On a recent snow day (one of many, because you know how this winter went), I was sitting at my desk working while Bee napped and Zip played outside. I stopped to look out the window at the falling snow and caught a glimpse of Zip out of the corner of my eye. There he was in the backyard, log-rolling in the snow. He rolled and rolled and rolled. He rolled all the way across the yard, snow in his face and I’m sure down the back of his jacket too. He rolled until he reached the bushes along the fence, then stood up, satisfied. And I had to smile because that is just so my Zippy.
Zip is a child in constant motion. If his mind isn’t engaged, his body is. When Zip was a preschooler, he need to touch everything. I remember wondering why he needed to touch the walls while he walked from point A to Z, or pick at my hair and clothes while we read books, or make constant noise while he brushed his teeth. Why couldn’t he just keep still? Sure, he is a kid being a kid. But these are the things that exhaust parents, aren’t they? So we reminded and then we reprimanded and then, when we got really frustrated, threatened consequences. “If you can’t keep your hands to yourself while we read, story time is over.” “Enough with the noises!!!”
A couple of months ago I attended a professional workshop on sensory processing. I thought I was going to a workshop on strategies for executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction consists of a set of interrelated skills such as planning, attention, emotional control, impulse-control, and so forth, so problems with ED often overlap with ADHD and other developmental disorders. Although my kids have neither, I figured I might still pick up some strategies that could help at home and work toward my continuing ed requirements at the same time. To my surprise, at least 75% of the workshop was about sensory processing…which in turn impacts executive functioning.
As I sat through that workshop, light bulbs kept going off in my head. I kept thinking of my boy, and realized that understanding the role of “sensory processing” can benefit any
parent, not just parents of kids with developmental delays or ADHD or autism
A little background on sensory processing
There are so many things I took away from that workshop, but one of them was the idea that some things we, as parents, label “willful behavior” may really come down to sensory processing issues.
There are lots of ways sensory processing influences into behavior. One thing that the workshop presenter described were two “sensory modulation” issues that are common in children, to varying degrees.
- Some kids are overresponsive or overly sensitive to stimuli in their environment. This sensitivity might be limited to just one sense – like being very overwhelmed by loud noises – or it might occur in multiple senses. These children may not be able to
“tune out” certain things, like an itchy shirt tag, and they may get overstimulated more quickly. When this happens, they may get so overwhelmed that they either shut down and tune out or they explode.
- Other kids are underresponsive. They need a lot more stimulation than most of us in order to function and to respond to their environment. I think of it like this: Imagine someone standing 100 feet away trying to get your attention by whispering. You don’t notice, right? The stimulation is just not enough to grab your attention – you need them to do something MORE to register in your awareness. This might be what the world-as-usual is like for an underresponsive child – what most of us would perceive as a normal level of stimulation is not enough to meet their needs. There is an interesting research finding that teenagers diagnosed with ADHD often study better with music on, whereas most people would find it distracting. If “extra” stimulation is lacking, underresponsive kids may not notice what is going on around them or they may find ways of creating that extra stimulation that their body needs, by running around, making noises, and so forth. (Could this look a lot like ADHD? Um, yeah.)
And of course these are two ends of a continuum, with some kids at the very extreme ends and kids all along the way, including the kids in the middle for whom sensory processing doesn’t pose much of an issue at all. And maybe it is possible for a child to be over- or under-responsive at times but not 24/7 (I’m not sure – I didn’t ask the presenter about this).
Back to my boys….
Does thinking about your child having a “sensory style” help explain some of her behaviors?