“Your son has Sensory Processing Disorder”. It was 2009 and it was the first time I had ever heard of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and I had no idea what it meant. I thought it sounded like a made up diagnosis for mothers who couldn’t control their child’s behaviour. Was I just struggling to parent and looking for an excuse for my son’s 3 year old tantrums? I felt judged by other mothers who also had full on three-year olds but hadn’t sought help. I am not sure whether they were actually judging me or if I was just judging myself. There were many times I doubted the diagnosis and thought for sure he would grow out of it. After all he had good days and bad days and the good days were great.
I started doing a lot of research and signed up to every course I could to better understand my son. I discovered that Sensory Processing Disorder is a complex disorder of the brain that affects the way people process information taken in through their senses. This can result in reactions and behaviours that are not considered normal. For example a light touch might feel like a sharp pain to someone with SPD so the reaction they present with might be to cry or pull away quickly or possibly even attack the person. The difficulty in diagnosing is that some of the reactions and behaviours are totally normal for young children, especially boys, and they will grow out of them, such as an inability to sit still and listen for long periods of time, or not coping with loud noises such as the rubbish truck going by.
Sensory Processing Disorder is currently not recognised as a stand-alone disorder in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is used by psychiatrists and other clinicians. It is however recognised as one of the criteria for diagnosing Autism and ADHD. This makes advocating for a child with SPD more challenging. Some children who are diagnosed with SPD will go on to be diagnosed with Autism or ADHD later but some won’t. This lack of recognition played a big role in my initial doubt of the diagnosis.
I am lucky that my sister is an Occupational Therapist and was able to identify early warning signs in my son. I clearly remember talking to her one day and saying that I couldn’t wait for this stage to pass. She was the first person to suggest it may not be “a stage”. Every day when it was school drop off or pick up for my older son my 3 year old would slowly commando crawl down our home passageway crying and screaming that he didn’t want to go. I now understand that school pick up was an incredibly noisy, busy place with the constant possibility of being unexpectedly touched as people walk passed. His nervous system couldn’t cope but it was an activity over which he had no control.
With eight different senses, yes eight (there are 3 internal senses), and people being either over or under responsive to sensory input it is very hard to neatly describe a child with SPD. To add to that the way a child responds to being overloaded with information is different too and can result in the child either presenting as being aggressive, running away or frightened – this is known as the Fight, Flight or Fright response.
The good news is there are many tools and techniques available to help calm the central nervous system of a person with SPD. The not so good news is that it takes a lot more time and effort to achieve a task that a child without SPD can do without intervention. For example when my son was in primary school, mornings were a nightmare. The texture of the uniform bothered him, he didn’t like wearing shoes and socks and getting him to brush his teeth or let me touch his hair was almost impossible. Eventually I discovered techniques that worked but it involved a lot of my time to implement them and strength to remain calm. I would dress him while he was still half asleep in bed under his sheets, then I would get him to go outside and jump on the trampoline or ride his bike around the house and his breakfast was either something crunchy or a smoothie that he drank through a straw. Cleaning teeth involved convincing him that he only had to do it for as long as it took for me to sing a nursery rhyme. Meanwhile I still had 3 other children to get organised and ready for the day. By the time I dropped him off at school I was exhausted.
If you are a mother who is struggling with her child’s behaviour and it feels like more than just what is normal for their age then I strongly urge you to start studying your child. Write down what has occurred before the meltdown or unexplained behaviour and take note of the consequences afterwards. Think about all the different triggers that may have caused the behaviour. Understanding the behaviour makes staying calm easier.
Sensory children are often labelled as “the naughty child” and as mums we all want our children to fit in and be accepted for who they are. Sometimes the reassurance or extra guidance of a professional is enough to give you as a mother the peace of mind or support you need.
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Counsellor & Author of 'Ben's School Daze'
Owner Motherhood & You
Co-Director Magnetic Moves