Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the sound of a sudden siren, or the itch of a scratchy shirt tag irritating your back? Or, conversely, have you ever numbed out sensations like pain, heat, or cold? If you can relate to these experiences, then you’ve had a small glimpse into what life is like with sensory processing disorder (SPD). Individuals with SPD have trouble translating their sensory experiences into useful, appropriate responses and behaviors.
At FirstPath Autism, we understand that every child is different. As the saying goes, “When you’ve met one child with autism … you’ve met one child with autism.” Yet while your child’s sensory experience of the world is unique, there’s a strong scientific connection between autism spectrum disorders and sensory processing issues.
As Juliana Bunim notes in her July 2014 University of California San Francisco article, “Kids with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorders Show Brain Wiring Differences”, over 90 percent of individuals with autism also have sensory processing issues.
However, that’s not the whole story. Researchers have also discovered that, “children with sensory processing disorders have decreased structural brain connections in specific sensory regions different than those in autism, further establishing SPD as a clinically important neurodevelopmental disorder.” So while SPD is much more prevalent among individuals with autism, it’s also a distinct diagnosis in and of itself.
Empower your child with SPD to succeed in school this fall with these 5 steps:
First, help your child prepare mentally for the start of the school year.
The transition from summer to school can be a bumpy one, and you can smooth it by reading relevant stories and books. You could also note the first day of school on a calendar and use a free online tool to create a moment-to-moment countdown clock. (Here’s a link to a free, live countdown timer with animations.) When you familiarize your child with the idea that school attendance is imminent, the prospect becomes less surprising and overwhelming.
You can also practice sensory integration exercises with your child. As noted in the December 2013 Autism Speaks article, “Study Finds Sensory Integration Therapy Benefits Children With Autism”, occupational therapy clinicians and parents can use play activities to help children with autism learn to process sensations.
For example, the article says, “… a parent of a child who wakes during the night due to extreme sensitivity to sounds might set a goal of improving tolerance of ordinary noises and sleeping through the night.” Step by gradual step, ABA therapy can help your child to decrease sensitivity and acclimate to ordinary noises. And when you help your child to address sensory processing issues, challenging behaviors and meltdowns often decrease.
Next, take practical measures to introduce your child to the new sensory experiences surrounding school.
For example, you might do a walk-through of the school grounds, and meet with teachers, bus drivers, and other relevant support team members.
Likewise, you’ll want to look ahead and anticipate other sensory-specific issues. Include your child in the process of choosing a back-to-school wardrobe, and make sure that your child’s clothes are pre-washed to avoid that starchy, brand-new feeling. Cut or seam-rip out all tags to prevent irritation and distraction. Also be mindful of accessories; that necklace that you think is cute might be too distracting for your daughter to wear on her first day.
The same goes for school supplies. Avoid trendy items such as shiny, glittery folders or noise-making keychains if they contribute to sensory issues. Check to see if your child can hold a pencil comfortably, and invest in adaptive equipment such as soft pencil grippers if needed. Children with SPD often struggle with handwriting, so be sure to investigate writing implements and practice penmanship with your child outside of school.
The back-to-school season is also an ideal time to review the status of adaptive equipment.
Check your child’s eyeglass prescription, replace their worn-out noise-canceling headphones, and ensure that mobility devices are functioning properly. Ascertain that as-needed medications are on hand and unexpired. It’s all too easy to forget about rarely-used inhalers or epipens, but it’s vital to ensure that they are both accessible and current.
(Hint: You might want to set an automatic reminder on your Google calendar or smartphone to help you remember to update these items regularly.)
Once classes begin, connect with your child and ask precise questions.
Rather than posing open-ended queries such as, “How was school?” ask specific questions about teachers, peers, and classes. For example, you might ask, “How did you feel during math class?” or, “Who did you say hello to today?”
Need more ideas? (We understand; it’s tough to come up with thought-provoking questions day after day!) Check out this set of free downloadable questions for kids from Momastery.