Living with Sensory Sensitivities

By Corin Barsily Goodwin and Mika Gustavson, MFT

sensory sensitivities

"We're going to do finger painting today!” the activity leader exclaimed.

I cringed.

All the other preschool-aged kids were excited, but I knew that once my child discovered what that entailed, we’d be in for a “special moment.” I was not looking forward to a raging tantrum in front of our homeschooling friends. That left me wondering: now what? I could whisk my child away from the group, thus avoiding embarrassment, but then I would be once again removing my child and myself from the opportunity to interact with friends and, in my child’s case, practice social skills. As homeschoolers, I knew that we needed to get out and socialize, but I was frustrated because it never seemed to go as planned.

What does it mean to practice social skills? How do parents balance teaching their kids to get along with respecting their individuality—especially when their needs seem so different from what we expect? How do we decide when to encourage children to join in with socially-expected behavior, and when to wait for them to be developmentally ready? What if they’re never ready? What if the things that “everyone else” is doing causes our child discomfort? Should we insist that they try to overcome this obstacle now, or accept their current limitations, understanding they may never change?

The first step in determining how to handle this dilemma is to understand these obstacles. Is your son being contrary because he is stubborn? Is your daughter testing you? Some would claim that they are being calculating or manipulative. In fact, many kids face a conundrum: they want to do what is expected, but their brain and body get in their own way. These children may have a sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Sensory processing is what happens when your nerve endings attempt to share information with your brain. Most brains organize the information efficiently, responding in a timely and appropriate fashion. In some cases, particularly in children in the early stages of development, the brain chooses atypical organizational paths and the responses sent to the body are not socially appropriate. This may result in sensory messages being interpreted as too strong (hypersensitivity), too weak (hyposensitivity), or both. Like the volume on your mp3 player, sometimes it’s too high and sometimes too low. In a neurotypical brain, the volume adjusts automatically. In people with SPD, adjustment is a learned skill.

sensory sensitivities

Most people assume that “everyone experiences the world like I do.” Children with SPD don’t know that their perceptions are different, so it does not occur to them to articulate it, even if they could. Lacking a better explanation, they often conclude that the reason they are having trouble must be because they’re stupid.

One little girl refused to run around with other children. The adults encouraged her, assuming she was shy. It turned out that problems with her depth perception and visual tracking prevented her from joining the crowd and playing safely. Considering this, her solution was entirely sensible, yet it conflicted with her wish to play with the other children and to do what was expected of her. She wondered how other children managed this choice; on occasion her frustration spilled over into tantrums. Once her parents understood the situation, they could talk to her, explain her feelings, and arrange playdates involving fewer children. In this case, vision therapy sessions increased her comfort in more settings.

While some children have ADHD or other disorders for which medical intervention is useful or even absolutely necessary, other children may have misdiagnosed sensory processing challenges. One such child seemed inattentive and was given a litany of diagnoses, some of which required medication. This particular nine-year-old boy loved dinosaurs, but when his parents took him to the museum to see the fossils, he ran around in circles, made lots of noise, and did not pay any attention to the T-rex skeleton in the room. The parents thought the exhibit was well done: high ceilings, bright lighting, and a variety of mixed media displays running simultaneously made the dinosaurs come to life for them. Unfortunately, their son—who was found to have auditory and visual processing disorders—reacted as though someone were trying to kill him. He may actually have felt that way. His ineffective efforts to block out too much sensory input led him to crash into people and things, adding to the overload. The museum guard and other adults tried to shush him (which he was unable to process), thereby increasing his auditory over-stimulation. The parents were embarrassed and disappointed with their child; the outing had turned into an emotional disaster.

The parents decided not to take him to museums again until he could “behave properly,” hoping to elicit a voluntary change in their son’s behavior. Though his behavior was not a choice, what they really did was buy him time to develop until he could meet their behavioral expectations. While the outcome was as desired—eventually, they had outings again—the process was not benign. The parents thought the boy needed to learn to control his actions, but what he really needed was time for his neurons to catch up with his chronological development. He also needed help learning to adjust and accommodate where necessary. He finally did learn coping skills, but they were not always socially functional, leading to additional problems. Because he was bewildered by what was happening in his head, he felt like (and was sometimes treated as) a “bad kid” due to behaviors beyond his control, leading to spiraling frustration and anger with himself and his world.

Not every sensory challenge rises to the pathology of a diagnosable disorder. SPD comes in shades of gray. However, a child with neurological challenges should not necessarily be left to “develop at his own pace.” Some well-intentioned parents confuse “accepting who their child is” with refusing to acknowledge obstacles that their child faces, and that those challenges require special parenting efforts. The need for action is based on the amount of frustration faced by the child, not the adult. A ten-year-old who is not yet reading may be intensely frustrated because a) they really want to read, b) their inability prevents them from participating in other activities, and c) they wonder why they can’t do what everyone else can. Something may be “wrong” with them, but not in the way that they believe. SPD is neither a behavioral nor an academic problem; it is a neurological disorder that can be overcome or accommodated. The frustration which leads to so many negative consequences can be alleviated through information and awareness, sometimes combined with professional support. Ultimately, the child will have to overcome their challenges in order to succeed in life. The question is whether they do it later—the hard way, or whether their parent gets them help now. Fortunately, involved homeschooling parents are well-positioned to help their children overcome these obstacles.

So, what does all this mean for the parent of the child who won’t finger paint? The texture of finger paint may be too slimy for a child whose tactile “volume” is set too high and who has not yet learned modulation skills. The conflict between their need to be physically comfortable and their ability to follow simple courtesies, such as not disrupting or insulting others, can result in tantrums even for an older child. A child does not know how to walk this line; answers don’t come easily, and adult help is needed to solve these puzzles. The child may desire to make a picture, but cannot bring herself to dive in. The child’s development in this neurological area is not set at the “expected level” for their age cohort. That does not preclude ever being able to tolerate finger painting; it may, however, imply that by the time they can tolerate it, their college roommates may not appreciate their efforts.

Meanwhile, the parent of our reluctant artist feels judged by other parents, who think the kid odd or in need of more discipline. Making good parenting decisions is difficult when you feel flustered and under a microscope, especially when you don’t actually understand the problem. Many parents respond by getting mad at their child for being uncooperative. They may feel powerless or try to explain their child’s behavior, when what they should do first is remove the pressure from the confused and conflicted child. Next, the parent should consider whether this situation is worth negotiating right then, or whether they should try again later. Most important, the parent needs to realize that their choice must be based on the needs of the child—not a reaction to social pressure or expectations. Children look to their parents to be their anchor. Even if what you believe is best at this moment goes completely against all of that parenting advice you heard, taught, or read, what matters is the human being in front of you and what they need right then.

Indeed, even homeschooled children find themselves in situations where they are expected to conform. In the early years, activities may be arranged to accommodate their needs. As time passes, and their needs conflict with those of other family members, it gets more complicated. Families find themselves performing a balancing act, seeking compromise whenever possible. Going out in public may become a challenge involving more strategic planning than a shuttle launch! Parents need to think ahead by bringing snacks, games, and extra adults, or even curtailing the event and going home.

Understanding these issues is paramount; so is getting emotional support. Advocating for your child’s needs in a world of grouping by age, averages, and expectations can be challenging. Realizing your child may not share your love of riding on rollercoasters or attending live performances may be disappointing. Facing the disapproval or judgment of others who say you are coddling your child, or who claim a diagnosis is an excuse rather than an explanation, makes holding your ground require more effort. We all hope our loved ones will rally to the cause, but sometimes we have to seek out a different kind of support. Numerous online communities offer such support; you don’t have to go it alone.

Sensory challenges do not always require professional intervention. They do, however, require compassion and a willingness to work with the child to make the world a less scary place.

Resources for understanding and mitigating sensory processing disorders can be found at 2e Resources.

Definitions 

The body has six sensory processing systems:
tactile -- touch & texture (includes oral)

  1. visual -- how the eyeballs and brain interact
  2. auditory -- how the ears and brain interact
  3. olfactory -- smell
  4. vestibular -- movement
  5. proprioceptive -- where your body is in space (positional)

 Corin Barsily Goodwin is the Executive Director of Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Mika Gustavson, MFT lives in the Silicon Valley and specializes in gifted and 2e children and families.  Corin Barsily Goodwin and Mika Gustavson, MFT are co-authors of Making the Choice:When Typical School Doesn't Fit Your Atypical Child and Writing Your Own Script: A Parent's Role in the Gifted Child's Social Development

This article was originally written for the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC) newsletter, California Home Schoolers. It is used here with HSC's permission.

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