You are sensational – and so is your child. You are a sensational being – one who moves through this world exploring and responding with all of your senses. You see shapes with your eyes, and through touch and position sensors in your fingers you register that you have just picked up a ball. Other sensors tell you how heavy it is, and how much muscle strength is needed to take hold. Your movement and joint sensors determine how to coordinate all the parts of your body so you can shift weight, keep your balance, and draw your arm back to send the bowling ball hurtling toward the pins. You are aware of the aroma of freshly popped popcorn and the excited chatter going on in the lane next to you. Somehow, you are able to take in all this sensory information, sift through it and extract only the important information, focus on your goal (a strike!) and fine-tune all of your responses. This is Sensory Processing at work.
Sensory Processing is like a computer: information goes in (input), the computer makes sense of it (processing), and something happens (output). Most of the time, Sensory Processing takes place on an automatic level without much thought. But what happens when that sensory input, processing or output are “out of sync”? Dr. Lucy Jane Miller, a well-known researcher in the field, describes Sensory Processing Disorder like this: “Children with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) experience touch, taste, sound, smell, movement and other sensations differently from typical children. Some feel sensations more intensely, others feel them less intensely, and some just don’t get sensory information “right” – “up” feels the same as “down,” or a penny feels the same as a button.” Some children are under-sensitive to sensory experiences. They need more information and are slower to react. Some are over-sensitive to sensory input – easily “overloaded” and quick to respond. We all have ways of coping to keep our sensory systems in balance, things that we do to feel satisfied and comfortable. We differ in how quickly and how strongly our brains respond to sensory information (how “fast” our computer is, to use the above analogy). These reactions to sensory experiences and attempts to cope can easily be misunderstood as misbehavior. When daily routines and relationships fall out of alignment as a result, then we need to put on our “sensory glasses”. Could difficulties with Sensory Processing be at the root of daily life challenges? Let’s start by looking at four different “sensational” behavior patterns and how each impacts something that is very important to daily life: sleep.
Have you ever noticed that four different people doing the same activity in the same room can have entirely different responses? Dr. Winnie Dunn, an Occupational Therapist and author of The Sensory Profile assessments, describes four types of “sensational” people: the Bystander, the Seeker, the Sensor and the Avoider.
The Bystander can “miss the world going by”. He needs more sensory information in order to respond. You might need to call his name loudly several times before he looks up from his play. He becomes easily hyper-focused on something of interest – important information doesn’t “register” and he can make mistakes as a result. Social situations are challenging when he misses subtle social cues, such as how close he should stand to his friends. At bedtime, he can get “off track” and need reminders to do routine jobs. Mornings are frustrating as you try and rouse him enough to eat, get dressed and out the door to school. Your Bystander child needs extra movement built into his morning to “wake-up” his brain. At night, a picture sequence of his routine will help to keep him on track.
The Seeker lives life intensely and wants MORE taste, smell, sound, touch and movement. She is always looking for new experiences. Often her search for “more” disturbs others around her, interferes with her focus and affects her productivity. She needs lots of physical activity during the day to “fill her tank”. As your Seeker child moves into the evening, she may need more time to “wind down”. Home chores that challenge her to use her “big” muscles (like carrying a basket of laundry for you) and bear hugs will help her calm and settle. A picture sequence of her bedtime routine will help her stay focused. Seeker children often prefer bedding with added texture, such as flannel sheets, or stuffed animals with parts fingers can fiddle with.
The Avoider “wants more of the same and nothing else”. He is most comfortable when he can control his world and keep it predictable. Sometimes he may seem “stubborn” and “rigid” in his attempt to impose order on other people. To your Avoider child, change is threatening, because it means he will be exposed to new sensory experiences. If change is introduced in smaller doses, he is able to cope more successfully. He will often do well with an uncluttered, quiet and dark bedroom, with white noise to muffle other sounds as he goes to sleep. You can set up a small “cave” space in his room, where he can burrow into a pile of pillows. The firm pressure from being tucked in firmly with his sheets and blankets can help calm his system. In the morning, your Avoider may need more time to get ready so he can move at his own pace.
The Sensor is in tune with everything going on around her, and has a hard time ignoring sensory experiences. She notices and tells you about EVERY detail, and can be easily distracted or overwhelmed. Like the Avoider, your Sensor child looks for control over her world and is very specific about what should happen next. Rules make her feel more secure. She often prefers structure to her day. As she moves into bedtime, a predictable routine will help her relax. Use her picture sequence to tell her what is coming next, or to warn her of any changes. Give her more time to wind down and talk about her day. Massage in cream after her bath with slow, firm strokes. Keep her room free of distractions and dark. White noise will help her screen out unwanted sounds.
As a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, I screen for sensory differences in my work with tired families. If you suspect that your child may have a Sensory Processing Disorder, contact your local Pediatric O.T. for further assessment. Excellent reading resources include Living Sensationally by Winnie Dunn, Sensational Kids by Lucy Jane Miller and The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz.
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