Does Your Child Hate Big Spaces? There is a Sensory-Based Explanation

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Space; the final frontier?

When you see it, it looks like Helen Keller crossed with a Roomba.  A child enters a space, even a familiar space, and runs the perimeter without stopping to play or examine things.  They may trace the room with their fingers, or repeat this process many times before they “land” and engage in some kind of purposeful activity.  If they get upset or challenged, they may resume this behavior.

One explanation for this behavior is that it is a solution to spatial processing difficulties.  When a typical child over the age of, let’s say 14 months, enters a room, they use their visual and auditory skills to tell them about the shape, height, and contents of the room.  As we mature, we use higher-order sensory input to inform our awareness and thinking.  We use sound in particular to tell us about the space to our sides and behind us that we cannot see.  Kids with ASD and SPD are stuck using immature types of information, and need to use them more often and more intensely to get the same knowledge.

How does this feel for them? Think of Notre Dame cathedral (before that awful fire).  The soaring ceilings and the long aisles create an other-worldly feeling you cannot escape.  Your brain knows you are not in your living room, or even in your own place of worship back home.  The medieval architects knew this too.  That was exactly the effect their were aiming for.  To set you back on your heels with the wonders of G-d.  How?  By making the spatial characteristics very unfamiliar and difficult to square with everyday experience.  To have you feel smaller and less in control in the presence of the almighty.

Now imagine that every space you inhabit gives you that feeling.  You enter a room and your eyes go everywhere.  You want to walk around to give yourself more information about where you are.  You don’t, but your nervous system is suggesting it.  You feel off balance and vulnerable.  Sound familiar?

What can you do?  Treating spatial processing issues isn’t easy.  Addressing limitations in vestibular and visual processing can really help, but I think that sound-based treatments are some of the easiest and most effective.  I use Quickshifts effectively to address spatial processing issues  Quickshifts: A Simple, Successful, and Easy to Use Treatment For Processing, Attention and Postural Activation.  Of course, it is best to address all the sensory processing issues any child has to get the best results.  You want to cement in the skills of better sensory processing by achieving good functioning in multiple situations.  But spatial processing problems have to be addressed to achieve a calmer and more organized state.  You want every child to feel safe and supported wherever they go!

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Effective sensory processing treatment helps kids feel safe in big spaces

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