Tag Archives: sensory modulation

Want Better Self-Regulation in Young Children? Help Them Manage Aggression

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You might think as a pediatric OTR, I would be writing a post about sensory-based treatment for self-regulation.  And I have in the past.  Not today.

But I have been an OTR for decades, and what I know about today’s children is that agitated and dysregulated kids often need help managing aggressive impulses and negative emotions first, in order for me to assess whether or not their behaviors have a sensory basis.

That’s right:  a young agitated child cannot be assumed to have sensory processing difficulties if they haven’t learned any self-management tools.  It is too easy to assign them a label, and I refuse to do that.  But I can and will use effective techniques to manage aggression before I jump in with all the bells and whistles from my sensory processing treatment bag.

What works for me?

I get a lot of mileage out of Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block strategies.  Once I learned these simple techniques, I applied them to every situation in which a young child was oppositional, aggressive, defiant, or threatening/delivering a tantrum.   That could be every session!  Toddlers aren’t known for their easy-going ways.

His Patience Stretching, Fast Food Rule, and Time-Ins are my three-legged stool that supports my therapy sessions.  Read Use The Fast Food Rule For Better Attunement With Your Child and Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today!  Kids aren’t born with the ability to handle frustration and manage impulses.  Adults teach them how to deal with their feelings.  When they aren’t taught what to do when they are disappointed, when they want attention, or when they are angry, things can get pretty unpleasant.  The good news is that learning can begin around their first birthday.

Job number one should never be unclear to anyone, but as time has gone on, fewer and fewer parents seem to communicate it clearly:  physical violence from anyone isn’t acceptable at any time.

Are parents committing violence against their child?  No.  It is the child that is biting, hitting, or damaging items.   “We don’t hurt people or animals in this house” isn’t always communicated clearly to a child.  I never hear a parent say that they like being smacked across the face by their child, but they also seem to struggle to clearly communicate that this behavior is unacceptable.  Resorting to responding with violence is not helpful.  Teaching how to manage aggression can be done without spanking a child or even raising their voice.  Changing their tone of voice and rapidly putting the child out of arm’s reach will make it clear to their child that they have crossed a line.  But so many parents seem hesitant to set limits, and some seem to worry that being firm will harm their child or hurt their feelings.  This is coming from,  remember, the same child that just smacked them in the face or bit them.  By not reacting clearly, parents are in fact communicating that aggression toward others isn’t a problem.

I try hard to teach parents that it is kind and loving to teach children that they can have their feelings but they cannot express them with aggression.  There are limits in the wider world, and if they act this way with people that don’t love them, the consequences aren’t going to be good.  Learning to hear “no” from someone that loves you is a lot easier.

Young children need to learn the vocabulary of negative emotions like anger, disappointment, frustration and sadness.  They need to practice waiting and need to be spoken to in a way that makes it clear that they are understood but may not get their way all the time.  Negotiation and appreciation go hand in hand.  Dr. Karp’s techniques really work for me, and they aren’t difficult to learn or use.  I wish every parent would try even one and see how easy they can be incorporated into daily life with young children!

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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.

Read more about sensory processing here: Does Your Child Hate Big Spaces? There is a Sensory-Based Explanation and Spatial Awareness and Sound: “Hearing” The Space Around You

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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 these issues 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 usually sense 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 that sensory issues are the root of the ‘tude.  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 an 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, then ask again if they want a cookie, want to go out, want to play, to eat, or whatever.  The child who needed the primitive defensive part of their brain to go offline to allow them to use their budding frontal lobes may sweetly 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 occupational therapist in order to learn powerful sensory treatment strategies that can get your child out of this pattern.  But your child isn’t jerking your chain when their behavior fits this pattern.  They are more likely a captive of their brain wiring.   Don’t let yourself react as if they are intentionally being difficult.  That day will come…..13 is just around the corner!

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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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