At Twenty-One Senses, our mission is also our passion. As parents and caregivers of children with sensory processing issues, we are dedicated to providing resources and support for families like ours.
As SPD Awareness Month comes to a close, our team would like to take a moment to share just some of the resources and products we’ve found to be particularly helpful over the years. Keep in mind that sensory supports don’t necessarily need to cost money. Get creative and experiment until you find something that works for your family—pushing a laundry basket full of books or groceries around the kitchen is great stimulation for the muscles/joints, and a nook full of pillows can work just as well as a crash pad. The possibilities are endless!
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder in which sensory information—such as light, sound, or touch—is either undetected or incorrectly processed by the brain. This often results in either extreme sensitivity or extreme underreaction to normal sensory input, especially in children. Individuals with SPD may also have problems performing certain motor tasks, appear withdrawn and anxious, or exhibit unusually aggressive or thrill-seeking behavior.
Check out our What Is SPD? page for more information, including specific tips on how to support children with seeking/avoiding behaviors and sensory discrimination challenges.
Did You Know?
Do you have to have autism, ADHD, or some other diagnosis in order to have SPD?
No, sensory processing issues can be—and often are—diagnosis agnostic. However, recent studies have shown as many as 40% of children with ADHD and 75% of children with autism spectrum disorders have significant sensory processing issues.
What causes SPD?
The cause of SPD is currently unknown. Some research suggests there may be a genetic or inherited component. Prenatal/birth complications and environmental triggers have also been named as potential factors.
How do I know if my child struggles with sensory processing?
No two children are alike, and the exact symptoms of SPD can vary widely depending on each child’s surroundings, emotional state, and particular sensitivity. That being said, many children with SPD will show one or more of the following symptoms:
Extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch, or smell
Difficulty learning new things or following verbal instructions
Constant fidgeting, climbing, wrestling, or other “problem” behavior
Tendency to become frightened or overwhelmed in busy, crowded environments
If you think your child is struggling with sensory processing issues, contact your pediatrician or teacher for an evaluation. The STAR Institute also has a great symptoms checklist and a plethora of resources to help you learn about SPD and available treatments.
Your child might not be getting the support he needs right now, but that doesn’t mean your hands are tied. Below are some possible ways you can go about addressing gaps in your child’s accommodations. Remember, each response has pros and cons, and no solution works for everyone. You might even take different approaches at different points in your child’s life—and that’s okay! As always, only you know where you are on your journey and what feels right for your family right now.
Need someone to talk to about how to structure your child’s school day or advice on how to look for outside resources? Check out our new Caregiver Coaching service!
Option #1: Do nothing.
Though it can feel hopeless and frustrating, there are a myriad of reasons why you might not choose to pursue special accommodations for your child at this time. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by his struggles and aren’t sure where to start. Maybe you believe allowing him to have a “normal” childhood is more important than addressing some minor academic setbacks. Maybe you simply don’t have the bandwidth to juggle this new project in addition to the multitude of other responsibilities already on your plate.
Whatever the reason, finding yourself on this path doesn’t mean you don’t care about your child or that you’ve given up on him. Rather, frame this time as an opportunity to observe and learn about what makes your him tick. What kind of things make him frustrated? At what point does he give up or ask for help? What kinds of things does he love to do, and how does he excel at those things? This knowledge will be invaluable if/when you do pursue accommodations in the future.
Both you and your child’s teacher will be able to observe his struggles and start collecting the data/examples you might need to advocate for him within the school.
You won’t be forced to spend time, money, or energy you don’t have right now.
If you do nothing, nothing will change and your child will likely continue to struggle.
Those involved with your child on a daily basis (e.g. teachers, classmates, family members) will also continue to struggle to manage and support him.
Option #2: Demand change within the school system.
In some ways, this is the hardest and longest path to change, but it also yields the highest potential benefit to your child. That being said, you have to be tenacious. You need the time, energy, and resources to educate yourself about your particular district’s programs and policies. You need to have an understanding of how these programs operate during COVID—i.e., don’t expect services in week 2 if special ed programs aren’t starting until week 3. Finally, you need to come prepared with a clear description of your child’s struggles, anything you feel might contribute to his frustrations or inability to make progress, and some suggestions as to how the team, including parents, can address them in a virtual or blended setting.
Start by assuming the school is on your side, the teachers are good at their jobs, and everyone involved wants what’s best for your child. At the same time, acknowledge that COVID has been disruptive to virtually everyone and every system. Whether or not your school is able to provide him with every accommodation he needs, you will be on the path towards a better situation.
Ideally, engaging the school is the first step in building a strong, coordinated team—including teachers, therapists, and psychologists—that will rally to support your child.
At the very least, you will be able to collect more data/examples/documentation on your child’s struggles and what the school is either unwilling or unable to address.
School services are provided during your child’s regular school day and generally don’t take time away from homework, extracurriculars, family time, or being with friends.
It is hard. Dealing with the school system takes a lot of time, energy, purposeful observation, and creative thinking about how to solve problems—even when it feels like solving those problems should be the responsibility of teachers or case workers.
Option #3: Establish relationships directly with therapists, tutors, or other outside supports.
Whether you’re looking to establish entirely new supports or supplement existing ones, finding the right outside services for your child takes a lot of trial and error. In some cases, you’ll be able to provide the needed supports at home with relatively small investments. Most likely, though, you will need to spend some significant amount of time researching coaches, tutors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, etc. Though these services can be expensive, this is the path that will have the most immediate effect on your child.
School services are often incomplete/imperfect and might not be able to provide all the accommodations you need right now. This doesn’t necessarily mean your school is terrible or unwilling to cooperate; they simply might not be able to see things you’ve noticed in a home setting, or your child might be performing better at school—with various in-class supports—than he is at home, where schoolwork seems confusing and out of context. If you do feel the need to go outside of the school system for additional help, make sure you’re at least keeping them in the loop.
You will be able to proactively, directly address your child’s issues and personally ensure that he’s getting the support and accommodations he needs to succeed.
You might be able to gain insight or more details about how to support your child in a day-to-day home setting, not just in an academic context.
Tutors, coaches, and therapists can be costly in terms of both money and time.
You will become your child’s case manager. The burden of researching, scheduling, and coordinating different services now falls entirely on you, and it takes a lot of bandwidth.
Outside services don’t take place during your child’s school day. You will either need to occasionally remove him from class or take him away from extracurriculars, friends, etc.
While many students are now starting to return to in-person classes, many more are gearing up to get back to remote classes. Parents, having learned from the pains of last spring’s abrupt shift to e-learning, are frantically working to create the best possible at-home learning environment. Setting up at home doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be thoughtful. When it comes to children with special needs, a little monetary investment and a lot of creative thinking can make a big difference in terms of focus and regulation.
Create a separate, dedicated workspace in your house for each child and, if at all possible, make sure they’re far enough apart to keep them from seeing, hearing, or otherwise distracting each other while working. Let each child personalize his space—within reason—using posters, stickers, fun lighting and seating options, etc.
Take care to recreate any sensory-specific accommodations the school has made for your child up to this point: flexible seating and lighting, fidget options, etc. Don’t hesitate to reach out to his old teachers or special ed teachers if you need help or ideas.
Recreate some more general classroom elements as well. Many stores are now selling laminated wall charts featuring the alphabet, days of the week, and the weather. You can also make your own and have them laminated at your local office supply store.
If you’re able, get your child pumped up by going “back to school” shopping—whether online or in-store—and let him pick out some school supplies he’s excited about. Think funny notebooks, new headphones/headsets, flash drives, pens with different colored inks, and anything with a favorite character.
Set aside a couple hours to make sure all your child’s technology is set up and working properly. Download apps, double-check passwords, pair Bluetooth devices, etc. A little bit of time working out the kinks now will save hours of frustration later.
Focus on creating good transitions.
Create a weekly schedule for each child and hang it in an obvious place. Include a list of each class or subject, preferably color-coded, and a brief description of what your child should be doing in the few minutes between subjects (“Do 10 jumping jacks and get a glass of water,” or “Use the bathroom and move to the desk for math time.”)
Consider single-use timekeeping devices such as digital watches, timers, or alarm clocks. Whether it’s an old-school egg timer or a multi-sensory alarm clock designed for children with special needs, having a dedicated way to track time will keep your child from picking up his phone and becoming distracted throughout the day.
Further avoid distractions by using dedicated apps rather than bookmarks in your browser whenever possible. (Here are some ways for Mac users to turn web pages into dedicated desktop applications.)
Develop some strategies to help your child transition between activities that have to be done in the same space. Consider using different devices for different subjects, changing the lighting for math, facing another direction for social studies, putting some desk items away for reading, or simply hanging a sticky note with the current subject name above the desk. If you color-coded your schedule, make sure folders (both physical and digital), notebooks, and pens for each subject align to those colors.
Remember to keep moving! Remote learning likely means your child will be sitting in one or two spots for the majority of the day therefore won’t have as many natural breaks to get up, go outside, move up and down stairs, etc. Start the day with a walk or some exercise, and remember to build in frequent movement breaks.
Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let him sleep later than he would for in-person classes, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
Interoception is the body’s ability to recognize and interpret its own internal cues, such as hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and pain. Children with interoceptive processing issues typically have disproportionately weak or strong reactions to normal bodily urges, such as feeling hungry or needing to use the bathroom. They may not be able to recognize pain or symptoms of exhaustion, or they might be unable to properly gauge the severity of such symptoms.
Like proprioception, interoception is not as commonly recognized as other senses, but it plays a critical role in the body’s ability to regulate and protect itself. It’s how you know when you’re exhausted and need to rest, when you’re hungry and need to eat, or when you’re cold and need to put on a jacket.
Interoceptive seekers may:
Have disproportionately weak reactions, or no reaction, to normal bodily queues.
Feel pain less intensely than others and may not notice when injured.
Be unable to register hunger or thirst until they’re practically starving.
Be unable to feel an increased heart rate and may not feel tired until totally exhausted.
Be unable to register when they need to use the bathroom and have frequent accidents.
Support seekers by:
Discussing ways to identify symptoms associated with bodily queues, such as putting your hand on your heart to feel the pounding of an increased heart rate.
Incorporating dense, calorie-rich foods and drinks, such as protein shakes and chocolate milk, into mealtimes and snacks to ensure enough calories are being consumed.
Encouraging your child to use the bathroom before every new activity or transition, such as getting into the car, going to bed, or washing up for dinner.
Allowing your child to have some quiet play/transition time in his room prior to getting into bed and falling asleep.
Interoceptive avoiders may:
Have disproportionately strong reactions to normal bodily queues.
Feel pain more intensely or for a longer duration than others.
Constantly feel as if they are hungry, thirsty, or need to go to the bathroom.
Support avoiders by:
Treating and giving attention to every injury, even very small scrapes and bruises, with kisses, band-aids, and ice packs.
Encouraging your child to use the bathroom before every new activity or transition, such as getting into the car, going to bed, or washing up for dinner.
And we’re off! For many students, the transition from August to September means masking up and returning to in-person classes. This year is sure to include all the usual jitters and so much more. Below are a couple more things to think about as your child starts to navigate a blended or in-person schedule.
Find a good mask. Get your child’s input on what kind of mask looks cool, which fits the best, ties vs. elastic bands, etc. Remember, the more she likes her mask, the more likely she is to leave it on. Consider experimenting with face shields or making your own from an old t-shirt featuring a favorite character, color, or pattern.
Once you’ve found the right mask, have your child practice wearing it for longer and longer periods of time, gradually working your way up to something that approximates a school day. Have her practice both talking through her own mask and listening to others talk through theirs.
Talk about the importance of keeping at least six feet between your child and her classmates. Find quick, tangible ways to help her gauge and measure it in the real world. (“Six feet equals six tiles on the floor or six big steps,” or, “If you can reach out and touch your friend with your arm, you need to take some steps back.”)
Talk about and practice appropriate/right-sized ways for your child to ask for more space when someone around her is standing too close or not wearing a mask. Have her focus on her feelings and use “I” statements. (“I feel like I need some more distance,” or “I’m uncomfortable, so I’m going to take some steps backwards” as opposed to simply, “You need to move away.”)
Redundancy is the best policy. Send your child to school each day with two clearly marked bags—one full of clean masks, and one for dirty masks. Buy several clip-on bottles of hand sanitizer and stash extras in her locker, desk, cubby, and lunchbox.
Pay attention to routine and transitions.
Remember, returning to school in this climate is sure to be emotionally taxing, even if your child only goes for a couple days a week. Have patience and empathy. All the normal back to school exhaustion and transition pains will be the same, if not worse.
Give your child some time immediately after coming home from school to relax and recenter. Don’t force her to talk about her day, run through her chores, or pick up the backpack she just dropped on the floor—at least not until she’s had time to transition back into being home on her own, in her own way.
On the same note, be conscious of scheduling after school activities, especially at the start of the year. Forcing too many activities—even things she typically enjoys—and too many transitions will only make her more exhausted and deregulated.
Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible, even on days when she doesn’t attend in-person classes. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let her sleep in an extra 30 minutes on at-home days, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
Proprioception, also known as kinesthesia, is the body’s intrinsic ability to locate itself and its extremities in space using receptors in the skin, muscles, joints, and ligaments. It’s also responsible for knowing how much effort to use when performing simple tasks, such as lifting a glass or using a pencil. Children with proprioceptive processing issues may have trouble gauging their own strength, or they may appear clumsy and frequently bump into walls, furniture, or other people.
Proprioception isn’t as commonly known as sight or smell, but it’s a critical component of knowing how your body is positioned in relation to the world around you and how it should be moving. It’s how you’re able to walk up a flight of stairs while looking at your phone or find your way to the bathroom in a dark house.
Proprioceptive seekers may:
Enjoy jumping, bumping, and crashing into both people and objects–sometimes to the point of being unsafe.
Prefer rough play and constantly seem to be wrestling with siblings or other children.
Tend to stand too close to others and touch them without permission.
Crave pressure and bear hugs.
Support seekers by:
Having your child assist with household chores that put weight and pressure on the joints, such as carrying grocery bags and laundry baskets.
Encouraging safe and frequent climbing, jumping, running, and other playground activities.
Using a weighted blanket, deep pressure therapy, or bear hugs to provide extra pressure and comfort.
Proprioceptive avoiders may:
Avoid hugs and other types of physical contact or pressure.
Appear very timid around peers and avoid physical play.
Show anxiety or be exceeding cautious around swings, slides, and other playground equipment.
Support avoiders by:
Advising family and friends in advance that hugs or other types of physical contact are not desired.
Being cautious, attentive, and comforting around playground equipment and other children.
Proprioceptive discrimination challenges may cause a child to:
Be unable to properly gauge how much force, pressure, or tension to exert when using toys, silverware, writing utensils, or other objects.
Be unaware of how much force to use when brushing teeth, playing with other children, or petting animals.
Back to School is officially underway, and reopening plans and procedures are changing rapidly—sometimes from one day to the next. Parents and children alike are struggling to navigate the nuances of in-person vs. online classes, and we’re all dealing with the stress that comes with figuring out how to properly socially distance and keep the ones we love safe.
A certain level of fear and apprehension is probably inevitable at this stage, but having a set of clear, defined goals and a path forward that accounts for the wants and needs of everyone in the family is the best antidote to anxiety. Below are a few things to think about as you gear up for the new year.
A couple notes:
Remember, you need to take care of yourself before you can be helpful to others. See our previous post for some tips on managing your own anxiety.
Everyone has bad days, but some of us need more help. Know your own threshold and watch your child for signs of depression and anxiety. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional if you think you or your child need it. (Learn more here.)
Build your plans and priorities together.
Hopefully, you’ve been talking to your child about your family’s re-opening and back to school plans for a while. If not, start now. Talk about why your family has decided on your particular plan and what specific, tangible things will be different about this school year. Make sure he has time to process and come back to you with questions. Have him repeat the plan back to you in his own words, and ask him what he’s nervous or concerned about. Be prepared to have this conversation many, many times.
Develop a hierarchy of priorities and address each new concern or development in relation to these. For instance, priority #1 is making sure everyone in the family is physically healthy, priority #2 is making sure everyone in the family is emotionally healthy, and priority #3 is making sure everyone can have some time to focus on jobs or schoolwork. These are your core objectives—be prepared to drop, modify, or postpone anything that interferes with them.
Set aside a time each day or week to meet and discuss your family’s goals and concerns, take stock of what’s going on in the outside world, and plan what you’ll do next. Keep the time and place of these meetings as consistent as possible. Give your child time to ask questions and follow up with specific questions of your own. Knowing he can count on these meetings will help give him a sense of security and resiliency.
Use these talks as an opportunity to start shifting some responsibility for self-soothing and self-regulation onto your child. Work on helping him “listen to his body” and matching physical sensations with his emotions. Talk about how he can know when he’s anxious and develop strategies he can use to make himself feel okay in uncomfortable situations.
Give your child a voice and a vote.
Make sure to give your child a voice in your daily/weekly family discussions. Ask him what he needs to meet each of the three core objectives (happy, healthy, and productive) and how you can help with each. Focus on tangible things, like setting aside some time so he can ride his bike and get exercise, or ordering some new headphones so he can better concentrate on schoolwork. He might not always get exactly what he wants, but he will feel heard, respected, and more in control.
Remember, not all learning happens at school and not all productivity happens at work. Give your child the space and support to pursue some non-academic goals when possible. Skateboarding is a great way to work on balance and get some exercise, for example, and drawing can help him learn to process emotion and work through anxiety. Focus on the need or goal that is being met, not necessarily on the specific way he’s going about it.
That being said, giving your child a voice does not mean giving him total control. The goal is to incorporate what he wants into the things you know he needs as much as possible—it is not to make him superficially happy at all times. He may want to play video games for eight hours a day, for example, but you know that works against his best interests physically, emotionally, and relationally. As the parent, you have the right and responsibility to set healthy limits.
The gustatory system is responsible for the body’s ability to detect the chemicals in food that allow us to differentiate between sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) sensations. While the act of tasting is technically limited to this chemical process, the gustatory and olfactory senses are closely linked and combine to create what we perceive as flavor. Children with gustatory processing issues may have an unusually high or low appetite or very particular food preparation requirements (served at room temperature, chopped into small pieces, etc.).
Gustatory seekers may:
Frequently chew or suck on inedible objects, such as clothing or toys.
Favor foods with strong or very specific tastes, such as bitter or spicy.
Favor foods with specific textures, such as crunchy, chewy, or mushy.
Support seekers by:
Exposing your child to a wide variety of foods with varying flavors, smells, and textures.
Encouraging the use of chewing gum or chew necklaces/bracelets.
Gustatory avoiders may:
Appear to be “picky eaters,” refuse to try new foods, and have a limited diet as a result.
Avoid foods with strong or very specific tastes, such as bitter or spicy.
Avoid foods with specific textures, such as crunchy, chewy, or mushy.
Support avoiders by:
Never forcing your child to eat.
Using a slow, tiered approach to introducing new foods: 1. Exposure 2. Smelling 3. Licking 4. Tasting.
Gustatory discrimination challenges may cause a child to:
Have difficulty telling the difference between things that are somewhat sweet, spicy, or bitter vs. things that are way too sweet, spicy, or bitter.
The olfactory system is responsible for the body’s ability to detect and recognize smells using chemical receptors in the nasal cavity. Children with olfactory processing issues may have trouble identifying hazardous or poisonous substances, such as gasoline, or they may be able to detect very faint scents others can’t perceive. Because smell is one of the two senses associated with flavor, sensitive children may also be hyper aware of smells associated with food and cooking.
Olfactory seekers may:
Actively smell everything, even things with unpleasant odors.
Support seekers by:
Encouraging safe smelling of objects, like candles, scented markers, and flowers.
Olfactory avoiders may:
Frequently complain about smells that are very faint or unnoticed by others.
Hold their noses or gag when encountering strong smells or eating certain foods.
Support avoiders by:
Minimizing artificial scents in the home, such as cleaners and air fresheners.
Being conscious of strong cooking smells and scents in perfumes, lotions, and soaps.
Using a comforting or pleasant scent to “reset” after experiencing a negative odor.
Olfactory discrimination challenges may cause a child to:
Be unable to recognize familiar or common smells.
Be unable to detect strong chemical or burning smells, though they might have a vague sense that something is wrong.