As a parent of a child with some sensory processing quirks, I have learned a lot about what it’s like to live in a world that you experience differently from what everyone else experiences. For a child who is under responsive or over responsive to sensory input, their reactions can seem strange if not downright sinful to those observing them. I was once one of those adults, passing judgement and handing out consequences to my child who didn’t seem to be understanding the problems with his behavior. I have had to experience a major perspective adjustment in order to be empathetic with his struggles and understanding of his needs.
It’s important to understand that sensory issues exist on an continuum and we may all have areas where we struggle. Personally, I hate the dry feeling of chalk. I don’t draw with chalk and I hate when there’s chalk dust on my kids’ skin. I also hate mushrooms, not because of their taste because of the rubbery texture. And the sound of a bathroom fan (or really any fan) makes me twitchy. I can’t do those white noise machines because that static sound is really irritating to me. These are mild sensory issues, but it’s helpful for me to identify my own and realize how irrational and unexplainable they are in order to have some compassion for my child who may not be able to articulate why something feels the way it does to him.
If we’re going to change our perceptions of kids who struggle with sensory issues, I think we have to address our misperceptions.
They aren’t manipulative (although it seems like it). If a child can’t handle holding his body still, so we allow him to play with a fidget toy during church, that can be seen as him manipulating the situation to get a toy. If a child doesn’t want to eat something because of the texture or temperature and we offer them an alternative, that can be seen as a child manipulating a situation. We need to adjust our perspectives to see that these kids need help. They aren’t tantruming to get their way (although that can happen, too), but are responding with genuine fear or frustration to a situation they don’t have the skills to handle. If we respond by doubling down on them instead of offering help or a compromise, we aren’t acknowledging the reality of their situation. The goal is that eventually they will learn how to make accommodations for themselves, but until then we may need to help them. And they can be just as manipulative as any other child, it just may not be in the areas that seem most obvious. It was game changing for me to realize a tantrum and a sensory meltdown are NOT the same thing.
They aren’t angry (although it seems like it). For a long time I thought I was raising an angry and aggressive child because of how his behavior looked. He would squeeze, grab, poke, smack, bite and punch, but he did it all with this cold, detached manner. It was unnerving, until I realized he wasn’t looking to hurt anyone, he was looking for the kind of sensory input he got through hard touching (or from getting smacked by a sibling, if we’re being honest). Once we were able to help him ask for what he needed (“Do you need a strong hug? Do you need me to spin you around? Can I hold you upside down for a bit? Do you need to go jump up and down or run around the house?”), we saw a lot less of these incidents. The issue was never about negative emotions and always about sensory seeking behaviors, but sometimes those issues can appear to overlap. And behavior that hurts others ALWAYS has to be addressed even when there are sensory issues involved.
They aren’t dumb (although it can seem like it). Sometimes we see these kids exhibit behavior that makes them look like dumb kids. Banging into walls, crying about food, flipping out over the “wrong” pants, not learning from painful consequences, going outside without a coat in the freezing cold– these are all things that make perfect sense to a child who is looking to avoid uncomfortable sensory input or is seeking out sensory input that will help him feel more calm, but to us they look like the actions of a crazy person. When we were able to address our child’s sensory needs (through Occupational Therapy and by becoming more responsive) we found that he was a really bright kid. This was a shock to us since his behavior had seemed so odd when we were interpreting it through the wrong lens. This allowed us to raise our expectations of him appropriately in areas that weren’t SPD related and have more compassion in the areas that were SPD related.
They are listening (although it seems like they aren’t). If a child struggles with eye contact because it feels overwhelming to them, it is easy to feel like they aren’t listening. If they make a weird buzzing noise the whole time you’re talking, it’s easy to feel like they aren’t listening. But they are and you don’t have to shout to get their attention. Sometimes it does require pulling them onto your lap or squeezing their shoulder or talking while you’re driving so eye contact isn’t required, but don’t get frustrated because you think they’re tuning you out. Their body language may not look like other kids’ would when they’re listening, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hear you. And of course there are times when they ARE tuning you out and that needs to be dealt with. Asking them to repeat what you said in their own words can help you know if they were listening or not.
They can adjust (although it seems like they can’t). I am shocked by the things my child can now do that I thought he’d never be able to. Make sure you’re giving your child room to change and grow. We can’t protect them from uncomfortable sensory experiences all the time or we’ll never know how capable they are to handle things. And behaviors that make them unsafe (parents of sensory seekers don’t need me to elaborate) need to be worked on intensely. Sometimes we have to be an uncomfortable mirror for our child by explaining to them that while their behavior makes sense to them, they need to be mindful about how it appears to other people or how it might bother other people. My child who loves to squeeze needs to know that that is not a good way to treat friends and I need to not make excuses for him when he suffers the relational consequences that come from squeezing your friends. We can get in a habit when they’re young of anticipating and mitigating all uncomfortable experiences. This serves a purpose for a time, but as they get older the goal is that it becomes less necessary as we’re equipping them with the tools to handle difficult situations.
They can be embarrassed (although it seems like they can’t). When a child consistently does embarrassing behaviors because they feel good to him, we can assume he doesn’t care about the social consequences of being “that kid.” That just isn’t true. They recognize that other people don’t understand them and that’s painful. But the urge to calm yourself through odd interactions with sensory input is more overwhelming than the desire to please your friends or your teacher. We need to help them figure out ways to handle themselves in social settings and be mindful of how we talk about them and their issues. They are not as unaware as we may think.
As frustrating as parenting a child with sensory issues can be, it is also beautifully rewarding. As I see my child starting to put names to his struggles and ask for help (“I feel nervous. Can you squeeze my hand?”), it’s like a new world has opened up for us. I am able to better understand what makes him tick and he is able to get his needs met in more appropriate ways. These little perspective adjustments have helped me be the mom (and advocate) my child needs.
*Check out this post for tips on how your friends and family can be a support to your child with sensory issues.*