcitability and Sensory Processing Disorder is the degree to which the sensory issues impact your life.

First, don’t take this post as fact.  There are a wide range of sensory issues and you really need a doctor and an occupational therapist to diagnose your kid.  I’m no expert, just a mom who did a lot of research and figured out how to best help my kids.

So, SPD.  The easiest explanation I can think of is that the wiring isn’t working correctly.  The signals aren’t firing correctly or the input isn’t being computed correctly.  SPD kids can be overwhelmed by things or need extra sensory input.  The Engineer is a combination of Seeking and Aversion.

Things that you and I can’t hear may be excruciatingly painful to the Engineer.  Things that don’t bother us, like sock seams, have to be just perfect or he can’t think past the irritation of seams on his toes.  He needs extra physical contact, so we do some rough play and lots of hugs and cuddles during the day.

The biggest problem with SPD is that the Engineer is in a constant state of stress.  All those missed signals put him into fight/flight mode and he’s stressed and on edge.  If you trigger him (put him in a situation where he can’t handle the sensory input) then he will break.  He will bolt from the situation or he will fight back.

A good example of fight or flight happened at church – the kids all had to hold onto the rope line on the way to the gym.  The Engineer used his coping skills and asked to hold a teacher’s hand instead, as too many people around him trigger him.  They didn’t understand him, so he bolted.  Another time he attacked (hitting and kicking) because the teacher tried to lead him back to a situation he couldn’t cope with and he panicked.

In both cases he was labeled “bad kid” even though he was trying to cope with the sensory issues.  He has trouble verbalizing his struggles and ends up looking like a non-compliant, misbehaving brat of a kid.  (he’s that too sometimes, it can be hard to tell which is which.)

When the Engineer was first diagnosed we took him to occupational therapy.  He loved it.  It did nothing for him.  We talked with an expert from the school system a few times and she gave us a lot of tips that really helped.  Between her suggestions and our research, the Engineer has progressed remarkably well!  He doesn’t even bolt out of bathrooms anymore when someone starts a hand dryer or flushes a toilet.

Our first change was a mental shift.  The Engineer wasn’t trying to act out, he just couldn’t cope.  Once we shifted our focus to helping him cope, the sensory issues became less difficult to deal with.

The second change we made was adding lots of sensory stimulation to our house.  Every possible thing we could think of or find, we did.  Some of the standard things around our house that the kids use are:

  • mini trampoline
  • crash mat (twin duvet cover filled with lots of pillows)  the mat is right beside the trampoline so that the kids can jump onto it for extra sensory stimulation.  And it’s fun!
  • sensory bins to touch and play in
  • exercise balls to roll on or bounce on
  • balance board
  • a chair that spins with a cover (from Ikea)
  • special chewy jewelry or chew sticks
  • an alone place for peace and calm: we put up a little tent with some cushions and quiet toys downstairs, away from the chaos.
  • things with lots of textures.  Balls with spikes, rugs with nubs, and so on.

We also do a lot of physical contact. If the Engineer is starting to become overwhelmed we will offer him a “squeeze:” a big bear hug with legs tucked up.  It helps center him and offers that deep pressure that he craves.

All of our kids have the oral sensory issues.  Even at 5, the Engineer chews on toys and shirts.  The Princess puts everything in her mouth at age 3, but refuses to wear chewy jewelery to help cope.  She found a penny, picked it up, and decided to taste it.  Down it went!

A lot of the stuff I listed sounds really expensive.  It doesn’t have to be.  Our sensory bins are full of natural things like dried lentils and kidney beans.  We have 3 bins, and we rotate things in and out so that the kids don’t get bored.  Right now we have lentils in one, rice in another, and pasta in the third.  The bins themselves are cheap plastic storage bins to go under beds, so they’re flat and long with locking lids.

Chewy jewelry is also fairly cheap if you make your own.  If you want the stick shapes you’ll pay a bit more, so make sure you buy the super chewer type that’s sturdy.

Exercise balls are basic cheap ones and the balance board is an exercise aid, not an educational toy (I’m looking at you, expensive Lakeshore Learning board!)  The crash mat is super cheap, as opposed to the expensive ones listed on Amazon.  It’s a great use for all those stuffed toys that you probably have everywhere.  The mini trampoline isn’t cheap, but you might be able to find a used one or a great sale at Christmas.

The biggest change we made was our attitude.  People think the tantrums and meltdowns were a misbehaving kid.  Being understanding and empathetic has helped the Engineer verbalize and cope.  If he can tell us a situation is getting overwhelming, we leave.  No fighting, no discussion, just go.  We’re not humoring him, indulging him, or pandering to him.  We’re helping him cope.

I’ll never forget the look in his eyes when I told him his teacher at church was wrong.  He was amazed that we believed him, and relieved that someone understood.  No child should have to deal with adult condemnation on top of sensory torture.





Chewy jewelery links (these links will take you to Amazon)  The Engineer loves his blue crystal, and we’ve had good luck with Ark products.  I don’t get anything for that endorsement…it’s just something that worked for us.

Let’s Talk Sensory Issues