A Day in the Life of a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder
by Tara Konradi, OTD, OTR/L of SINEWS Multilingual Therapy Institute
How is it the behavior or a sensory seeking child and how to identify it?… “Bang! Thud, crash, pitter-patter, pitter-patter” Ana jolts out of bed to the sound of her six-year-old running through the hall to the living room.
She looks at the clock; it isn’t quite 7 am.
Her husband continues to sleep soundly next to her as she slips out of bed and into the living room where she finds James, her son, with all of the toys from his toy box spread across the room. “Zoom! Look, mom!” James yells as he jumps from the couch to the floor holding a toy plane in his hand. Initially, Ana cringes and wants to scold James for jumping on the furniture, but remembers what her occupational therapist told her about James’s need for seeking out sensory experiences, especially sensation in the muscles and joints, movement through space, and sound. “Wow! You’re a pilot!” Ana exclaims as she grabs his arms and helps him jump off the couch one more time.
She spins him around in her arms like an airplane as he squeals with excitement. “Great landing, pilot. Now you’ve got to prepare for your next assignment: school! Go on, get dressed,” she says as she guides him down the hall to his room grasping his hips and making plane sounds.
Ana leaves James in his room to get dressed as she goes to get ready herself. Her husband is up now and asks what James was up to. A wave of anger rushes over her as she visualizes him sleeping as she had to jump out of bed to attend to their son. She knows her husband means well and is just a naturally deep sleeper, but she can’t help resent it a bit.
The father finally agreed in taking James to occupational therapy
Actually, neither of them had even heard of occupational therapy until the school psychologist mentioned that James might benefit from it. After weeks of complaints from teachers and difficulties at home, they decided to bring James in for an evaluation.
The occupational therapist (OT) explained to them that James’s engine is chronically running too fast. The OT called it a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and told them that James has difficulty turning sensory information into appropriate behavior. For James, this means he is constantly craving and aggressively seeking out sensory input. She mentioned that the disorder could also cause children to have engines that run too slow, and Ana wondered why she was blessed with James the tornado.
At first, the family was led to believe James had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but they visited a very experienced child psychologist who ruled that out. Ana was relieved; she knew it just didn’t quite fit the bill for James. Now, after only two months of OT intervention, they are seeing many changes in their son, and are encouraged and eager to learn more ways they can help him better organize his sensory needs to achieve states of calm and focus attention.
Ana goes to check on the progress James has made getting dressed. His clothes for the day were previously laid out nicely in the order in which he was to put them on, but now they were thrown all over the room and some had actually made their way into James’s body. Ana smiles and looks at her son in socks and a t-shirt, but no pants as he plays with his cars in the corner of his room. “Let’s get moving tiger!” she says as she tickles him and manages to grab his pants at the same time. She helps him into his pants and gives him a kiss as they head to the bathroom to finish getting ready.
What once took half an hour of struggling to get James dressed is now down to 15 minutes, and although she still helps him with many things, she is confident he’ll be able to do it himself one day soon.
For children like James who are sensory seeking, it is often difficult to organize their behavior
So activities such as dressing are difficult because their need for sensory input (playing with cars) is so consuming that organizing the activity (dressing) is very hard. When they make their way to the car to drive to school James runs across the yard and climbs up their medium sized maple tree. “Look! I’m a monkey!” he yells as he swings back and forth on a branch. “Wow, monkey! Can you swing back and forth 5 times and then jump in the car?” replies Ana, hoping that allowing James to swing will give him enough input to stay put in the car long enough to reach school without any incidences. “One, two, three, four, five!” He swings back and forth five times and jumps to the ground. He runs into the car without resistance. A sigh of relief runs over Ana. It worked!
At school, James is found touching, prodding and pushing the kids in the hallway. His teachers scold him to keep his hands to himself as the children complain. Keeping his hands to himself causes both social and disciplinary problems for James, but once in the classroom, he finds himself feeling calmer and organized as he is allowed to play with the fidgety toy that is tied to the bottom of his desk. Fidgeting is common in sensory-seeking children. This was another idea the OT had for James to help him keep his hands to himself and be more organized and centered during class. “Take your pencils out and turn your language book to page 15,” says the teacher. James takes out his pencil with a chewy rubber topper.
This T-shaped pencil topper with little nubbies on it is designed for James to chew on. It was another idea the OT had and encouraged James’s parents to try it in the school setting. The teacher was reluctant at first, thinking it would be distracting, but after a week trailing the chewy pencil topper, she is convinced that having James chew on this specially designed pencil topper is better than him eating the communally shared erasers each table has. Initially, the teacher thought James was just being silly, or even hungry, as he would consistently eat pieces of the eraser, disrupting the class as the other children at the table protested.
She is now very thankful for the pencil topper that James’s parents shared with her and recognizes that James has a sensory processing disorder, which makes him constantly seek out input from the senses, including oral sensations. In the school environment, James’s behavior is especially disrupting. Before his parents met with his teacher to discuss what the OT had explained, the teachers had been punishing James constantly and were beginning to label him as a disobedient and “bad” child. Children who are sensory-seeking are often labeled “bad”, which causes the child to see himself as “bad”, and so he begins to act “bad”. James is not “bad”, however, and when given tools and activities to help him deal with his sensory experiences, James can better be in charge and learn self-regulation.
This allows him to work better in all situations and environments and supports the development of his nervous system. When James’s dad picks him up from school, he shows no signs he is at all worn out. “Ready to head to the park, kiddo?” Asks his dad.
The OT recommended that his parents offer him several chances throughout the day to have 15-20 minutes of jumping, running, swinging and spinning experiences and so his parents have made it a habit to go to the park directly after school to give him some sensory input time. After James has run around the park for half an hour, they return home for dinner. “Hot and spicy tortillas! Yeah!” yells James as he pours more hot sauce on his tortillas. He even enjoys spicy food in his quest for sensations. When it’s time for bed, James’s mother puts on a calming CD the OT gave her and begins to do a deep pressure massage to help prepare him for bed. She hopes she’s doing it right and makes a note to ask the OT to show her again which direction to massage the limbs. James seems to enjoy the massage thoroughly, though, and when she finishes she is able to tuck him tightly under the covers and kiss him goodnight.
“Tight as a bug in a rug! Sleep well my little prince,” she says in a soothing voice. She turns out the light, leaves the CD running, and walks back to the living room to enjoy a couple more hours of alone time with her husband. She enters smiling. It’s the first time in a long time she doesn’t hear anything coming from James’s room after tucking him into bed.
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References Case-Smith, J, (2004). Occupational Therapy for Children. (5th ed). Philadelphia, PA: Mosby. Greenspan, S., & Wieder, S. (1998). The Child with Special Needs. Boston, MA: Perseus Books. Miller, Lucy Jane (2006). Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). New York, NY: Penguin Group.
About the Author – Bachelor Degree in Health Science from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA – Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD) from Creighton University (Cum Laude), Dr. Tara Konradi has worked as an occupational therapist in a variety of clinical settings in the US including schools, sensory integration clinics, hospitals and nursing homes. She most recently has worked as a private contractor with the New York City Public School System and at a pediatric clinic with children with complex medical conditions in New York. In the area of pediatric occupational therapy, she has a wide range of experience including teaching handwriting skills, treating sensory integration problems and motor coordination training. Born and raised in the heart of the US, she has relocated to Spain to marry her fiancée and continue her vocation: assist others achieve greater independence and satisfaction in their daily lives.