“Is there any way to treat Sensory Processing Disorder at home without Occupational Therapy?”
I want to say off the bat that there is no equal replacement for a caring and qualified Occupational Therapist. We’ve seen several, some good and some really bad, and sensory issues are complex enough that I would never tell someone that they don’t *need* OT. However, in the real world, insurance does not always cover OT, or it only covers a few sessions, or for some families who have a newly adopted child, you may not feel comfortable pursuing outside treatment right away. I always say that at the very least, getting a professional evaluation done is a good idea. Sensory issues are not all the same and you can actually do more damage by just picking and choosing random techniques without understanding what you are doing. We have been “treating” our daughter, both with professionals and on our own, since she was about a year old, so here are some methods we’ve used that have helped.
First, realize that no matter how your child’s sensory issues manifest themselves (sensory seeking, sensory avoidance, or both), just dealing with them is stressful and can cause great anxiety and confusion for your child. Someone once described a child’s experience with SPD as like “always walking around on a bad acid trip”. Lights and sounds don’t make sense and overlap each other. Touch may feel smothering and oppressive. Pain can be intensified or desensitized. Depth perception can be off, leading to lack of coordination and clumsiness. It reminded me of when I had to get an MRI, and was instructed to take a large dose of Xanax beforehand. While one evening of that was merely funny, if that was how I operated all the time, it would be incredibly frustrating. In my head, I was making perfect sense. On the outside, I seemed completely high. So really the first step is to remember that- because as difficult as these issues can be for the parents, it is much more difficult for the child. (If you’d like a laugh at my expense, read about my MRI experience because blogging on Xanax is clearly a good idea- http://followingbutterflies.org/2012/09/21/i-get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-i-get-high-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends/ )
For us, it’s been important to try to reduce Selah’s stress level as much as we can, knowing that her threshold is lower, and her baseline is higher. For me, this means I have to work hard to control my tone of voice (and volume). If I yell up the stairs to my son to put on his shoes, he simply hears me telling him to put on his shoes. If I yell up the stairs to Selah to put on her shoes, she only hears possible danger because I am yelling, and her brain only processes that, and forgets completely about the shoe instruction. I also watch body language with her more carefully. Because Selah is a seeker AND avoider, I have to pay attention to what’s going on around her to know what she needs in that moment. Sometimes she needs firm hands on her arms to talk to her, but sometimes she needs quiet voice and soft rubbing on her arms. It’s trial and error, but you can usually see pretty quickly what is calming and what is not. Sometimes eye contact is needed for her to focus on me and block everything else out, and sometimes eye contact feels threatening. Being a student of your child and even keeping a journal will help you see certain patterns in behavior, locations, time of day, etc, and that will help you anticipate rather than react.
Part of keeping her stress level (and therefore, keeping her stress hormone levels down), is that I am pretty strict with her schedule, and I was extremely strict with it when she was younger. Children with SPD don’t often “bounce back” from things like changes in schedule or physical stressors. Even now I know that if Selah has multiple nights of going to bed later than normal, we will be dealing with some “sensory behavior” for the next 48-72 hours. I know that if we have a new babysitter or even one she hasn’t seen in a while, there is a good chance she will act out in some way while the babysitter is there. I know that when her schedule has been disrupted or there is outside stress, she will likely have a night terror. (Side note- this is also why it is so vital to have consistent and open communication with your child’s school and teacher, because one “little” incident at school that doesn’t seem important can set your child off on a chain reaction as they try to make sense of it. An example of this is a time when Selah had a complete meltdown over her crayons breaking and we found out later that she had a substitute for two days that was unaware that she was allowed to go to the nurse’s office when she got overwhelmed.). We give her plenty of warning about what the day is going to bring, and we try to keep our days during the week fairly the same. I have realized that when she asks me a hundred times what is for dinner, she isn’t just asking, her brain is trying to process and get ready for the sensory experience of eating dinner. When she asks a hundred times when daddy is getting home, she is preparing herself for the loud chaos that happens when daddy walks through the door.
Some more practical things we have done-
Oral- My sweet girl is a chewer. I don’t think y’all understand- this girl has chewed through every single chewy we have ever bought. We used to use gum until we took her off of food dye, so now we experiment with other things. One thing I have recently found to work pretty well is a piece of sugarcane. It is very tough, so it works well for kids who chew hard, it’s natural so no worries about dyes, and it’s relatively cheap. I cut it into pieces and store it in the freezer for when I need a piece. I also usually carry some straws with me in case I notice her chewing on her sleeve or hair. Giving her some hard oral work first thing in the morning seems to help- things like using a small straw for a thick smoothie or yogurt, or letting her chew on a bagel. If she’s having a problem with constant talking, I let her hum or sing. Singing somehow doesn’t seem to annoy her brothers as much as constant questions, haha! I also will have her play a game where she has to say a sentence or scripture or sing but keep her lips closed. This is stress relieving, because it’s fun, AND it gives her great oral input. I carry lip balm with me, because sometimes just letting her put it on is enough input, or it’s helpful for protection for kids that lick their lips a lot. I use lollipops or sour candy if I can find dye free varieties. I’ve been known to go to sonic and just get cups of ice and let her chew on that.
Muscle work- Selah has grown to a point where she is much better at recognizing her needs before I see it, and so she often asks me for “heavy muscle work”. I have recently kept a pile of bricks in the backyard that she is allowed to pick up and carry around and build things out of. I almost always ask her to carry the groceries in or push the heavy shopping cart. I allow her to carry her brother on her back. When all else fails, I have allowed her to rearrange furniture in different rooms. I give her deep massages when I see that she is getting wound up, and we use our trampoline. A lot. I mean, sometimes I am tempted in the middle of the night to send her happy up singing Taylor Sift songs hiney out to the trampoline.
Auditory- Selah has headphones in the car that she can use when she is having a hard time with sounds. This seems to happen more on road trips, so another thing we do is stop more often on road trips then we probably would. Forcing a sensory kid to endure long road trips without getting out of the car is not a good idea at best, unbearable for them at worst. (I still shudder thinking about driving to Colorado from Texas and Selah screaming bloody murder and trying to undress and rip her car seat apart for the last three hours of the trip. My sister-in-law met me in her driveway with a rum
and coke. Nightmares). For this particular issue though, mostly it’s just patience and remembering that she can’t filter out the sounds that aren’t important (like the air conditioner turning on), so she isn’t purposefully ignoring me, she just can’t focus on what I am saying. This means I don’t ask her to do something when the television or radio is on. This means I touch her when I speak to her. This means I repeat myself. And repeat myself. And repeat myself. (I know this might seem like an obedience issue, and sometimes it is, but after 8 years, it’s almost always easy to tell when it’s an obedience issue and when it’s a processing issue)
Kindness and grace. Mercy and compassion. Intentional study and forgiveness. Dealing with sensory issues can make you want to tear out your hair and hide in the closet and cry. It can also remind you daily of your need for Christ.
May we all be blessed with one of these kids!
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