I worked with a young mom recently who came to me exasperated by her daughter's refusal to wash her hands and dry them or sometimes have a meltdown when the mom would do this task for her. The mom was at her wit's end and having tried many ways to make her daughter comply she resorted to punishment and loss of privileges as a last resort.
It turned out that there was an easy solution to this problem behavior but one that the parent had never even considered - she didn't even think it was in the realm of possibilities. Why? Because when I asked this mom if her child had any sensory issues she said, "No, they ruled out the diagnosis of a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)."
There are many children, on and off the spectrum, that are diagnosed with SPD and the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation places the estimate of affected children at about one in 20 children. Individuals who have sensory issues have brains that are wired in such a way that it is difficult for them to accurately filter the sensory information that is coming in. Either the brain reads the sensory input as way too much or way too little. If a child has significant impairment in this area they earn the label of SPD.
But what if the impairment is not severe enough?
Can such a child still have sensory issues?... The answer is yes.
Children with sensory sensitivities can be hyper or hypo sensitive to different types of visual input or certain touches, tastes, textures, smells and noises. I have known many children who:
- will only wear clothes made of soft fabrics,
- are particular about the seams in their socks and where they fall on their feet,
- gag at the smell or texture of a certain food,
- are overly sensitive to bright lights,
- sit on a cold, hard toilet seat
- have difficulty concentrating due to the humming noise that fluorescent lights emit in a classroom.
So if your child does not meet the criteria for SPD don't rule out the presence of sensory sensitivities. Just because your senses can tolerate a certain stimuli it is possible that the same experience can assault one or more of your child's senses.
That's right, there may be a simple reason why your child resists certain activities or refuses to cooperate. Your child may not be behaving badly - his behavior might simply be a result of a sensory sensitivity.
When you have a child that is challenged in this way, a simple sound, taste, smell or touch can send them over the top. You may find them refusing to do certain tasks or rejecting activities that seem so simple to us. As a parent it is sometimes all to easy to judge this behavior as willful, stubborn and resistant, especially when we look at it through the lens of our own experience and perspective.
Behaviors can be very baffling to parents, which is why you need to examine them through the lens that your child experiences the world with because most likely it is very foreign to our own. Once you identify and understand that the behavior is triggered by an over reaction to sensory input it becomes easier to address.
As in the scenario of the mom and little girl that I introduced above, it turned out that this young lady had a sensory aversion to the touch of a wet, slippery, squishy bar of soap, therefore she resisted touching it unless the bar of soap was dry and firm. Also, the texture of the towels seemed to be a turn off for her and even though this little girl was not Goldilocks finding a towel that was 'not too hard, not too soft - but just right' was the key to turning her behavior around.
mom switched to a liquid soap that her daughter helped pick out in order to make sure the smell would be agreeable to her - just in case her overly sensitive nose was part of the problem - and mom began to use non-scented fabric softener and dry the towels in the dryer as opposed to line drying them, her daughter had no objection to washing her hands.
I help many parents create sensory-friendly environments that can enhance a child's level of cooperation and reduce negative outbursts. In this particular story, the behavior was resolved in an uncomplicated fashion. Unfortunately, the solution is not always this simple but the outcome can be just as positive especially when a parent is willing to think outside the box and see things from their child's point of view.
If your child displays a behavior that baffles you, consider the possibility of a sensory issue at play. Remember, your child does not have to have a
Sensory Processing Disorder in order to have an extreme sensory reaction to something. Many of us can relate to the awful feeling that fingernails down a blackboard can produce in us. If you can accept this as an understandable reaction in yourself all you have to do is stretch your imagination a bit and accept the fact that something else less typical can have a similar effect on your child.