The brains of people with ADHD, autism, and/or sensory processing disorder are different from the brains of neurotypical people. There’s reams of evidence this is true, including a new report on visual processing differences and ADHD. Whenever I hear people say ADHD or sensory issues aren’t real, or that some kids don’t have autism and are just the victims of bad parenting, I wish I had a portable brain scanner to whip out to show people WE ARE NOT MAKING THIS STUFF UP! (Forgive my crankiness–I hear so many of your stories about ignorant people who are convinced it’s all nonsense and I share your frustration!)
For those of you who have already accepted this fundamental reality about different brains, please remember that brains are retrainable, or plastic so there is reason to be optimistic, although it may not feel that way on your worst days. How does brain retraining work? As the saying goes, “When neurons fire, they rewire.” That means that when a neuron is stimulated and sends out an electrical signal to another neuron, a bridge between them forms. When the stimulus is repeated, the bridge is strengthened. In time, that bridge becomes very strong. That’s why we see that after a sensory smart OT does the same activity, hand over hand, with our child again and again, one day, he just “gets it” and doesn’t need cueing or demonstrating anymore. In fact, the stronger the neural network of bridges, the easier it is for him to translate the original skill to a new activity. He can blow a bubble off of a bubble wand AND blow out a birthday cake candle.
Retraining the brain is easiest with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, but we can retrain the brain at any age as long as any damage to the brain is not too severe. Even then, our brains are marvelous at rerouting signals so that we can make do with what we have.
What this means for us as parents is that we help our children develop more typical sensory processing, better self-regulation, and new skills through repetition and practice. Talk to your OT regularly about what she is doing with your child to build new neural networks and follow through with “homework.” My son’s marvelous sensory smart OT, Lindsey Biel, showed me how to stand over him, cueing him to keep his legs together using my own legs, and count off to jumping over three stuffed animals lain on the floor, in sequence. “1-2-3 jump–legs together! 1-2-3 jump–legs together, that’s right!” Every week, we had homework to do. It was fun and easy to work into our home routine (especially because Lindsey is a huge advocate of sensory diet activities that combine with everyday life easily). I learned that this follow through was as important as a musician practicing between lessons. Just a few minutes of each activity a few times a day helped tremendously. In fact, my son had so much fun he would often try activities on his own, or point to the equipment (it helped that he is a sensory seeker so jumping and the like always held great appeal–I know you parents of sensory avoiders have it a bit harder!).
If you haven’t done OT homework at all, or in a while, make a plan for yourself to learn what to do with your child and work on it every day, even if only for a few minutes. You can do it, and it’s fun!