Category Archives: sensory processing issues

Should Hypermobile Kids Sit On Therapy Balls For Schoolwork?

They are everywhere; colorful therapy balls have migrated from the clinic to the classroom.  You can buy a base or a whole chair with a ball attached.  But do kids with hypermobility benefit from using them, or will they create more problems than they solve?

Hypermobility in infants and very young children is common, and decreases over time in typical children.  And then there are the kids with low muscle tone or connective tissue disorders.  These kids do not commonly see a decrease in their loose joints over time.  They do become stronger, and they can become more stable and steady.  But they can still display considerable flexibility over time.

In fact, hypermobility can increase with each overstretched ligament or damaged joint.  It is as simple as basic construction principles:  when the foundation is shaky, the structures around the foundation receive some of the forces from action and movement that the foundation should have absorbed.  A child who has an unstable pelvis will experience more forces in their upper spine and in their knees as the muscles try to compensate for the extra movement at the pelvis.  Over-stretching, excessive tightening of the wrong structures, and damage to joint surfaces are the result of excessive force absorption.

In this situation, another symptom becomes more and more obvious:  fatigue.  Well-aligned joints are designed to decrease effort during movement, like a Swiss clock.  Damaged joints and joints that don’t glide correctly due to lax ligaments and weak muscles require more effort to do the same job.  Hence fatigue sets in just from the extra effort required.  This is true even if the connective tissue that creates muscles and ligaments is of good quality.  Some genetic connective tissue disorders are characterized by incomplete or faulty construction of connective tissue.  These children are starting out with a foundation that is unstable and weak before any forces have been applied.  They will become weak and tired more quickly than a child with the same level of instability but with stronger connective tissue.

While sitting on a therapy ball-chair, the expectation is that the dynamic movement of the ball will activate core musculature and provide a dynamic position that helps a child  achieve core stability.  Sounds great!  But…this assumes that the physical structures needed are capable of doing so, and that the child is also able to write or play, using his arms and hands effectively at the same time.  It also assumes that the child will notice when his alignment has decreased and will take action to prevent compensation.  I think that is a lot to ask of most kids, even most teens.  They just want to get their homework done and over.

Based on all of these concerns, I recommend that children with hypermobility be closely evaluated and monitored by a therapist before they use a therapy ball set-up as a chair for play or schoolwork.  The extra effort to sustain and achieve good alignment is likely to be difficult to manage as they concentrate on a task like handwriting.  The risk is that they fatigue the supporting musculature, recruit compensatory muscles for support, and place more strain on joints and ligaments without awareness.  Yes, I am saying that there is a chance that the use of these chairs with some kids can make things worse.

A better idea for kids with hypermobility?  A more supportive seating set-up.  Reduce the physical demands while your child is working, and leave exercising on a ball to therapy sessions and your therapy home program.  Therapists are skilled at designing programs that target specific muscles to develop balanced control around a joint while protecting it at the same time.  They are also great at assessing work stations and chairs to determine which designs will give your child support and dynamic positioning at the same time without excessive fatigue.  This is one of my favorite tasks as an OT.  I know that a well-designed seating set-up will provide a pay-off every time a child sits down for a meal, plays at a table, or does their homework.  Sometimes it means that joint protection and support have to be blanked with dynamic control, and my training helps families to parse it out for the best result possible for their child.

Looking for more ideas with your hypermobile child?  Check out Hypermobility and ADHD? Take Stability, Proprioception, Pain and Fatigue Into Account Before Labeling Behavior and Should Hypermobile Kids Use Backpacks? to start the school year.

I am working on a new e-book on hyper mobility, and welcome parents and therapists to suggest topics that are rarely discussed online or in the clinic.  My goal is to create a book that helps kids thrive!

 

 

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Halloween Fun When Kids Don’t or Can’t Trick-Or-Treat

 

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Kids big and little are anticipating Halloween, but this holiday isn’t always enjoyable for children with ASD, SPD, anxiety or motor issues.  Putting on a costume can be difficult for some kids to tolerate and nearly impossible for kids that have mobility issues.  Kids with endurance and mobility issues struggle to walk up to a front door and ring the bell, but they don’t want to be carried “like a baby”.  Even seeing other children in costume or decorations in their own home can be difficult for children that are very sensitive.

What begins as a celebration and an adventure becomes a minefield.  And yet, your child may be invited to participate in many Halloween events.  You may want to have a party in your own home.  Your child may even beg to be involved in things you know they will end up hating, not realizing the challenges ahead.  Inclusion is a murky pond for some kids.

Perhaps it doesn’t have to be so difficult.  Here are a few ideas that could make this holiday less stressful and more inclusive:

  • Costumes can be anything you want them to be.  Purchased costumes can be adapted or altered for comfort and tolerance.  If you have a child with tactile sensitivity, choosing the fabric that is less irritating is worth a trip to a brick-and-mortar store, or ordering multiple sets online with easy returns.  Instead of an eye patch for a pirate, you can use makeup to create one.  Princess skirts and Batman pants can be shortened to prevent tripping.  They can be bought larger and altered to allow for braces and for sitting in a wheelchair.  Hats and headpieces are optional, and can also be switched out for more wearable choices.  They can be purchased separately or by combining two costumes.  A comfortable costume is fun; an awkward costume will cost you in time, pain and struggle much more than you can imagine.
  • Trick-or-treat is over-rated.  Choose people your child knows, a neighborhood that has flat, accessible front steps, or even an apartment building with an elevator.  The experience of trick-or-treat doesn’t have to be a marathon to be fun: in fact, “fun” is the opposite of dragging stressed children around from house to house.  Remember that children with sensory modulation issues will start out excited and happy and become overwhelmed quickly.  Monitoring and planning for this helps both of you have fun that doesn’t end badly.
  • Many children with sensitivities need to practice wearing their costume until it becomes familiar.  They may protest and initially refuse, but some practice can really help them.  Make the run-through more fun by pairing it with something like watching a halloween movie at home or putting up decorations.  The child that refuses to wear a costume can become the child who doesn’t want to take it off!
  • Choose your home decorations with your child’s tolerance in mind.  It isn’t always about whether they are scary or not, it can be the brightness, the amount of movement or the sounds that overwhelm children.  You won’t always know what will be too much, so prepare yourself and the rest of the family that you may have to substitute/remove/repurpose things that don’t work out.
  • Do fun events that your child can handle.  Bake cookies, including the buy-and-bake-off cookies that don’t require a lot of effort or time.  The end product can be given to friends and family proudly.  Decorate a Halloween cookie house.  Put up cling-on decorations in windows and storm doors that are easy to remove if they become an issue.  Watch a fun movie at home and invite friends to dress up and come over for the show.

Holidays for kids with special needs take more thought, but they don’t have to be less fun, just a bit different.  The important concept is to consider your child’s needs and aim for the essential feelings of the holiday:  fun, and sharing the fun with others!

Go Back To School With Target’s Sensory-Friendly Clothing Line

 

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A boy’s tee from the Cat and Jack collection at Target

Here in the US, kids are getting ready to start the school year.  A mom mentioned to me that Target is now carrying sensory-friendly clothing by Cat and Jack; attractive and functional clothes for kids who find tags, seams and textured clothing uncomfortable.  I went to check them out online.  Here is what I learned:

The selection is limited but sufficient for kids who don’t have to wear a uniform for school.  It includes clothes for toddlers up through grade school.  I saw leggings and tees, both long and short-sleeved.  There aren’t any tags and the seams are sewn flat.  The garments have been pre-washed for softness, which saves parents some work.  I know that there are kids who insist their new clothing be repeatedly laundered to get out the stiffening agents that have been applied to fabrics.

I know that this limited line doesn’t solve the problem of getting your child into formal clothing for a big wedding, and it may not have every color under the sun, but it is nice to see affordable clothing options for kids who struggle with this issue.

In my experience as a pediatric OT, children could still have issues with tolerating sleeves and pant legs.  Some kids find the movement of fabric on skin irritating, regardless of the level of softness.  I suggest that you ask your OT about desensitization techniques that can help you and your child have better experiences when dressing, regardless of the type of garment.

Happy Back-To-School shopping!

 

 

Hypermobility and ADHD? Take Stability, Proprioception, Pain and Fatigue Into Account Before Labeling Behavior

 

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There is nothing worse than using a scientific study that correlates two variables and assuming causation. Translation:  If behaviors typical of disorder “A” are seen in a lot of people with problem “B”, we cannot assume that “A” is the cause of their behavior.   But we do it all the time.  People who love coffee adore studies that say coffee drinkers seem to live longer.  People who hate to exercise are validated by reports that find the number of heart attacks after exercise “is increasing”.

When it comes to labeling children’s behavior, we should take a couple of big steps back with our erroneous reasoning.  And when the label is ADHD, take three more.  Not because ADHD isn’t a big issue for families.  The struggles of kids, parents and educators shouldn’t be minimized.  We should be cautious with labels when two situations occur:  very young ages and multiple diagnoses that are determined largely by clinical observation, not testing.  Seeing ADHD in a child with hypermobility is one of those situations.

Hypermobility without functional problems is very common in young children.  Super-bendy kids that walk, run, hit a ball and write well aren’t struggling.  But if you have a child that cannot meet developmental milestones or has pain and poor endurance, that is  a problem with real-life consequences.  Many of them are behavioral consequences.

Yes, I said it.  Hypermobility is a motor problem that has a behavioral component.  I don’t know why so little has been written on this subject, but here it is:  hypermobile kids are more likely to fidget while sitting, more likely to get up out of their chairs, but also more likely to stay slumped on a couch.  They are more likely to jump from activity to activity, and more likely to refuse to engage in activities than their peers.  They drape themselves on furniture and people at times.

Why?  Hypermobility reduces a child’s ability to perceive body position and degree of movement, AKA proprioception and kinesthesia.  It also causes muscles to work harder to stabilize joints around a muscle, including postural muscles.  These muscles are working even when kids are asleep, so don’t think that a good rest restores these kids the same way another child gets a charge from a sit-down.

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When a hypermobile child starts to move, the brain receives more sensory input from the body, including joints, skin and muscles.  This charges up a sensory system that was virtually starving for information.  Movement from fidgeting and movement by running around the house are solutions to a child’s sense that they need something to boost their system.  But fatigue can set in very quickly, taking a moving child right back to the couch more quickly than her peers.  It looks to adults like she couldn’t possibly be tired so soon.  If you had to contract more muscles harder and longer to achieve movement, you’d be tired too!  Kids  develop a sense of self and rigid habits just like adults, so these “solutions” get woven into their sense of who they are.  And this happens at earlier ages than you might think.

Then there is pain.  Some hypermobile kids experience pain from small and large injuries.  They are more likely to be bruised,  more likely to fall and bump into things, and more likely to report what pediatricians may call “growing pains”.  Sometimes the pain is the pull on weak ligaments and tight muscles as bones grow, but sometimes it isn’t.  Soreness and pain lead some kids right to the couch.  After a while, a child may not even complain, especially if the discomfort doesn’t end.  Imagine having a lingering headache for days.  You just go on with life.  These kids are often called lazy, when in truth they are sore and exhausted after activities that don’t even register as tiring for other children their age.

How can you tell the difference between behaviors from ADHD and those related to hypermobiilty?  I think I may have an idea.

When a hypermobile child is given effective and consistent postural support, is allowed to rest before becoming exhausted (even if they say they are fine), and any pain issues are fully addressed, only then can you assess for attentional problems.  Occupational therapists with both physical medicine and sensory processing training are skilled at developing programs for postural control and energy conservation, as well as adapting activities for improved functioning.  They are capable of discussing pain symptoms with pediatricians and other health professionals.

I think that many children are being criticized for being lazy or unmotivated, and diagnosed as lacking attentional skills when the real cause of their behaviors is right under our noses.  It is time to give these kids a chance to escape a label they may not have.

How to Help Sensitive Kids Handle Greeting People (Including Their Own Parents!)

 

Many kids with ASD and SPD struggle with agitation and even tantrums when people enter their homes.  It can happen when their parent returns home from work, eager to scoop them up.  These kids become shy, run away, even hit!

Many, even most parents, believe that this is “bad behavior”, being defiant, or expressing anger at having people entering their space.  As an OT, I think about it differently.  Here is what I think is happening, and how to help your child handle this experience more effectively.

Sensitive children, which includes but isn’t limited to kids with sensory processing disorders, experience transitions as big charges of energy.  We all register a charge when events end or we switch locations, and when people come into our space, but those of us with less sensitivity do not charge up so high and we return to our baseline level of arousal very quickly.  So quickly that it isn’t even on our radar.  You would have to hook us up to a device like a lie-detector set to see the burst of neurological charge.

Not the sensitive person.  They are super-charged, and with little kids, it often is expressed as outsized and inappropriate aversion or agitation.  Thus, the scream, the withdrawal, the running away.  This response is often followed with agitation as the adult walks away and the child is now sad to lose the connection.  It can all seem a bit strange.

The long-term answer?  A good treatment plan that reduces overall, everyday arousal levels.  The short-term answer?  Here is my protocol that helps kids avoid getting so out-of-sorts with greetings, and builds social skills.  The nicest thing about this protocol is that it looks normal, not clinical, and it does indeed lower the brain’s level of arousal.  Keeping calm, but staying in the game socially, trains the brain to handle more interaction, not to flee.

  1. Greet the child from a distance.  This may be 5-15 feet.  Use a warm but not over the top tone.  Keep it short but friendly.  Don’t linger on eye contact.
  2. The child has been provided with an object to handoff to the greeting adult.  It doesn’t have to be meaningful, especially if the child is under 2.  Anything will do.  The idea is that it is a meaningful interaction that the child controls.  They release it to the adult.  You may have to repeat it with two objects.  The adult’s grateful response is also warm but not effusive.
  3. Now is the time to offer a hug or a kiss.  Sometimes it works, sometimes not.  With older kids that have language, I use “Handshake, hug or high-five?”.  I offer the child a choice of contact, and this alone can get them from feeling imposed upon to empowered.
  4. If the child is still protesting, the adult sits near the child, engaged in something that could be fun for the child.  A book, scribbling, something appealing.  No offer or invite; the position and the activity are the invitation.  The child may come over and begin to engage.  Connection accomplished!

Grandparents and others can think that this is coddling, or too much work.  After all, why doesn’t she greet me warmly like other children?  It is hard to parent a child with sensitivities, but your primary focus is on helping the child feel calm and comforted.  Explain that this is helpful and that the child really does love them.  He just needs a bit of help to express it.

We should be able to get out of the way emotionally for the sake of little people.  If a family member cannot wrap their head around the need to support instead of impose themselves on a clearly agitated child, then they need more help to understand sensitivity.

 

 

Is is Sensory Or Is It Behavior? Before 3, The Answer Is Usually “Yes!”

If I had a dollar for every parent that asked me if head banging when frustrated means their child has a sensory processing disorder...well, I would be writing this post from a suite in Tahiti.  Modulation of arousal is the most common sensory processing concern for the parents that I see as a pediatric occupational therapist.  Their children struggle to transition, don’t handle change well, and can’t shift gears easily.  But hold on.  A lot of this behavior in children  under 3 is developmental in nature.  Not all, but a lot.  Parsing it out and addressing it takes a paradigm shift.  Not every annoying or difficult behavior is atypical for age and temperament.

Everyone knows that you can’t expect your infant to self-regulate.  Nobody tells their baby “Just wait a little; why can’t you be like your brother and sit quietly for a minute?”  But why do adults assume that once a child can speak and walk a bit that they can handle frustration, wait patiently, and calm down quickly?

I know parents WANT that to be the case.  Toddlers are a handful on a good day.  Adorable silliness can melt your heart, but getting smacked by an angry child that was just given a consequence for trying to put your cell phone in the toilet to see if it would float?  Nah, that isn’t going to put a smile on your face.  Parents tell me “If they could only understand that when I say “wait”, I mean that you will get what you want, just not immediately.”  But no.  The toddler brain grows very slowly, and even the super-bright children who read at 3 cannot make their emotional brain grow any faster.  Sorry.  Really.   This brain thing means years of developing communication and regulation skills.

Here is the good news:  Even young children with clear sensory-based behaviors do better when your responses to their behaviors help them self-calm.  The recipe is simple to describe.  You give limits based on age, use familiar routines, teach emotional language and responses by modeling, and communicate effectively.  The Happiest Toddler strategies have transformed my work because children feel listened to but I don’t give in to toddler terrorists.  Everybody wins.

Here is the bad news:  You have to change your behavior in order to help them.  And you have to do it consistently and with loving acceptance of their limitations.  “Behavior” isn’t just their problem.  It is both of yours.  Take a look at my posts on Happiest Toddler techniques that really work for the little ones, and see if your suspicions of a sensory processing disorder wane or even evaporate as you and your child learn some valuable communication and self-calming skills.  The posts that can alter things today might be Nip Toddler Biting in the BudToddlers Too Young For Time Out Can Get Simple Consequences and Kind Ignoring, and How To Get Your Toddler To Wait For Anything (Hint: They hear “Wait” as “No”)

Good luck, and let me know what works for you!

 

Can Hypermobility Cause Speech Problems?

 

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As a pediatric OT, many of my clients have speech and feeding problems that are attributed to low muscle tone.  Very often, that is where assessment ends.  Perhaps it shouldn’t.  Joint hypermobility can create issues such as dysarthria, disfluency and poor voice control.  It isn’t only about muscles and muscle coordination.  Being able to identify all the causes of speech delays and difficulties means better treatment and better results.

I have had the privilege to know a handful of master speech pathologists whose manual evaluation skills are amazing.  These clinicians are capable of identifying joint laxity and poor tissue integrity (which contribute to injury, weakness and instability) as well as identifying low muscle tone, sensory processing issues and dyspraxia.  They can assess whole-body stability and control instead of ending their assessment at the neck.

It is more difficult to clearly differentiate low muscle tone from hypermobile joints in young children.  Assessing the youngest clients that cannot be interviewed and do not follow instructions carefully (or at all!)  is a challenge.  Many times we are forced to rely on observation and history as much as we use responses from direct interaction with a child.  In truth, laxity and low tone often co-exist.  Lax joints create overstretched or poorly aligned muscles that don’t contract effectively.  Low muscle tone doesn’t support joints effectively to achieve and maintain stability, creating a risk for overstretching ligaments and injuring both tendons and joint capsules.  A vicious cycle ensues, creating more weakness, instability and more difficulties with motor control.

Some children that are diagnosed with flaccid dysarthria, poor suck/swallow/breathe synchrony, phonological issues and poor respiratory control may be diagnosed later in life (sometimes decades later) as having Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or generalized benign joint hypermobility syndrome.   They often drop the final sounds in a word, or their voice fades away at the end of a sentence when they are younger. These kids might avoid reading or speaking front of the class when older.  This isn’t social anxiety or an attitude problem.  They are struggling to achieve and maintain the carefully graded control needed for these speech skills.

You may notice a breathy-ness to their voice that makes them sound more like their grandparents than their peers.  Children that avoid running in sports like soccer or hockey aren’t always unable to continue because they are globally fatigued or in pain.    Being unable to stabilize their trunk results in inefficient muscular recruitment and limited grading of breath.  Ask any runner or singer and they will tell you what that means: game over.

If your child is struggling with these issues and isn’t receiving speech therapy, now may be the time to explore it.  You and your child may be relieved to learn that there is effective therapy out there!