Category Archives: autism

For Kids With Sensory and Motor Issues, Add Resistance Instead of Hand-Over-Hand Assistance

 

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One of my most popular posts, Why “Hand-Over-Hand” Assistance Works Poorly With So Many Special Needs Children , explains how this common method of assisting children to hold and manipulate objects often results in rejection or even aversion.  This post tells you about my most successful strategy for kids with low muscle tone and limited sensory processing:  using graded resistance.

Why does making it harder to move work better?  Because if the child is actively trying to reach and grasp an object, you are providing more tactile, kinesthetic and proprioceptive information for their brain.  More information = better quality movement.  Your accurately graded resistance is doing what weighted/pressure vests, foot weights and SPIO suits do for the rest of their body.  Could you use a hand weight or weighted object?  Maybe, but little children have little hands with limited space to place a weight, and weights don’t distribute force evenly.  Did you take physics in school?  Then you know that gravity exerts a constant pressure in one direction.  Hands move in 3-D.  Oh, well.  So much for weighting things.

How do you know how much force to use?  Just enough to allow the child to move smoothly.  Its a dance in which you constantly monitor their effort and grade yours to allow movement to continue.

Where do you place the force?  That one is a little trickier.  It helps to have some knowledge of biomechanics, but I can tell you that it isn’t always on their hand.  Not because they won’t like it, but because it may not deliver the correct force. Often your force can be more proximal, meaning closer to the shoulder than the hand.  That would provide more information for the joints and muscles that stabilize the arm, steadying it so the hand can be guided accurately.   If a child has such a weak grasp that they cannot maintain a hold while pushing or pulling, you may be better off moving the object, not the hand,  while they hold the object, rather than holding their hand.

Still getting aversive responses from the child?  It may be because the child doesn’t want to engage in your activity, or they don’t realize that you are helping them.  They  may think that adults touch them to remove objects from their grasp or otherwise stop them from exploring.  Both can be true.  In that case, make sure that you are offering the child something that they want to do first.  Remember, we can’t force anyone to play.  The desire to engage has to come from them, or it isn’t play.  Its just adults making a kid do something that we think is good for them.

 

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One of the most amazing places I have ever seen:  Australia!

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OXO for Kids: Great Tableware For Older Kids With Sensory and Motor Issues

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Does your child knock over her milk on a daily basis?  Do utensils seem to fly out of your son’s hands?  I treat kids with hypermobility, coordination and praxis issues, sensory discrimination limitations, etc.; they can all benefit from this terrific line of cups, dinnerware and utensils.

Yes, OXO, the same people that sell you measuring cups and mixing bowls: they have a line of children’s products.  Their baby and toddler items are great, but no 9 year-old wants to eat out of a “baby plate”.

OXO’s items for older kids don’t look or feel infantile.   The simple lines hide the great features that make them so useful to children with challenges:

  1. The plates and bowls have non-slip bases.  Those little nudges that have other dinnerware flipping over aren’t going to tip these items over so easily.
  2. The cups have a colorful grippy band that helps little hands hold on, and the strong visual cue helps kids place their hands in the right spot for maximal control.
  3. The utensils have a larger handle to provide more tactile, proprioceptive and kinesthetic input while eating.  Don’t know what that is?  Don’t worry!  It means that your child gets more multi-sensory information about what is in her hand so that it stays in her hand.
  4. The dinnerware and the cups can handle being dropped, but they have a bit more weight (thus more sensory feedback) than a paper plate/cup or thin plastic novelty items.
  5. There is nothing about this line that screams “adaptive equipment”.  Older kids are often very sensitive to being labeled as different, but they may need the benefits of good universal design.  Here it is!
  6. All of them are dishwasher-safe.  If you have a child with special needs, you really don’t want to be hand-washing dinnerware if you don’t have to.

For more information about mealtime strategies, please take a look at Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? and Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child.

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What Helps Sensitive Kids Handle Haircuts?

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Depending on your child’s age and issues, getting a haircut can be anything from a chore to a dreaded event that you put off, and then put it off a bit more.  So many kids fear them:  kids with ASD, kids with sensory issues, children that have had multiple hospitalizations or procedures, children with anxiety disorders.   I have been asked by parents of children well into grade school to help them with the problem of getting their child to the barber or hairdresser without a major fight.  My strategies are informed by my training as a pediatric OTR and as a Happiest Baby on the Block educator.

My approach to improving a child’s tolerance for a haircut is based on three goals: reduce the novelty of the experience, reduce the sensory impact of the haircut, and build their overall coping strategies based on their developmental level.

  1. You can borrow techniques from “exposure therapy” to make the experience of getting a haircut more familiar.  The very first step could be making combing or brushing their hair a non-event.  Explore what tool is the most comfortable for your child, and gradually introduce combs and even hair clippers.  Let them turn the clippers on and off ( establish safety rules first) and let them hear the clippers both far away and close to their ears.  Let them comb their hair first, then allow you to do so.  Washing their hair in the bath is another experience that you can use for pretending that you are giving them a haircut.  You can also get a bit wet and allow  them to pretend to cut your hair.  I have safety scissors that don’t cut anything but paper  Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler  that work very well for this experience.  Expand grooming so that it can happen at different times of the day and in different locations in your home.  It needs to become as much of a non-issue as possible at home before a child is truly comfortable in the hair salon.
  2.  Remember that the entire experience of receiving a haircut has strong sensory components:  the salon and the sight, sound and smell of it’s other staff and customers, the tools used to cut hair, the feel of the chair and the drapes on your child.  They can all be contributors to agitation and aversion.  How can these be minimized?  Early appointments might be less crowded, there may be ways to apply water or lotions to reduce the experience of being sprayed, or children can be actively involved in saying that they are ready rather than feel attacked when they don’t expect touch.  Some kids just to be told before the event that their hair will be sprayed, or they need to feel in control of the timing.  Your child may seem too old to sit on your lap, but it could help them stay calm.  Ask if this is something they would like.  Your hairdresser is interested in doing a good job without a lot of drama.  Most of them will work with you.
  3. Many of the kids I see that struggle with haircuts also struggle handling frustration and anticipatory anxiety in general.  They are used to big dramatic exchanges when asked to do the things that are expected of them that they CAN tolerate.  These kids have often spent years developing a dance of refusal and opposition that they are now stuck in with their parents.  In my sessions, they quickly learn that I don’t engage this way; I am a no-drama girl.  I set limits and consequences, and I provide options so they feel they are working with me, not against me.  I use Dr. Harvey Karp’s Fast Food Rule and use all of his “Feed The Meter” strategies Turn Around Toddler Defiance Using “Feed the Meter” Strategies to build a sense of compassion and communication.  Both of these Happiest Toddler strategies work well with older children because anyone that is upset is thinking and behaving at a lower developmental level.  My best strategy is simple:  I stop a challenging task before a child has the chance to bail.  I may introduce another task that is similar and still offers challenge.  Stopping isn’t always ending the overall challenge.   The child’s experience is that they don’t have to fight to get a break, as for support or have adjustments made.  I am now their partner in learning to handle haircuts, dressing or nail cutting, not an authority making demands.
  4. Try not to minimize their distress, even if you can’t see why they feel that way.  In Why Telling Your Toddler “It’s OK” Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)  , I wrote about how important it is to actively validate a child’s perspective.  with children that have sensory issues, this is huge, absolutely huge.

It is my belief that if you can help a child handle the daily challenges of their life with compassion, respect and skill development, that child will trust that you can help them with the other events in life that make them frightened or overwhelmed.  They have a new sense of how to manage their behavior, and believe that adults are resources for learning and partners in growth.

Looking for ideas on nail trimming or dressing as well? Read Why Cutting Nails Is Such a Challenge for Autistic and Sensory Kids and Dressing Without Tears: Sensory-Sensitive Strategies That Work

And don’t forget that my e-book on toilet training is out there to help you with this challenging skill:  The Practical Guide To Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone isn’t just for kids with low tone; kids with ASD and sensory processing issues can use these strategies to build skills that help them make real progress quickly! You can buy my e-book on my website Tranquil Babies, at Your Therapy Source (a terrific site for OT workbooks and other products), and on Amazon.

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How Parents Can Teach Healthy Body Boundaries To Young Children

 

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One of the greatest horrors of the Larry Nasser story is that parents were often mere feet away from these girls while they were being molested.  The people most invested in a child’s safety had no idea that anything violent was occurring, and these girls did not reveal their discomfort at the time.  These parents are beyond distraught now, and often filled with guilt.  I do not blame them for what happened.  They were deceived by Nasser and their children weren’t able to communicate their distress or confusion.

Parents who read these news reports are wondering how they would react; would they recognize abuse?  And they are wondering what to say and do to prevent this from ever happening to their own children.

My strong belief is that there will always be people like Larry Nasser in the world, and that children who have experience with being touched with respect could be more likely to recognize and report abusive touch, even when it comes from an authority or a family member.

I would like to share my best suggestions to teach children the difference between healthy touch and invasive touch, drawn from my practice as a pediatric occupational therapist who treats children with ASD and sensory processing disorders.  I would also like to say very clearly that there is never any reason for any occupational therapist to make contact with a child’s genital area.  Ever.  But since parents and caregivers perform diaper changes, dress children, and provide bathroom assistance, it is important to me to teach the following strategies for respectful contact in therapy so that children have a sense of what type of touch is unacceptable:

With non-verbal children of any age, I use a combination of observation, use of my own body language before I begin physical contact in therapy.  If children can make eye contact, I use visual regard to establish a connection, and I do not initiate physical contact quickly.  If they cannot meet my gaze, I read their cues, and often wait for them to come closer to me and reach out.  I use intermittent touch that avoids hands, face and feet initially.   Deep pressure is less alerting to the nervous system than light touch, so my contact is stable, slow and steady.  I will describe what I am doing therapeutically, in simple statements with calm tones, even if I am not sure that they will understand me.   I remove my contact when I see any indication of agitation, and before a child protests strongly.  What I am communicating is “I get you.  I see you and I respect you.  I will not force you, but I will invite you to engage with me”.

With children that can communicate verbally, I do all of the above strategies, and I ask permission.  Not always in complete sentences, and not always using the word “touch”.  I constantly tell them what I am going to do or what movement I am going to help them to accomplish.  It doesn’t matter if they fully comprehend my words; they can read the tone in my voice.  If they protest, I will voice their protest without criticism “You want no more _______; no more __________.  OK.”  I reconsider my approach, adjust, and either begin contact again or shift activities to build more tolerance and trust.

With slightly older children that can understand my question and can respond clearly, I will teach them that they have a choice about greetings.  I teach “Handshake, Hug or High-Five?“.  Children get to choose what kind of physical contact they wish to have when greeting me or other adults.  I must agree to their choice.  I encourage parents to teach their family members to offer this choice and to never force a child to kiss/hug or accept a kiss or a hug from anyone.  Children need to feel that they have agency over their bodies without criticism.

Anyone who remembers enduring a sloppy smooch or a crushing hug from a relative can relate.  You may or may not have actively protested.  It doesn’t matter.  Allowing an adult to have this form of contact with a child is not just an irritating experience for them.  It is a serious message that children of all genders are given:  The people that are in power have the right to do things to your body that you don’t like, and you have no right to complain.

Is this the message that parents intend?  Of course not, but that doesn’t make it any less a clear communication.  Larry Nasser and his kind depend on a combination of authority, status and compliance to perpetrate abuse, even if the child’s parents are in the room.  I believe that children who know that any uncomfortable touch from any adult, even those closest to them, can be refused, they are more likely to recognize and report abuse. They will be believed and they will not be shamed.

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Stop The Whining With The Fast Food Rule

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Whining is a “fingernails on a chalkboard” experience for most adults.  We often give in to a whining child, just to avoid hearing that noise.  Or we explode and scare them (and ourselves) with the anger that whining can trigger.  What can you do?

What would you say if I told you that I use a technique that works more than 50% of the time, and it can work in mere seconds to halt a child in mid-whine? Well, read on and let me tell you the secrets that I learned from Dr. Harvey Karp and his Happiest Toddler on the Block book!

I spend more than 75% of my treatment day as an occupational therapist with children under the age of 6.  That can add up to a lot of whining!  Why?  Not because I am inexperienced, or because I am a pushover.  Anyone that knows me knows that neither statement is true.  It’s because young children may be able to talk, but they aren’t very good communicators.  Being able to express their feelings effectively and negotiate their desires is just beyond their pay grade at this age.  Their default is whining.

Dr. Karp’s Fast Food Rule has made my job so much easier. It makes young children see me as a friend, not just another adult telling them what to do.  This one simple strategy lets kids know that I care about how they feel, but doesn’t suggest that they will get their way with me every time.  In fact, they often find themselves following my directions without fully knowing why they have stopped crying, begging, or pleading with me.

Here is what the FFR entails:

Part 1:  Repeating what you believe is your child’s complaint or desire, using simple words, short phrases and more emotional tone and gestures/facial expression than usual.  You may not know for sure what a very young child wants, but take your best guess.  If you are wrong, you can always give it another try.  The more upset or younger the child, the simpler the wording and the more expressive the tone and gestures.  Why?  Because emotional people don’t hear you well, but they will pick up on your non-verbal cues effectively.  You are trying to convey a simple message:  I understand you.

Part 2:  Only after you see that your child has calmed a bit with the knowledge that they are understood can you then begin to comfort, negotiate, or solve their problem.  Not before. We jump in very early in the interaction to tell them “It’s OK, honey” or “I can’t hear you when you speak to me like that”.  It’s only when they know you have heard THEM that they can listen to YOU.

The importance of being understood by another when you are upset cannot be overstated.  Children need this from us more than we know.  Even young toddlers are aware that they won’t always get what they want, but they need to know that we understand their point of view.  If you do not convey this message, a child will whine, wail or scream to make it clearer to you that they are upset.  That is why telling them that things are fine seems to throw oil on the fire.  They think you don’t get it.

So, help them pull it together by stating their situation (as you perceive it) out loud and using some non-verbal messaging:  I got it.  You want more cookies.  You don’t want to leave the park.  You want Logan’s truck.  Whatever it is, tell them that you understand before you offer a solution, an alternative, or explain why they aren’t getting what they want.  I promise you, it will work more often than it does not, and sometimes it will work so well that you almost cannot believe how simple it was to calm things down.

There is a secret benefit from using the FFR:  your child will gradually become less likely to break out in a whine even when things have gone badly.  After repeated experiences of being understood and treated with respect and firmness, a child will expect that you are the source of solutions instead of a dumping ground for agitation and anger.

 

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Why Eating From a Pouch Isn’t Helping Your Child As Much As You Think

 

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Sucking food from a pouch has become a common way to funnel fruits, veggies and even protein into young children.  Few kids are eating them because they have oral motor or sensory processing problems that don’t allow them to eat solid food.  Most of the pouch kids are picky eaters or eating a pouch “on the fly” in between activities and locations.

I know very well what a food fight looks like with a picky eater.  All that whining, food flying onto the floor, and fears that your child will either starve or be nutritionally deprived.  It can get ugly.  I know.  But when pouches are more than an occasional emergency ration, they aren’t without some costs.

Here is what you risk when pouches replace solid food:

  1. Your child’s digestive system needs the physical fiber to learn how to handle it well. A colon that has very little fiber isn’t capable of dealing with regular food as well.  You risk constipation and then you have to treat that problem.  And your child feels awful when “backed up”.  Don’t let them suffer that belly pain when they are capable of eating foods with fiber.  Natural fiber.
  2. If your child is young enough to be still learning to speak (and some sounds, like “th” don’t fully emerge until 3.5-5 years old), eating, chewing and even swallowing still counts as exercise and motor learning for all the structures/movements that accomplish this amazing task.  Sucking on a nozzle doesn’t support learning anything unless you are under 6 months old.  Oops.
  3. Eating is a social activity, done over time and with other humans.  Not with tablets, not with screens.  With people that model language, social and feeding skills.  Sucking down a pouch is a one-and-done experience that sends a child off their chair and back to playing too fast to absorb much of anything.
  4. Eating is a fine motor activity, from finger feeding to spoon use with soup.  Miss out on all that work, and you might find that your child is the slowest writer or even hates to write and draw.  They haven’t spent the first 3 years of life refining finger movements in the most rewarding way possible.  Food in: successful hand use.  Food on the bib/table/floor?  Recalculate and refine finger use.

What do those pouches really provide?  An easy way to feed a child nutritious food ingredients without an argument.  The problem is that all that work for kids and parents when they eat real food with their fingers or utensils is actually an investment in current and future skills that too many children need today.

Looking for more information on building self-feeding skills?  Read Teaching Children To Use Utensils to Eat: Use Good Tools, Good Food, and Good Timing for some hints on how to make things easier, and Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child for the most fun and easy way to practice holding a spoon.

Help Your Special Needs Toddler Make The Transition To School Routines

 

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Many developmentally delayed toddlers move their therapeutic and educational services to a toddler developmental group, A.K.A. special needs program, when they are between 18 and 30 months old.  Not all of them slide into the routine easily.  There can be a few tears and a lot of complaining about fitting into a schedule /leaving a fun activity because it is time for circle or therapy.

After speaking with a handful of clients and doing a few consultations, I thought it might help to provide some strategies to help parents make their child’s first school experience easier:

  1. Learn how teachers mark activity transitions, and commit to using them at home.  Some teachers sing the  “clean-up song”, some ring a bell or turn lights on and off.  Find out exactly how the staff help children, especially non-verbal children, anticipate and adjust to changes.
  2.  You don’t need to copy the exact transition strategy, but make it very similar and use it for activities at home that are the easy transitions.  Examples of easy transitions at home are getting into a bubbly tub, leaving the table once full and satisfied, putting on a coat to go outside and play, etc.  The transitions that are easiest are going to be the calmest, and children learn best when calm.  This positive spin makes the school’s routine more acceptable when a child isn’t completely on board with new situations.
  3. Find out how snack is served, and offer snacks in the same way at home.  If small cups are used for water or juice, practice cup drinking at home with the same sized cup.   If there are specific foods offered, then stock up.   Model your enjoyment of these snacks so that the food is familiar and has your seal of approval.

Good luck this year to all the toddlers that have made the leap to school!!