By Sharla Orren
The roar of the big crowd. The smell of hot dogs. The sound of whistles to announce fouls. The sound of buzzers to announce the ends of quarters. The loud music. The bright lights. Oh, the excitement of a basketball game! What fun it is for everyone. Or is it? I am sitting here in shock that we were able to attend a championship basketball game—and that my son was able to play.
The reason I am shocked is because my son, Cash, was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) at a young age. At that point in his life there was no way he would have been able to function with the noise, smells, and people at a basketball game.
According to Ascent Children’s Health Services, “Sensory processing (or sensory integration) is the way in which the central nervous system of the body receives messages from the senses of the body and uses that information to act in appropriate motor or behavioral responses. Sensory processing disorder (also known as sensory integration dysfunction) is a condition in which the sensory signals received by the central nervous system do not become organized into an appropriate response.”* Occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, compared SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.
Sensory processing disorder can affect one sense or many different senses. In my work with children who had SPD, I have seen various reactions. One child I worked with would throw up if his feet touched grass and some children would scream if noises got too loud. Other children would be unresponsive to elements such as heat, cold or pain. Children with SPD may also have issues with their joints and muscles, impairing posture and motor skills. A child who has SPD may find it challenging to do normal daily activities such as eating, reading, or playing.
We first realized that Cash had strange issues at a very early age. He would gag if he was introduced to food with a texture unfamiliar to him. He would cry when there were loud sounds, booms, music, etc. You would think with my experience working with children who had SPD, and with my specialized training, that as soon as my own child began to exhibit signs of this behavior I would have known what was wrong. For some reason I did not.
The issues gradually got worse. While most kids enjoyed running through sprinklers or playing with water guns, these things made Cash cry. He hated it. Seeing fireworks was always a horrible experience. We did not realize the bright flashing lights and loud noises were actually hurting him.
I suggested that we visit a Pediatric Neuropsychologist. It was there that he was diagnosed with SPD as well as a few other issues. The Pediatric Neuropsychologist told us several things that we could do to help Cash with his sensory processing disorder. He also referred us to an Occupational Therapist. Now that Cash is older, he has tried to come up with coping skills that make his difficulties less noticeable to his peers.
Some Things You Can Do to Help SPD
Change your child’s diet. When we changed what Cash ate, he was better able to cope with some of the sensory issues. He tries not to eat things with artificial dye, high fructose corn syrup, or dairy. He also limited his amount of gluten.
Have a schedule and know what to expect daily. We have a daily rhythm / routine that we try to follow. When he was younger we made a chart with pictures for the routine and this helped him to be more independent. Now that he is older, he can use a calendar and checklist to help him know what his day will consist of. Trying to talk about where we are going and what might happen when we get there also seems to help calm the anxiety.
Have various essential oils to smell. We have a lot of various oils in our house. Cash said that smelling any of them helps to calm him when he is on sensory overload. He likes to diffuse them in his room, wear them on a diffuser necklace, or wear them on a leather bracelet.
Send your child to a quiet area. If we are in a place where there are lots of people, he will sometimes go to a quiet corner or area to be by himself for short periods of time.
Offer something to chew on. Gum is discreet and works really well.
Have ear putty to help with noise. The ear putty that swimmers use has been great for him to use when we go see fireworks or go to the movies. I urge him to keep it for other times when things may get unexpectedly loud.
Provide something for his/her hands to do. Sometimes he really needs to just squeeze something with his hand, so he carries a small stress ball in his pocket that he can throw and squeeze.
Talk about any new sensory problems that arise. We like to work through sensory processing issues as a family and try to come up with solutions together. Just letting him know that we are all here for him and that we can work together as a team really helps calm the anxiety of SPD.
Give your child more input on extracurricular activities. I will admit that I was shocked but proud when he told me that he wanted to try basketball. I was worried, thinking about what would happen the first time the referee blew the whistle. But he handled it! Another activity he has figured out he likes is gardening. He says gardening is calming, quiet, and peaceful. He also enjoys the smells of gardening: the dirt, the grass, and the plants.
He is currently writing a book for kids with the hope that it will help them cope with the various sensory issues they have. Many times when he would be going through a struggle, he would say, “Mom, I am going to get through this issue so I can write about it in my book and encourage other kids.” He created a hero named Sensory Man and there will be lots of villains. The villains will be personifications of things such as sound, heat, light, and touch. In these stories, Sensory Man must find a way to handle the villains so that he can save the day. Cash is hoping this book will provide a positive way for kids to view their SPD.
As I stare at the second-place trophy he received with his basketball team, I want to always remember that it means so much more than what it looks like on the surface. Not many know all the issues that we have been through to get to this point. But we know how far Cash has come, and we know that Cash will be able to make it through the next obstacles in SPD that he might face in the future.
Sharla Orren recently moved with her family to a small historic city in Arkansas, where her husband just became the minister of a congregation there. She loves homeschooling her two boys, ages 12 and 8. She also enjoys blogging at, http://www.lookatwhatyouareseeing.com in which she writes about homeschooling, natural living, homemaking, and time management.