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How You Can Play a Role in Your Child’s Sensory Development

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Do you think you don’t have a role in your child’s sensory development? They’re just who they are and that’s that? You have more influence than you think  100 percent guaranteed.

Back in the olden days — the ’90s — I was an undiagnosed, sensory mess.  My temperature regulation, sound sensitivities and being prone to carsickness made me “high-maintenance” and “difficult.” And before name-calling wasn’t PC, my dad referred to me as “weirdo.” I’m sure he meant it in the nicest way possible. Remember, this was way before Dr. A. Jean Ayres‘s sensory processing contributions had gone mainstream. Plus, sensory processing support groups on Facebook didn’t even exist. How was he to know back then that my “weirdness” potentially affects one out of every six kiddos?

I adapted out of necessity by sleeping in the car during road trips, bringing a coat along with me wherever I went and wrapping towels around the clock at night to muffle the maddening ticking sound. But now, I’m a mom and one of my biggest duties is being the sensory barometer. Like all parents, I’ve discovered I’m the sensory hub of the household.

As the sensory concierge, my little bodies come to Mama when they need anything. They’ll say, “I’m cold, I’m hot. I’m hungry. It’s too loud. I can’t hear it. That smells funny. It’s squishy.”

While my child with sensory processing disorder will say, “The ocean water feels like nails. The sand burns. My head is pounding with sound. Make the birds stop chirping. Looking at that makes me gag.” 

And so I accommodate their sensory systems the best I can. I adjust the temperature or modify clothing. I turn down the volume, open the windows and spray the chirping birds with my water gun so that my child’s head doesn’t explode. (No birds are hurt in the process, but they do get a bath.)

As a result, I’ve become a sensory chameleon, putting my sons’ needs first and sucking it up when I’m uncomfortable. Oh, the many things moms do that will never be recognized! I may sound like a sensory martyr, but there’s a method to my approach.

Why do I cater to my kids’ sensory needs? First of all, because I get that you can feel like you’re stuck on a roller coaster when riding on the freeway at 80 miles per hour. Watching the other cars weave in and out of lanes makes you dizzy, and the sun beating through the window can make your vision blurry, your neck feel hot and make your bile climb up your esophagus.

I understand my son’s sensory dysfunction because I have it on a much smaller scale then he does. And so he’s had hours upon hours of occupational therapy, sensory integration and feeding therapy. I’ve read every single OT book and tip out there to learn what I can be doing on my watch.

And I’m grateful for occupational therapists Lindsey Biel, Angie Voss and Britt Collins for sharing their knowledge. They’ve allowed moms like myself to be proactive in helping our kiddos.

Secondly, the more I help him adapt, make changes and prepare in advance, the more it helps him learn to self-regulate and meet his own sensory needs. He knows to watch a DVD in the car to keep from getting motion sickness. He stims, either trampoline or pacing, before school to calm his internal turmoil without my prompting. He can articulate his body is craving heavy work and proprioception (he doesn’t use that word, I do) and pressure squeezes by backing up and placing my hands on his shoulders. 

By accommodating him, he feels better. In turn, he knows he has the power to make himself feel better when he’s out of sorts, uncomfortable or in debilitating pain. I teach both of my kids by showing them it’s possible. And then other times, it’s not because all lessons are multi-layered.

Over spring break, my son with sensory processing disorder (SPD) refused to wear sunglasses, ate a blue snow cone and a quesadilla (yes, 100 percent gluten and casein molded together!) and went on clunky, jerky rides at the Yuma County Fair. I let him because he has to be the master of his own sensory system. He’s highly sensitive to what goes into his digestive system. And at 13, I’m assuming I only have another five years (or less) where I can control what goes into his body.

At some point, I’ll officially hand over the reins and he’ll have to steer. So, I let him drive that day. And that night as he lay in my lap with his hands over his eyes, wincing in pain from the headache of the century, he cried, “Mommy, I made some really bad choices today!” That’s a lesson he couldn’t have learned by me badgering him.

As their mom, I’m also the sensory tour guide. I plan trips, adventures and projects to expose my kiddos to the great, big sensory world out there. We live close to Disneyland and go there often for sensory therapy day. The crowds, the sounds, the colors, the tastes and smells make this a plethora of sensory stimulation. We get through it — and they want to — because it’s fun.

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On a simpler note, I make sensory bins, although my kiddos respond quite differently to these contained boxes. My oldest can search for toys and play with rice and beans for hours at a time. When he’s done, we put the lid on and wait for his next stereognosis experience. With my youngest, he’ll dump the rice and beans out onto the lawn in two seconds flat and be done. No sensory bins for him, thank you very much. So I plan and expose them to sensory stimulation to meet their individual needs any way that I can.

At the end of the day when I’m sensory drained, I go back to my sensory well and refill, because I not only predict their sensory needs, I’m paving the way for them to have a sensory fantastic life. I’d like to encourage other parents to do the same. It’s easy as parents to forget that have such a massive influence on our kids’ lives and even their sensory systems. And it’s my hope that pediatric OTs will encourage their clients’ parents and arm them with the tools to add to the sensory foundation they are creating.

Jackie Linder Olson the-mighty-07092015-002

Follow this journey on Peace, Autism and Love.

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Originally published: July 9, 2015
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