Friday, July 11, 2014

Being a Sensory Mum to a Sensory kid

It was only when my firstborn started displaying unusual behaviour that I started to wonder whether he could have a behavioural condition.

ADHD and Autism/Asperger’s get a lot of attention and schools have special units and special-needs assistants set up to support kids with these conditions. 

So I asked teachers, other parents, and specialists about whether they thought he was on these spectrums and their answers were always no. “It’s more likely a sensory issue,” they said, watching my child clawing at the floor or running around with a bag on his head banging into things.

So I started to research Sensory Processing Disorder and the different levels of the spectrum. He ticked a lot of the boxes:

  • He could never sit still as a baby. He wanted to be out of the house from just a few months – he used to go mental if we stayed indoors. Eventually, he used to start exploding when we went to toddler groups and soft play centres as the bright colours and crowds overwhelmed him. He would start fights with other kids and deliberately bang into things.
  • When he started playschool, he displayed worrying behaviour. He froze in front of people, and would lick hands (mine and his), hide away from being seen by key workers, flung himself under the table clawing at the floor. He didn’t say a word for the first 6 months, which was put down to shyness and speech delay. Funnily enough, I had exactly the same problems as a small child, apparently not speaking at all until I was 5 and being painfully shy.
  • He has always refused to wear jeans, which he calls “hard and scratchy”. Instead he will only wear soft tracksuit bottoms.
  • He has not been able to sleep from 8 months without his soft attachment toy (called Silkie).
  • He calms down when he has structure, routine, and activities; when he is able to get stuck into something, such as building Lego or drawing. But if he’s tired, hungry, out of routine, or confined in a busy space, he can suddenly roar and become aggressive, start throwing things, chew off his fingers, and hit his own head.
  • He started being allergic to dust and pollen at age 2 and uses an inhaler to help him breathe. I’ve read that autoimmune allergies such as hayfever and dust and food sensitivities are connected to sensory processing because of the way the system perceives them as another attack and melts down. I’ve been blighted by these allergies all my life, and now, sadly, my son has them too.
We were close to a private referral – costing upwards of €1,000 – but instead I decided to talk to more parents and read more books about SPD. The research I found said that these conditions are on the increase, with around 1 in 20 children’s daily lives affected by some level of high sensitivity; yet our school said they didn’t monitor sensory issues unless our child had problems with physical co-ordination. (He doesn’t.) 

However, he did seem to fit into the category of Sensory Seeker: a very active child who is always looking for ways to move, jump, fall, crash, kick, or push something heavy; and craving soft textures and comfort.
I noticed his behaviour got better after about 6 months at school as he matured and learned social skills and became more able to sit still and concentrate. He also improved when I gave him Omega 3 supplements, removed him from crowded rooms, had a good routine in his life, and got loads of sleep.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for a label for my son. I’m looking for better understanding and useful techniques to help him, such as weight-bearing exercises – he is never happier than when he is carry heavy things or digging and lifting stones.
My own personal discoveries about SPD involved recognising my own limitations as a child and acknowledging that this could be something he inherited from me. Here's an article I wrote about that here.
We’re all on a journey, right? Parenting is the biggest journey of them all, fraught with scary self-discoveries and new insights into our own limitations. I’m finally able to embrace them, and face up to new insights about myself and my eldest son. Thankfully, his SPD behaviours are mild and improving with maturity – so now I’m hoping that our relationship will become more rewarding as a result of trying to understand and respond to him better.

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For more on this, read Kids Who Feel Too Much.
For a quick overview of SPD, read this excerpt from the Making Sense of Your High Sensitivity by Cliff Harwin.

This article also appeared on


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