Loitering in the shadows at the side of the beach, balanced on a lonely patch of grass there he stood with a pained look upon his face. Approaching him, armed with buckets of water, I skilfully launched the liquid at his foot which dangled precariously mid air. Taking some time to meticulously inspect the results he eventually placed it on a dry towel before pointing the opposite foot in my direction. The rest of the children, soggy and sandy from our beach experience stood united with acceptance, waiting patiently whilst he dried thoroughly and changed into yet another set of clothes. Suddenly, just as we were preparing to leave, he momentarily looses his balance which results in one of his wet sliders being unexpectedly propelled onto the beach and doused once more in grains of sand. His face crumpled and I suppressed a sigh as hubby and I exchange a knowing glance. Coming to the silent, mutual realisation that the shoe would now be met with rejection I bent down, scooped it up and went running back in the direction of the now distant sea.
Of course years ago this scenario would have played out very differently indeed and undoubtedly would have resulted in an explosive unexplained meltdown leaving us as parents scratching our heads in confusion. Looking back now with a newfound wisdom, I understand that this has always been a part of him, we just misunderstood the signs due to our lack of knowledge at the time. You see, when we first embarked on our adoption journey (many moons ago) we knew very little about sensory processing difficulties – it wasn’t something that was covered in our preparation training (despite it now being linked heavily with adoption due to its connection with FASD, developmental trauma and other Neurodevelopmental disorders) and if I’m honest it was just something I naively associated with Autism.
It was during my time working in Adoption Support that I experienced what I can only describe as an epiphany when it came to our own personal struggles with sensory processing. As my knowledge of developmental diversity grew and our son received his initial diagnosis of ADHD I began to understand that these challenges could come hand in hand with numerous conditions.
So, what are sensory processing difficulties? Well in its simplest form it’s where the brain has trouble receiving, organising and responding to information that comes in through our senses. If I could ask you to pause there momentarily and think about our senses, how many can you name? Well, this morning I asked hubby to do just this. Looking at me sceptically he started to reel off the following (which I’m guessing are the first to spring into your mind) ‘taste, touch, sight, sound and smell’, looking very pleased with himself he looked up to meet my slightly amused face, before adding questioningly ‘then of course there’s the sixth one where you’d be able to see dead people?’ In between fits of giggles I explained to him that whilst these are the basic senses I could name additional ones such as our sense of balance (vestibular) our sense of space (proprioception) and not to mention the sense of our internal sensations, such as hunger and temperature control (interoception).
There are two types of sensory processing challenges that an individual may face and these are hypersensitivity (oversensitivity) and hyposensitivity (under sensitive / sensory seeking). Some people experience mild difficulties (two of my children would fall into this category) whilst others (like my son) are more profound. I’d like to share some additional information relating to this (including some of my top tips) however, I’d like you to remain mindful that sensory processing challenges are unique to the individual and therefore it isn’t a ‘one size fits all approach’. For those of you who would like to research this further I have included some useful resources too.
So what does this look like in real life? Well (taking you back to the beach scenario) whilst a few grains of sands might be mildly irritating for some, to my son (who experiences hypersensitivity) it’s comparable to asking him to walk on glass. Showers are a painful experience (for everybody involved) and even skin on skin contact can be overwhelming and cause discomfort. Clothes and bedding can (and will) be met with rejection and even the menial day to day tasks that most of us would simply take for granted such as changing our clothes can feel like a huge burden.
Talk to your child about their sensory difficulties – explain how their brain works. There will come a point as they grow when they recognise that they are different and this in itself is a battle. Help them to find the words to talk to you about what they are experiencing and how they are feeling as this helps to open up conversations and ultimately can avoid reaching a meltdown scenario.
Give up the battle when it comes to buying your child clothes – allow them to help choose and wear what makes them feel comfortable. Yes, admittedly this may mean that you are sat in a restaurant all dressed up with a child in a vest, shorts and sliders in the middle of winter, this will however make for a much nicer experience for everyone involved – trust me! As someone who grew up with outfits that were reserved for ‘best’ I initially found this one a struggle.
If clothing or bedding is met with rejection there will be a good reason for this. Sometimes washing it helps but if it’s a persistent offender – get rid! Hubby bought our son a duvet cover showing his favourite footy team and he was over the moon – until he used it for the first time. Thankfully one wash sorted it a treat, however if it doesn’t just remember it’s not a personal rejection. Take a moment to consider what it would be like to be forced to wear something that makes you feel uncomfortable – for me it would be scratchy lace or one of those itchy woolly jumpers – this may help to provide an empathetic response to your child.
Allow your child to take some control when it comes their showering/ bathing routine, (eg night or day). Most importantly lower your expectations and agree how many times a week.
Buy different types of sun cream and provide your child with a choice. We have a roll on, a cream and let me just tell you that the clear sun spray is an absolute winner, in fact my saviour!
Try to encourage your child not to become avoidant and instead find coping strategies. We now have a ‘beach plan’ in place which involves packing a bag of spare clothes and providing additional time to wash, dry (talcum powder is the best hack ever when it comes to banishing those unwanted grains of sand) and change; it may sound simple but it works a treat – if only schools could recognise this strategy!
Taste, smell and texture – hypersensitivity
We’ve all been brought up with very different expectations when it comes to food. I personally grew up with the ‘you’ll eat what you are given and will be grateful for it’ message. As a result I also know how difficult these ingrained messages are to break – picture me and hubby at a friends house force feeding ourselves salmon en-croute (neither of us like salmon) whilst smiling manically at our hosts and trying not to vomit mid mouthful!
For some people with sensory processing difficulties, tastes, smells and textures can be overwhelming to the point where it can make them gag or feel like they are choking.
Re-write those ingrained negative food messages of your own. Create a new positive one for your family – support your children to sample a varied diet, however also encourage them to talk about and identify the foods that they do not like and why.
Teeth brushing with a child who experiences hypersensitivity is a nightmare! Firstly there is the feel of the toothbrush to consider and then there is the overwhelming taste and smell of the tooth paste to factor in. This was one of the parts of the bed-time routine which was guaranteed to spark a meltdown when our boy was little. No differently to the sun cream, providing differing choices when it comes to brushes (with different bristles) and pastes really does help. On the really bad days we’ve even resorted to mild baby tooth paste – surely some brushing is better than none!
Let me just tell you my child’s super power is his supersonic hearing! Teachers do not be fooled – he can hear every word you say no matter how quiet you are and even if he appears distracted and is looking elsewhere. This can be problematic when it comes to loud or echoey sounds.
Y’know those adult conversations you want to have or those surprises you may have planned? Make sure your child is out of ear shot first…. with my son’s bat ears I tend to find the garden shed works!
Headphones and a music player or tablet help to soothe and block out overwhelming noises when we are out and about. There is no way my son would wear ear defenders so this or a hoody that he can pull up provide a useful alternative.
I think it’s important to note here that some days are better than others when it comes to sensory processing. At its very worst it results in something called sensory overload – my son’s first experience of this was on his birthday one year and it was so distressing for him that our teenage daughter cried. Rather than try to explain it I’ve decided to show you what this looks like using the following video clip.
Whilst my top tips (may or may not) prove useful in and around the home environment it’s important to recognise and acknowledge that school can often be a challenging and a negative experience for a child with sensory processing difficulties (needless to say listening to music and wearing hoodies aren’t an option!). This ultimately boils down to a school’s inability to be able to differentiate, from challenging behaviour and this type of disability. In primary we were refused a sensory break as it would have been deemed as ‘unfair to the other children’.
Having worked with numerous schools in my time (and currently working in a Secondary school setting) it’s clear to see that the quality (and training) of teaching staff can vary dramatically. In addition to this we appear to have developed a belief system that these specialisms belong with the Sendco or Pastoral team (which should work closely together, but often don’t) when in actual fact they require a whole school awareness and approach. With advances in research with regards to neuroscience you’d think that school’s would be more forward thinking and understanding of the fact that it may be time to rethink their ethos, however sadly this is not the case and there are still stark changes that need to be made.
Let’s take a moment to consider the language professionals use in schools and before I talk more about this I’d like you to take a look at the following image.
Now, how do you feel about calling someone in a wheel chair ‘attention seeking’ because they are using a chair as an aid or ‘defiant’ for not climbing the stairs like all the other children in the classroom? I’m not sure about you, but this doesn’t sit too comfortably with me – so I have to question why I hear these words (along with an array of other negative labels) time and time again to describe other children with less visible but sometimes equally debilitating impairments? I’d like to take some time to think about this by watching the following powerful video about the impact of our words.
Taking some time to reflect on this, I’m curious as to whether it is just parents that are able to hurt their children with their words? Or is it perceivable that our educational system could be adding to the mental health challenges our children face. If this truly were the case many adopted and fostered children could potentially have the following words etched into their skin…..controlling, manipulative, defiant, disruptive, naughty. The list is endless and of course these will not be new scars, on no, they will simply be adding to a whole heap of old ones that are already there, some of which are healing but others are still very much open wounds.
There is however (I’m sure) a light at the end of the tunnel as (with an EHCP in progress and Sensory integration processing therapy in the pipeline) it’s my belief that with the right specialist input and support children with sensory processing difficulties can go on to thrive just like their peers…. 🤞 🤞
If you are interested in accessing some useful resources, check out the following link.