There are those kids who playfully splash their hands in the water table at the children’s museum. You can hear them laughing and watch as they carefully fill the tiny cups with water and then quickly dump them back in. They make waves in the water and play in their own personal space. That is not my kid. My kid is the one running up to the table with a big smile on his face as he slaps his palms on the surface of the water and pounds his fists in. He picks up that tiny cup, flies it high above him, puckers his lips together making the noises of a jet-airplane and nose-dives straight down, making a cannonball splash into the water. To you he looks like a misbehaved child, but what you don’t know is that my son has sensory processing disorder (SPD).
The first time Camden’s pre-school teacher mentioned that he had a hard time sitting still during circle time, I thought it was just typical toddler behavior. She then mentioned he frequently bumped into other kids — not out of aggression though — and that he needed more direct one on one cues to complete a task. Then a few days later, she had noticed every day around nap time that he needed to physically be touched and stroked on the back for him to fall asleep. Camden is an active 3-year-old who loves to dance and jump up and down to music like any other toddler his age, but after just a few minutes he is so wired that he’ll run in endless circles, ninja-kick the air, and throw himself on the couch imitating silly sounds — something that is nearly impossible to bring him back down from.
He struggles with temper-tantrums. And I’m not talking about your typical 5-minute screaming match that can easily be distracted and ended with a bribe. No, these temper-tantrums are overboard and at times extreme. Anything could send him over the edge: his teeth brushed, his hair combed, his shoes on, even the wrong colored breakfast plate. I have to let him pick his waffle in the morning otherwise he’ll melt into a tearful puddle on the kitchen floor. The control is unbearable at times. I once put a waffle in the toaster before he noticed, but when he did notice, he instantly tore the box open to grab the exact same cinnamon waffle himself. I had to take my waffle out of the toaster and put his in. He was like an angry little bully at the kitchen table and my patience couldn’t keep up.
It was like we had found the missing piece of the puzzle. We learned that sensory processing disorder is like a traffic jam in the brain.
The following week, the school director wanted to have a meeting with me about his behavior. So there we were, his two classroom teachers, the director, and myself all sitting at a kiddie table in kiddie chairs just inches from the floor when they asked if I had heard of sensory processing disorder.
I couldn’t stop googling that night. I read until I fell asleep. It was like we had found the missing piece of the puzzle. We learned that sensory processing disorder is like a traffic jam in the brain. Sensory information goes into the brain but doesn’t get organized into appropriate responses. That information gets jumbled up and can cause issues to our senses, which is why my toddler looks like a wild child. For most of us, sensory processing occurs without conscious thought. For those with SPD, the body is not able to process incoming sensory information and as a result can become disorganized and encounter issues with behavior, learning or motor development.
In short, the software and hardware is all there, but sometimes it is not working properly together, causing “glitches” — meltdowns. Children can be sensory-seekers or sensory-avoiders. You can even be a sensory seeker for certain senses and a sensory avoider in others. Camden is a sensory seeker.
He craves touch. He craves fast, spinning movements and is always running, jumping, and hopping. He seeks out deep pressure which is why you’ll find him crashing into a ball pit or smacking himself into a bean bag. Cuddling, hugging, and squeezing helps him feel more organized and focused. I remember walking into his first occupational therapy session not knowing what to expect. Not knowing if this was just normal toddler behavior or if it was something more like his teacher had suggested. I watched him with his therapist sway on a big tire swing singing the ABC’s together. They had several tactile bins filled with various textures like lentils, rice, sand, and foam. Camden would say “yucky” when he had to touch finger-paint or sand. He was all over the place, self-directed and resistant. It wasn’t until his third session when we began to understand his sensitivities and threshold for different sensory inputs.
To help him focus on a specific task, Camden uses a lap buddy, a weighted blanket to give his joints the pressure he’s craving. This allows him to focus on the task at hand without feeling like he needs to run in circles and jump around the room. We have to get his therapy just right though, otherwise it will send him into a sensory overload. One week he became over stimulated from all the different textures and that sent his body into a major sensory overload even before we left the gym. His eyes glossed over and he was running around the lobby bumping and crashing into chairs. It took him the entire day to snap out of it. That same week we went to Target and he had a full-on meltdown. You know it and you’ve seen it. The one where you see the mother and say, “That kid is crazy, can’t she control her kid?” The answer is “No,” I couldn’t control him, I didn’t stand a chance.
All of this information was thrown at us so fast. “Sensory what disorder?” we thought. We had never heard of SPD and it sounded like something scary at first. Every parent just wants their kid to fit in and do well, no one can prepare you for the unknown.
We set up a mini trampoline indoors and try to give big squeezes when we hug him to help regulate his body.
He’s been in his therapy for almost two months now and my husband and I are finally getting a grip on SPD and what that looks like for Camden. We’re focused on “heavy work” like wheelbarrow crawls and crab walks. We set up a mini trampoline indoors and try to give big squeezes when we hug him to help regulate his body.
To this day, you can still find my 3-year-old dumping his toy bins rummaging through them aimlessly and crashing his toys into anything solid he can find, but we finally have a reason for his behaviors and we’re hopeful that he will learn the tools he needs to self-regulate and control his body awareness.
Before I understood what SPD was, I felt like I needed to make up constant excuses for my son’s behavior. “Sorry, he wrestles with his Dad so he thinks he can wrestle anyone now,” or “I apologize, he didn’t sleep well last night so he’s a little out of sorts today.” To you he looks like an out of control child, but he’s trying his best to give his body what it’s asking for. And what you don’t see are those quiet, gentle moments at bedtime when he snuggles up close to me and says, “I love you, Mommy.” You don’t see the way he softly pats his baby brother’s head and says, “Aww,” as he bends down and gives him a kiss, and you don’t see the way he runs at full speed into his dad’s arms each night yelling, “Daddy!” as he walks through the door from a long day at work.
Camden is a bright, intelligent, and compassionate little boy. A little boy we finally understand in a way we never did before. SPD is not a disease, it is not a disability, and it won’t affect his development. Camden is just a little different, and being different is OK.
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