As we go about our day, our brains are constantly being fed information through our senses. The role of Sensory Processing is to define that information for us. For example, any sound that you hear enters your brain through the ears as sound waves. Then, based on past experiences, the brain defines that information as safe or unsafe, loud or soft, or comfortable or uncomfortable.
Only once that definition is in place can we put out an appropriate response. We run into problems when, for whatever reason, the brain is not fully or correctly processing incoming information. This is where an itchy sweater or tag is processed as ‘life-threatening’ rather than just plain old itchy. Or a sound is processed as dangerous and uncomfortable when most people would not find it offensive at all! Have you ever noticed a reaction like this in your child?
In this blog, our goal is to help parents better understand how sensory overload can affect your child, even in ways you may not realize. To discover the world’s most powerful strategies for helping your child overcome sensory challenges, check out BLOOM’s course on Sensory Processing.
Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder
There is a hidden “eighth sense” you may not be aware of. It may be presenting in your child and causing sensory issues. As it turns out, there is a real difference between sensory seeking and sensory defensiveness.
When you have a child with sensory information that’s not coming IN properly, you have behavior that doesn’t come OUT properly.
In simple terms, this is what we call Sensory Processing Disorder- or SPD.
Parenting or teaching a child with SPD can be challenging because you are dealing with difficult-to-manage behaviors that look so much like defiance, disrespect, unnecessary fussiness, aggression, etc. In reality, it's just survival.
These behaviors are a result of a mishap that occurred in the brain. Your child with SPD is not trying to misbehave, be fussy, or be difficult; they are experiencing the intensity of a moderately warm room, as you would if I put you in a sauna! They aren’t making it up; it is actually how they feel!
The problem is that treating a sensory issue with behavioral ‘treatment’ like strong discipline is like taking Tylenol to heal a broken leg. It may ease the pain somewhat, but the leg is still broken. Discipline doesn't treat incapability.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload, officially called sensory defensiveness, is when the brain is highly sensitive to incoming sensory information and therefore produces an overreaction.
Our senses include touch, sight, smell, taste, hearing, vestibular (balance and movement), proprioception (body awareness), and interoception (awareness of physical and emotional messages and sensations in the body). An adult or child that is tactile defensive is highly sensitive to any information that is transferred through the skin. Being touched lightly may seem like a full-on push, and clothing can get complicated as most items are deemed uncomfortable.
Other common challenges related to tactile defensiveness include:
-Reluctance to participate in large groups
-Objects to having stickers or any touch on the skin
-Rubs or scratches a part of the body that has been previously touched
-Difficulty tolerating grooming activities like hair brushing, teeth brushing, clipping their nails, haircuts, going to the dentist
A vestibular defensive profile will struggle with the following:
-Motion sickness- also known as ‘car sickness.”
-Dizzy or feeling nauseous after spinning, swinging, or walking on an uneven surface
-Avoiding moving the head to look up and down left and right in a fast motion
-Difficulty or unwillingness to copy from the board in the classroom because the head movement makes them lose focus
-Reluctance to participate in movement activities
-Fear of heights or stairs
-Low activity level- prefers sedentary activities like drawing, jigsaw puzzles, and crossword puzzles.
How Can You Manage Sensory Overload?
-Understand related behaviors
-Easy, fun-filled, effective home activities that can help reduce sensory challenges
-Parenting guidance that will help keep your child feeling safe, understood, and loved
Here is a snapshot of some of the activities taught to you in the toolkit:
Brushing with a natural bristle brush, coarse terry cloth, or towel- Tell the child: we are going to use either of those three items to brush or rub the skin gently. The child determines the speed of brushing or rubbing, but usually, it is medium pressure and slow speed. The areas of the body that should be focused on are the hands, arms, neck, face, legs, back, and belly.
Hand Hugs- Cup your palms so that they both fit snugly but gently around the limb you are working with. Your fingers may be interlaced or overlapping. Give firm but gentle, loving “hugs.” Squeeze gently around in at least three or four places on the forearm or leg.
The Tactile Box- Fill a storage box or bag with items of different textures. Examples: some fur, sandpaper, a sponge, a bumpy toy, a washcloth, a stress ball, a paintbrush dish scrubber, etc. Then, for as long as the child's attention is held, have her close her eyes, hold each item, and guess what it is. Another version of this activity is to choose two items of different textures and, once a day, rub your child's arms, hands, legs, back, and, if she wants it, belly, face, feet, and neck, including under the chin.
These three tools help to familiarize the child with their senses in a calm way at a pace that feels less threatening to them. Eventually, this will show the child that sensations are 'not all that evil after all.'
Helping Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder
If your child shows signs of sensory overload, they may struggle with sensory processing disorder. This means the way in which they experience the world is different from others. That’s okay! Patience and understanding of their experience are so helpful as you navigate parenting a child with SPD!
From sensory processing challenges to a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder, there are so many ways you can support your child with sensory overload. At BLOOM, our goal is to meet families at their greatest point of need with helpful and easy-to-understand resources to guide you through parenting your child.