Sensory processing disorder is more or less what it sounds like. It is when one’s senses are processed in a disordered/incorrect/hyper-alert way. I appreciate it when people share their personal experiences, so I’ll offer you some first-hand accounts of some of what sensory processing disorder looks like in our home.
For instance, I need to wear noise-canceling headphones if I am cooking dinner. But it isn’t the cooking dinner that is the problem. It’s that my husband is playing a game, a kid is watching cartoons, and the other kids are running around playing. The combined sounds of everyone’s activities plus the stress of making sure I don’t get distracted and burn dinner, plus the smells/sights of food I maybe don’t prefer but the kids will willingly eat can make me have a full-blown panic attack if I don’t recognize what is happening before it happens. And I’m the mom, who supposedly is in charge of this circus.
I sometimes avoid my kids’ school parties, not because I’m antisocial (well…I am, but that’s not the reason), but it’s because I know I will be there ten minutes before my brain starts heading down a panic spiral.
All of our kiddos have some form of sensory processing disorder, and my poor husband too. So we have become acquainted with ways to help diminish the sensory overwhelm that comes with living in a large household. Noise-canceling headphones are a must for my youngest to go to sleep at night. Soft clothes that don’t snag, constrict, or feel uncomfortable against the skin are a need. Scratchy tags are gone the second they enter our house. The fewer inputs my kid has to process in her hyper-aware brain on the better.
My other daughter, when she is feeling overwhelmed, needs to go bounce on the trampoline so she can get the excess energy out. Something about the bouncing makes her other senses diminish enough that she can feel calm again. We also have a spinning table (think a sit-and-spin toy for bigger kids) that helps her when she asks for it. Swings are a big deal for helping calm her brain as well.
I’ve changed laundry detergent twice because the smell was too much for my husband to get over. I cook three different meals most of the time so that everyone has something they can and will eat. I am usually the worst culprit of this. My kids could live on chicken nuggets alone and the texture of them makes me gag.
My girls’ teachers are amazing and already had so many accommodations in her classroom we didn’t need to ask for any. Wobble seats and bouncy ball seats help the kids who struggle to sit still.
All of my kids are adopted from foster care and all of them have struggled with varying degrees of sensory processing disorders. This, I’ve discovered, is fairly common. Due to the typically chaotic first years of life, children adopted from hard places experience the brain becoming wired to process a great deal of input. They need to remain hypervigilant to make sure their needs are met.
When those children are adopted into somewhere secure and calmer, their brains feel as if there is something wrong. They remain hypervigilant with no real reason to need to be now. Their brains, used to taking in every detail to keep them safe, pick up on things that an average person will not. Further, some of these children have undiagnosed ADHD or Autism. Their brains are frazzled just trying to make it through breakfast without having a meltdown. The hum of lights and electricity, their sister crunching too loud, the sun shining bright, the air being too cold: they are all triggers. All of those things combine to make life seemingly unlivable. This is where you will see a kid curled into a ball covering their ears and screaming to drown everything else out.
The good news is that while there is no cure, treatment is available. There are medications that can help balance the off-kilter brain chemistry. Occupational therapy can help de-sensitize a child’s hyper-aware body so they can exist more comfortably. There are little plastic brushes called sensory brushes or Wilbarger sensory brushes that a therapist and with a few minutes of training, a parent or child, can use to help. Occupational therapy can mean a great deal more comfort for a person with a sensory processing disorder.
Weighted blankets are one of my favorite things. We have a king-sized one on our bed that helps my husband and I sleep in a fairly significant way. Each of our kids has one too. While ours is just smooth cotton theirs are all made of bumpy Minky fabric and are so soft. Something about the even pressure all over the body helps the body to settle. I don’t understand why, but, having first-hand experience, I will tell you it certainly can help.
Weighted vests are something some people swear by and can be made discrete by layering them under clothes. Often, a child who would be ashamed to be seen in class with a blanket will be delighted to wear a vest under their hoodie.
Kiddos who were adopted often have a rough start which, unfortunately, can lead to sensory processing disorder. That doesn’t mean you’re not doing the best you can for your kid. It’s simply a matter of knowing what is wrong so you can help right it.
Fidget toys help with focus. Florescent lights are covered with tissue paper to dim and soften them. The noise-canceling headphones diminish the outside noise so it isn’t conflicting with the noises in my head and the other sensory inputs that are just…too much.
I didn’t know what sensory processing disorder was a few years ago. I thought I was just a bad mom. All the noise and smells and visual clutter of having children made me upset sometimes and I just thought I was broken. It turns out, I have had previously undiagnosed mental health issues most of my life. So, while yes, there was something to address, it wasn’t that I was a bad mom.
Sensory processing disorder can be its own diagnosis or be a symptom of other mental health issues. The most common of those mental health issues that have sensory processing disorders are ADHD, Autism, and PTSD. There are others, of course, but in general, the treatment remains the same no matter what. If you suspect you or your child has a sensory processing disorder contact a doctor to find out for certain.