Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder
What is Sensory Processing Disorder? Well, good thing you asked because I’m sharing all about it!
a little backstory…
My 19-month-old daughter was recently diagnosed with moderate/severe autism about two months ago. In addition to autism, she was also diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, which I already kind of figured.
Shay has always been slightly put off by touch. Not terribly, but there are definitely hot spots where she absolutely hates being touched such as her head, hands, and feet. As you can imagine, self-care is extremely difficult and almost impossible in the areas of washing her hair, and clipping her finger and toenails.
As I was watching my infant turn into a toddler, I began to notice certain behavioral traits and aspects that caused some concern. The first being the day she began to hit her head repeatedly to the point of bruising. As I was waking up one morning, I look over and see her hitting her head on her crib and rushed to pick her up to get her to stop. At that moment I had a slight thought that something wasn’t right but I would just keep an eye on her.
I started to notice repetitive behaviors. She was constantly spinning in circles until she would fall over and continue doing it until she could finally stop and move on to another repetitive stimulation like pacing, flapping her hands, rocking side to side, or running into the barriers of her play area.
At first, I thought maybe she had ADHD because she was so hyperactive and she just could not sit still. She was constantly moving. Unless she was asleep, she was moving and fidgeting.
The main indicator that had me calling the doctor was Shay would never look or respond to her name and she never made eye contact. That paired with extreme mood swings, tantrums and she couldn’t self regulate, it was time to call and start the process of assessments.
Long story short, she was diagnosed, and here we are.
what is sensory processing disorder though?…
So, in addition to her Autism diagnosis, she was also diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder as I mentioned above. So, what does that mean?
Well, according to Star Institue, Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD (originally called Sensory Integration Dysfunction) is a neurological disorder in which the sensory information that the individual perceives results in abnormal responses.
Common traits that pertain to Shay is that she puts everything in her mouth, in addition to hyperactivity, clumsiness, bumping into things, and resisting certain touch.
Other commonalities can be resisting anything of the senses such as textures, smells, light sensitivity, loud noises, touch, fabrics of clothing, etc.
Some children might have an adverse reaction to a certain sound causing them to be ill. Others might scream when being touched. The brain confuses the message and their reaction to one or more of their five senses being stimulated causes an unusual reaction.
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the other two senses…
When talking about Sensory Processing Disorder, we most commonly discuss our five senses, smell, sight, touch, hearing, and taste, but there are two other senses that also go hand-in-hand and that is proprioception (body awareness) and vestibular sense (spacial awareness/orientation).
Proprioception is having body awareness thanks to the receptors in our muscles. If you were to put your arm out to the side, you don’t need to double-check that. Your muscle receptors have told you you moved your arm to the side.
For people who have poor proprioception they may think their arm is out to the side but it in fact is not.
The vestibular sense is our spacial orientation which encompasses your balance and control. Those with poor vestibular sense may feel out of control since they have no sense of stability. They have no sense of their body in space which in terms feels like they are underwater and “floating” often.
Both of these senses help give us a sense of control, so when we are deficient in one or both, it can cause a lot of fear, anxiety, and chaos in our minds because we have no sense of self.
( for our list of resources for autism & sensory processing disorder, keep scrolling)
learning the cues and the needs of those who deal with these disorders
I’ll share some more personal experiences because it is how I was able to learn about this more. Hopefully, it’ll help you too.
My daughter has super strength. She is such a strong kid, with that, I also thought she had a very high pain tolerance until I learned about the sixth and seventh senses.
Shay plays rough. She throws her self on the padded floor, she bumps into things on purpose, is constantly falling over. As I learned more about proprioception and the vestibular sense, I started to understand that her thrashing around was a cue. She was seeking some sort of feedback from her muscle receptors to see where she was in her space. She is unable to feel her body and needed some type of information to her brain to let her know where her limbs and body is.
Now, when I learned this I cried for like two days. As most of you know, I grew up dancing. The thought of not knowing where your body is at any given moment was so hard for me to process. My body awareness is beyond most people. I’m so in tune with each muscle and feeling and touch that it was so sad for me to know that she was so far on the other side of the scale. She has no sense of movement.
Once, I got past the emotional aspect, I was able to bunker down and find solutions with help and suggestions from her occupational therapist.
how to help and what to do
Baby girl is still super young and she is also a peanut. Like just the size of a piece of lint. TINY! So, I can’t do much in terms of true physical activity to help, but what I can do included both joint compression and decompression massages.
Joint compression is quite literally just compressing the joint. So, carefully taking her foot and knee and pressing the two towards each other safely to allow her to feel her joint. The same goes for knees to hips, hands to elbows, and elbows to shoulders.
Decompression massages are great to help create a sense of calm when someone is becoming anxious and needed to get that stimulation to their muscles. Per my daughter’s therapist, I am to squeeze different parts of her body working from head down to her toes. Her head and ribs need to be taken care of more, so less pressure is best. With her shoulders arms, hips, legs, hands, feet, etc, I am to squeeze almost to the point of it being too hard. It needs to be hard enough to where she actually feels something and becomes aware of her body again.
other methods and products
As I have learned there are so many things to help not only with Sensory Processing Disorder but with proprioception stimulation.
In terms of toys and furniture, there are bean bag chairs specifically for those with autism that feels like a huge full-body hug. In addition, there are weighted vests, weighted blankets, and weighted plush toys for increasing body awareness. Also, there are tons of toys, games, modular activity pieces, chewing toys for those who need oral stimulation, and more. The list goes on and on!
I will include some great resources and sites at the end of this post so you can explore all the options you have to help your child or someone you know to get their needs met.
being open to receiving help
Something I have found interesting is the number of times I’ve been told “how great it is that I am so aware and willing to take note of all of Shay’s potential cues” and “how amazingly informed I am for someone who doesn’t work in this field” and “how great it is that as a parent I am so involved”.
As nice as it is to be assured that I am doing my “mom job” well, it was more shocking that they felt the need to say these things. This leads me to believe that most people deny that something may be wrong with their child. Trust me I get it, it’s hard as fuck.
But here’s the thing… When you decide to become a parent, you are committing to be a parent and parenting isn’t for the faint of heart. It is so crucial to be a parent for the good and bad.
As a dance teacher, there have been some encounters with children who may have been on the spectrum or might have had some processing issues, but when discussing any concerns with behavior in class, the parents tend to shut down.
This is more common than not as I am coming to learn. For the sake of your child, please be open to receiving hard information and difficult facts.
Being a mom to a child with superpowers is so fucking hard, but it is also so rewarding because she is straight-up magical. I may not understand what she needs because she is nonverbal right now and I may take a while to realize what it is she is trying to communicate and that sucks, but leaving her in a state of panic and confusion is so wrong.
So, where do you start?
Well, talk to your pediatrician or doctor and talk to an occupational therapist. Get evaluated and do the things that will help your child have the best life possible. With whatever magical abilities they have, and be open to learning from your children as well.
They are experiencing life in a way we will never be able to understand but if you open your eyes, ears, mind, and heart and allow them to share, you will be astounded at what the world can truly look and feel like.
List of Resources for Autism & Sensory Processing Disorder:
National Autism Resources
Fun and Funciton
Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism
Autism Community Store
Ark Therapeutic Products
Special Needs Toys
Fat Brain Toys
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