Why Sensory Processing Is A Big Deal For Our Kids

Sensory issues are a part of our life. They are a significant part of our life.

Why Sensory Processing Is A Big Deal For Our Kids

Accommodating My Child’s Sensory Processing Disorder

For years, we have accommodated my son’s sensory differences daily.

These accommodations have become almost second nature around here.  (For example, I was shopping alone – praise Jesus! – at Costco the other night. I heard a baby starting to wail and I instantly tensed up. Not for the poor little baby – I tensed up because if my son were with me, that noise coupled with the lighting, the smells from the samples, the sounds from the shoppers, etc. would likely set off a meltdown.)

It is such a part of our life, I was stunned when I saw the question in a Facebook group last week. Is this even real?

Is Sensory Processing Disorder Real?

I was stunned, but then, a mom I work with asked me essentially the same thing last week.  

“Are these sensory issues really a big deal?​”

Her seven year old has sensory needs that she is beginning to understand and working to support. But she feels doubt. She feels a little bit of shame, like she’s making too much of it. 

Why is that?

Why Sensory Processing Issues Are A Big Deal For Our Kids

While the accommodations affect our entire family, nothing compares to how difficult the daily struggle of sensory overload is for my son.

He has spent sixteen years trying to organize his world to avoid the things that aggravate his sensory system the most. For years he has had panic attacks just driving by a fast food restaurant (good for our diet, bad if you need to stop and use the restroom on the road) because of the smells.

He pulls his shirt up over his nose every time he opens the refrigerator, just in case there are leftovers.

He avoids beaches, park play areas, and even walkways that have sand, often walking in completely the opposite direction if necessary to find a way around it.

Halloween costumes, Fourth of July Fireworks, socks, jeans, sandy playgrounds, the beach, shoes that are not crocs –  all things on his list of to adamantly reject and avoid.

I can’t blame him. For so long, rather than trying to understand and work with him, I tried to force him to learn to cope, accept and just deal with it. So did every other adult in his life.

In summary, it didn’t work. At all.

Is Sensory Processing Disorder Real?

It wasn’t until I started doing more research that I began to understand my son, and his super responsive sensory system. I began to learn the depth and significance of what has been so painful to him for so many years.

Temple Grandin in The Way I see It, speaks candidly about the sensory issues that accompany her autism diagnosis. She addresses how little research and understanding there is, for something that she considers to be the most significant impairment in her life.

I agree with her. The one thing that I wish I could alleviate for my son, above anything else, is the way his sensory system impacts his daily life. One of the first things I came across when I started researching SPD, was this list by Stanley Greenspan, in The Challenging Child:

Imagine if:

    • You could see obstacles in your way, but you could not make your body move the direction you wanted it to avoid them.
    • You felt like someone had given you a shot of Novocain in your backside so you couldn’t feel if you were sitting in the middle of your chair and you fell off 2 times as you read this.
    • Your clothes felt like they were made of fiberglass.
    • You tried to drink a cup of water from a paper cup, only you couldn’t tell how hard to squeeze it to hold onto it. So, you squeezed it too hard and the water spilled all over you. The next time you didn’t squeeze it hard enough and it fell right through your hands and onto the floor.
    • Every time you tried to write with your pencil, it broke because you pushed too hard.
    • The different smells in this room made you utterly nauseous.
    • The humming of the lights sounded louder than my voice.
    • You couldn’t focus your eyes on me because everything and everyone in the room catches your attention and your eyes just go there instead.
    • The lights are so bright you have to squint, then you get a pounding headache
    • Every time someone touches you, it feels like they are rubbing sandpaper on your skin.
    • People’s whispers sounded like they were yelling.
    • The tag in the back of your shirt makes you feel as uncomfortable as you would if a spider was crawling on you and you couldn’t get him off.
    • You had to pull the car over 3 times in an hour drive because the motion makes you sick.

Helping An Older Child With Sensory Issues

When I first read this list, I was shocked by how every day and familiar these reactions for my son. This was our life – exactly.

He went on to write:

“Sensory processing disorders are best treated if caught before the age of 7 when the nervous system is still malleable.”

Before the age of 7??? At that point, my son was almost 10.

Because I blamed myself for his issues, my son did not get help until really late in the game. In fact, when we first started looking for an occupational therapist (the typical referral for sensory issues and their management), we couldn’t find one that had ever worked with a boy his age. They all specialized in the 3-5 year old crowd.

I felt defeated before we even started.

It wasn’t until we finally met our current occupational therapist that we began to make progress. She not only feels comfortable working with an older boy, she enjoys it.

It has been a few years now since my son began occupational therapy. The progress has been nothing short of AMAZING.

In the beginning, we created a list of goals. Most had to do with self management and regulation – like when things are overstimulating, how does he work to get himself out of the situation and calm down. Some were around specific areas of his body that were particularly sensitive, like his hands and feet.

He resisted going for three months. Three months of meltdowns, every single Thursday.

Then, one day, it clicked. His therapist was super patient, never forcing him to do anything he felt uncomfortable with, always encouraging him that he knew his body best – when to push it and when to rest.

She might be one of my favorite people ever.

Sensory Processing Disorder – it’s real and it’s never too late

As more and more research is done around this little understood disorder, I am sure more and more recommendations will be made for early intervention. It just makes sense.

I am also sure that it is never too late.

I am sure that with the right professional, caring and committed, my child has made more progress in managing his sensory system than I ever dreamed possible.

I am sure that although we missed the optimal window for treatment, he has been significantly helped and his life will be infinitely better because of occupational therapy. Moreover, because of what we learned in OT, we are able to help him every single day at home.

In the past week I have seen several articles circulating – some stating that SPD is just a “made up” disorder, some stating that it is too late to treat SPD past age 6 or 7.

For the record, although I am the first to admit I am not a medical professional, I disagree. Across the board. With both.

It does exist. It is as real as any other diagnosis my children face.

Ask any momma of a child with it – better yet, ask the child or the otherwise diagnosed adult who grew up dealing with it. They will all tell you, Sensory Processing Disorder is a really big deal.

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  1. Thank you for this, your words give me peace. My daughter has SPD and potentially other to-be diagnosed neurologic challenges (waiting on upcoming testing). We are soon starting with a new OT. It’s taken us a year to find the right treatment place & OT and sometimes I panic at all the wasted time not working effectively. I also had a hunch that she was not neurotypical when she was 3 years old, but I waited a year to seek help, partly because I was dealing with my infant son’s extra needs as well. Your post reminds me that there’s no reason to panic, SPD is not a now-or-never situation. You and your boys inspire me every day, thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you for writing this. We can hope that those who don’t know or doubt will take these words to head and heart. I’d only add that hyposensitivity can be just as difficult for the child and such a mystery to unravel. When is sticking your hands in everything squishy, slimy, or otherwise ‘gross’ just normal kid behavior and when is it sensory seeking? When is that child unable to focus because he is desperately needing some external input that we all get through ‘normal’ every day life? Is hiding in a small space avoidance or a deep need to feel contained? (We’re still working on that last one!)

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