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What It's Like in My Sensory World

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I was that kid, the clumsy kid, shins always bruised, chewing on my shirt sleeves, always grubby. I didn’t learn to write my own name until I was in year 2. I can remember begging my best friend to tell me how to spell it yet again. I promised I would remember it this time.

My memory of my preschool is the scratchy hessian under our sheets on the cots we used for nap time.

In year 5 I changed schools and went suddenly from the bottom of the class to the top of the class. I ultimately graduated high school with an excellent result allowing me to attend an excellent university in the degree of my choice.

The new school had far fewer resources; in fact, the teacher was absent for most of the year and was replaced by volunteers. There was no playground, a sad comparison to the extensive, age-appropriate, multi-level playgrounds of my previous school, so large it seemed like parkland to my small eyes. The new school’s playground was the car park of the church built beside the school.

In reflection, the only thing I could identify that changed in my favor was the school uniform. My previous school was a private ladies college and our uniform included a tie, beret and a blazer. All irritating and scratchy. Wearing the tie meant I spent much of the day feeling like I was choking. The new school had a loose cotton dress and I flourished.

There are many stories I could share with you of how the different way my body seemed to process sensory information affected my life, how I would carefully select the pen I used in high school because of how it felt on my fingers when writing, how if the edge of the bed sheet came up and exposed the mattress I couldn’t sleep. How I cut open the neck on the brand new skivvies my mother had brought me (that went down as well as you can imagine!)

As I grew older and wanted to fit in, I experimented on myself and trained myself to wear sunglasses by standing in the kitchen in front of the microwave timer ticking down until I had worn the glasses for 30 seconds, then building up eventually to 5 minutes when I felt I could then continue to increase the time without the timer. I gradually learned to tolerate wearing a hat, and used an odd strategy involving jelly and green peas (it’s a long story!) to learn how to swallow tablets when I was a university student.

Even as an adult, a ticking clock or drip would keep me awake for hours. Smelling the artificial air purifier at my workplace felt like someone had physically hit me in the face, and caused migraines by the end of the day. I decorated my apartment with white walls and cream curtains because my workplace was so visually over-stimulating my eyes felt like they were aching when I got home. The skin on the back of my hands used to irritate me when I typed.

Now I work with young children who experience similar differences in the way their bodies take in and interpret the complicated symphony of sensory input that washes over us daily.

The difference is, I can see how in so many instances these sensory processing differences have been an advantage. Sensitive hearing, sensitive smell, sensitive tastes would have protected my family or my tribe from many calamities in a simpler time.

The heavy work of the lifestyle we lived not that long ago would have dulled some of the sensitivity I was feeling, things like carrying armloads of wood, carrying buckets of water, digging in a garden, using a washing board or a mangle during laundry. Now in our push-button, largely sedentary world there is little “heavy work” that might take the edge off my overactive tactile system.

That being said, I can without much reflection identify a few practical things this has helped me with; I am always able to detect when food is just about to start to burn, have saved many meals and in a few instances I averted a fire (not my cooking!)

I can hear the electrical hum in devices and know they aren’t turned off. In a time before modern switchboards, this could have been a lifesaver.

I am always the first person in the room to hear and react to the baby crying. I have saved people from drowning by being able to spot the change in the visual pattern of the swimmers while working as a lifeguard and swimming teacher.

I won a competitive job application based on my visual processing skills. I have found so much money dropped on the floor over the years, it’s ridiculous!

These differences have been a major advantage in so many instances in my life. I remember when I realized not everyone saw everything the way I did and I walked into a room choosing to ignore things and wondering how it felt to live like this all of the time.

To the parent who is worried about their sensory child, I would say, it’s not necessarily the sensory stuff that’s the issue so much as anxiety and self-esteem. I can remember walking home from work one day as an adult when I decided, I made an active decision to be confident. This was after a lifetime of not knowing why everything seemed much harder for me compared to other children.

I was fortunate to stumble by accident into occupational therapy after I had finished my undergraduate degree. After completing my Master’s degree, again it was fortunate that my first job was with a clinic that sent me to complete post-graduate training in sensory processing disorder. That was when I finally saw I ticked all the boxes for sensory processing disorder (SPD). Two years later, I went to a conference to learn a treatment protocol for sensory sensitivity. I followed it strictly, and I saw and felt the change in myself.

Unfortunately, sensory processing disorder is not yet officially recognized in the diagnostic manuals. This means research into treatments is poorly funded. Both children and adults who have these differences are often left with a vague sense of there being something different but not able to put it into words.

Parents, if your child has sensory sensitivities I want you to know that in my experience, it does improve, largely because as you get older you have choice and control. You can provide this to your child now.

Allowing your child to make decisions such as which scent for shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste (they even have taste free now), and fabrics for clothes can greatly help your child by allowing them to chose which is easiest for them to tolerate. My wardrobe consists primarily of brushed cotton fabrics. Fortunately, now more clothing companies are producing clothes without tags and even seamless clothes. I have noticed many people find artificial scents difficult to tolerate, not just people with sensory processing differences. I have found quality natural scents such as essential oils easy to tolerate in comparison to air fresheners or laundry detergent fragrances.

Providing choices to your child doesn’t have to be a major chore. Once you know your child’s preferences for things like toiletries and fabric styles, it will get easier.

If your child is sensitive to sound, there is a lot you can do. For example, use a digital clock in your house, turn off all devices that aren’t being used at the wall. Remember, just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean your child can’t hear it.

Just knowing that your child’s experience of the world is a little different can be helpful. Your child’s self-esteem can be built to encourage them to participate in things that interest them and build on their strengths. Additional support to overcome challenges and achieve their individual goals can help them to keep up with their peers.

This is my personal experience. Every child’s experience of the sensory world is going to be different.

If you think you or your child might have differences in the way they take in or process sensory information, that is impacting on their development or learning I encourage you to contact the Occupational Therapy Association in your area. They will be able to provide you with a list of occupational therapists practicing in your area.

This story originally appeared on OT World.

Getty image by Biletskiy Evgeniy.

Originally published: December 17, 2018
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