Tag Archives: sensory modulation

Sensory Processing and Colds: Nothing to Sneeze At!

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Here in the US, it is cold and flu season.  Most of my day is spend with kids recovering from some upper respiratory virus.  A few seem to have a continuous runny nose and cough.  They also have an increase in their sensory processing issues.  Is this connected, and if so, what can be done?

  1. Anything that affects health will make sensory processing harder.  Anyone, at any age, will struggle more when they don’t feel well.  If a child is super-sensitive, feeling ill will make them edgier and more avoidant.  If a child is a sensory seeker, that funny feeling in their head that changes when they flip upside down will probably make them do it more.  If a child is a poor modulator, and goes from 0-60 mph easily, they will have more difficulty staying in their seat and staying calm.
  2. Colds often create fluid in the ears.  This is a problem for hearing.  This is often a problem for speech and mealtimes.  It is also a problem for vestibular processing.  Fluid in the ear means that children are hearing you as if they are underwater.  Their speech may be directly affected.  They probably realize that biting and chewing open the eustacian tubes from the mouth to the ear, so they may want to chew more.  On everything.  They may also be unable to handle car rides without throwing up.  They may refuse to do any vestibular activities in therapy.
  3. Children sleep poorly when ill.  Anyone with sensory processing issues will struggle more when they are tired.  Young children cannot get the sleep they need and don’t understand why they feel the way they do.  Enough said.
  4. Spatial processing problems will get worse.  Being unable to use hearing to orient to the space and the people and objects in the room, children will roam around more, touch things more, startle more, stand still and look disoriented, and may refuse to go into spaces that are hard to process, like gyms or big box stores.  Uh-oh.

So what can you do as a parent or a therapist?

  • Understand that this is happening.  It is real.  It may not be a personality issue, a deterioration in their ABA program, or a problem with therapy.
  • Ask your pediatrician for more help.  There are nasal sprays and inhaled medications that can help, and some, like steroids, that can create more behavioral issues.  If your child needs steroids, you need to understand what effects they can have.  Saline sprays, cold mist humidifiers, soups and honey for coughs, if your pediatrician approves, are low-tech ways to help a child suffer less.
  • Alter your daily routine if needed.  Making less appointments, fewer challenges, and more rest could help.  Kids can be over-scheduled and under-rested.  Therapy sessions may have to be adjusted to both be less stressful and more helpful.
  • Your child may benefit from vestibular movement if they do not have an untreated ear infection.  Your OT can help you craft a sensory diet that moves fluid, but not if there is an infection.

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Young Children, Sensory Modulation, and the Automatic “NO!”

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Kids as young as 18 months can express their sensory processing issues with one word: “NO!!”  What appears to be a budding attitude issue or even oppositional defiant disorder can be a sensory modulation issue instead.

How could you possibly tell?

Well, if your child has already been diagnosed with sensory sensitivity or sensory modulation problems, you know that they won’t just make it harder to wear clothes with seams or touch Play-Doh.  These issues affect all aspects of daily living and create emotional regulation and biological over-activation issues as well.  Young children are learning how to express their opinions and separate physically and emotionally from their caregivers.  Saying “NO!” isn’t unusual for young kids (and a lot of older ones too!).  But refusals that make no sense can have a different origin.

So what is the giveaway?

When a child has an almost immediate “NO”, perhaps even before you have finished your sentence, and the reaction is to something you know they have liked or almost certainly would like, you have to suspect that sensory modulation is at play.  You should know when your child is trying to get your attention or get you activated.  This should feel different.

What do I do next?

You also need to respond in a specific way to test your theory.  Your response should be as vocally neutral and emotionally curious as you can manage.   “Oh, really….you said no…” is a good template.  Whether it is “no” to their fave food, show, toy or activity.  You remove all criticism and encouragement from your voice.  You don’t want to fuel the refusal fire; you want to shut it off and see what is left in the embers of “NO”.

Now you need to wait for them to neurologically calm down.  Little brains are like old computers.  They take a while to reboot.  Look at the floor, wipe your hands, etc and wait a minimum of 15 seconds, probably 30, to ask again if they want a cookie, to go out, to play, to eat, or whatever.  The child who needed their primitive part of the brain that responds defensively to go offline and then use their frontal lobes may ask for what they just refused, or respond to your exactly identical request with a cheery “YES”.

Please try to have compassion for them.

It can seem maddening to do this all day long, and in truth, if you are, you need to learn how to work with an OTR to learn sensory treatment strategies that have some power to rewire the brain and get out of this pattern.  But your child isn’t jerking your chain when their behavior fits this pattern.  They are almost a captive of their brain wiring.   Don’t let yourself react as if they are intentionally being difficult.  That day will come…..

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Have More 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!

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