Category Archives: sensory diet at school

Teenagers and Sensory Issues: Special Challenges for a Special Time

As I look forward to my son entering his teens very soon, I’ve been thinking a lot about teenagers and sensory issues. Years ago, when I was first thinking about writing a practical guide for parents of kids with sensory processing disorder, I knew I wanted to cover teenagers and their sensory challenges. I knew of teens with SPD and I recognized that there was nothing out there in books or on the internet to help parents. I’m very proud to say that my coauthor, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, and I were really at the forefront of talking about sensory issues in teens in our book.

I’m repeating here my most recent Sensory Smart News because I know how eager moms and dads, and professionals who work with teens with SPD, are to get info aimed at this particular group of kids. So here it goes:

 

Teens with sensory processing disorder have special challenges because of the stage of development they’re in and the fact that until now, their sensory issues may have gone unaddressed. In the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, you’ll find an entire chapter devoted to teens as well as many practical tips for older kids. If you are unfamiliar with the special challenges of teens with sensory issues, here they are—followed by practical strategies for addressing those challenges.

 

 

1. Finding the right OT can be challenging. Few occupational therapists are trained or experienced in working with teenagers who have sensory processing disorder. Play-based SI therapy may seem silly and embarrassing to teens.

 

2. Poor self-esteem. Teenagers who have had sensory issues for years will have learned at least some accommodations to get around them and are less likely to experience the extreme behaviors and responses they did when they were younger. However, years of feeling different and not knowing why, and noticing that they have never been quite as mature and self-controlled as their peers, take their toll. Teens with sensory processing issues usually struggle with self-esteem. They need a lot of encouragement to admit they have sensory issues and need some help.

 

3. Need for independence. Teenagers need to have their independence respected, so being told, “You need to do X, Y, and Z to manage your sensory issues” usually doesn’t go over very well!

 

4. Desire to fit in. Even teenagers who don’t feel the need to have a lot of friends or be conformist want to have some friends they feel they fit in with. Sensory challenges can embarrass them and may make them feel isolated, and different in a negative way.

 

5. Changing hormones. Teenagers have ever-changing hormones that can exacerbate sensory issues by making them more sensitive to input than they were in the past. The normal changes of adolescence can also make them more moody and emotionally sensitive.

 

6. New expectations. People are less likely to see your teen as a young, immature person with a hidden disability and more likely to see him or her as a young adult whose behavior is willful.

 

 

What’s a parent, teacher, or therapist to do?

 

1. Modify traditional SI therapy techniques to be more teen friendly. As a substitute for playing with a tray of shaving cream or finger-paints, encourage the teen to cook, garden, do art or arts and crafts, and engage in other activities that challenge his tactile issues. Work with a sensory-smart occupational therapist who is willing to alter her approach to helping your teenage son or daughter to reduce any embarrassment or defensiveness.

 

2. Talk about sensory issues positively. Reassure your teenager that sensory issues are simply a difference in brain wiring that can have advantages but that can also be controlled and addressed to make life a little easier. See Raising a Sensory Smart Child for specific advice on helping teenagers overcome their defensiveness about having sensory processing disorder and how to talk to them about the “little tricks” you and the OT can teach them to “make their lives easier.”
 

3. Offer accommodations and sensory diet ideas for him or her to choose from. Present accommodations and activities to teenagers and let them decide which they would like to use. Honor and respect their choices and encourage them to engage in problem solving with you. If they don’t want to be seen doing a brushing protocol for tactile issues, can they do it discreetly in the bathroom at school? If all the kids are wearing loose clothes and they prefer them tight, can the teen wear tight clothing, such as bicycle shorts, underneath looser clothes that seem more stylish?

 

Teens with sensory issues need teen-friendly activities as part of their sensory diet.

4. Help him to feel okay as he is and find a group of peers he’s comfortable with. Practical solutions for grooming, picky eating, and dressing, and encouraging talks about the upside of being different, can help your teen with sensory issues feel more comfortable among his peers. However, he may also feel better about himself if he expands his group of friends. Encourage your teen to develop hobbies and engage in new activities from individualized sports that don’t require high levels of skill and competitiveness to enjoy them to groups that engage in the arts, community service, spiritual growth, etc. Extracurricular activities can help kids find their “tribe” and feel the power to make a difference in the world as well.

 

5. Accept that your child may be more emotionally sensitive at this stage. Be alert to signs of increased anxiety and depression and consult a medical health professional with any concerns you have. Remember, addressing sensory issues will reduce overall anxiety that can lead to mild or moderate depression (when you feel you can’t manage your discomfort, over time, you can develop depression). Don’t forget some of the most effective treatments for mild or moderate anxiety and depression include physical exercise, time spent outdoors, meditation, and breathing exercises. Mindfulness practices from yoga and tai chi to tai kwan do and karate can help, too.

 

6. Focus on self-awareness and accountability for self-regulating. It’s very difficult to get others to accept poor self-regulation in a teen, even if you educate them on hidden disabilities. Therefore, the sooner you collaborate with your teen in creating a workable sensory diet that prevents negative behaviors, the better. It will be easier for your teen to develop better self-regulation if she is trained in using specific self-calming and self-alerting techniques that she knows work for her. Hold her accountable for using her alerting music and gum, taking time out to sit in a quiet space and do breathing exercises or use a brushing protocol, etc. Have her participate in creating a sensory diet tailored to her needs to keep her sensory needs met and to prevent fight-or-flight behaviors. Let her experience the natural consequences if she refuses to use her calming, focusing, alerting techniques.

 

Above all, never forget that kids with sensory issues need a “just right” challenge, a balance of accommodations to make them more comfortable and challenges that take them out of their comfort zone.  Sensory diet activities for teenagers help them to develop a higher tolerance for situations and activities they’ll encounter in life, and over time, retrain their brains to process sensory information more typically. Be creative and encouraging in setting up a sensory diet for a teenager, and always be collaborative to respect the teen’s need for independence.

 

Finally, if you’re a parent frustrated by trying to get your teenager’s sensory issues under control, consider joining an in-person or online support group, such as the ones on yahoogroups.com, or creating one. Knowing that you aren’t alone, and having practical and emotional support from other parents going through the same experiences with their teen, can help you enormously at this stage of your child’s development.

Check it out!

 

Know the symptoms of depression in teens: See the information on the Mayo Clinic website. Information on Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which often begins in adolescence, can be found at WebMD.

Find more quick information on teens and sensory issues at www.SensorySmartParent.com and in the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child.

NEW WEBSITE AND BLOG! If you liked this article, PLEASE come join me at the new www.SensorySmartParent.com and sign up for my NEW newsletter and blog. Thanks!

12 Comments

Filed under exercise and movement for sensory kids, grooming, heavy work, helping your child with SPD at home, Lindsey Biel, Moms of kids with SPD, online support groups, OT, Practical tips for sensory issues, proprioceptive input, Raising a Sensory Smart Child, sensory diet, sensory diet at school, sensory processing disorder, sensory seeking, teenagers with sensory issues

Special Education, School Accommodations, and the 4 Cs

The New York Times has an interesting article on special education accommodations in two highly praised NYC charter schools. Schools that receive federal funding must provide special education services (although a notable exception is the voucher/”choice” program in Milwaukee Public Schools; there is a lawsuit pending because the “choice” isn’t really a “choice” if your child has an IEP–the schools get to cherry pick and they rarely take special ed students). Regardless of where you are able to get your child into school, the accommodations for his disability need to be appropriate for him. One size does not fit all! 

 

How do you work with a school to get the right accommodations for your special education child?  The four Cs: Curiosity, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication.

 

The article talks about two children who are highly distractible. Movement, such as a walk in the hall a few times a day, may be enough for one particular child to stay focused in a classroom of 23 children. For another child, it may not be enough. Also, let’s not forget that with sensory processing disorder, some kids are underaroused and some are overaroused. The underaroused ones may be distracted but very quiet about it–you often find them draped over a chair in the back of the room, picking at their sweaters. The overaroused ones may be distracted and hyperactive–they’re the ones who get into trouble and are more likely to be removed from class. Then too, if a child is gifted, she may be picking up enough information to do well on tests, but underachieving given her talents. How do we address the needs of all students who have learning differences? We start by understanding and respecting those differences. Then we rely on curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and communication, the 4 Cs, in order to alter the learning environment and curriculum to be appropriate for the child.

 

What do curiosity and creativity require? Any brain scientist will tell you that to awaken these qualities that are part of executive function, you have to quiet the limbic brain where you experience fear and anger. Getting angry at a child for not behaving or performing the way you’d like her to shuts down your creativity and sense of optimism and possibility ( which opens you to a sense of curiosity and wonder). On an MRI, you can actually see the blood flow to the front of the brain, where executive function is located, reduced when blood flow increases to the back of the brain and the limbic system, where fear and anger are experienced.

 

What do collaboration and communication require? Emotional intelligence, respect, and good communication skills among all team members. “Mother knows best” or “leave it to the professionals” are attitudes rooted in ego, that is, rooted in the fear that “If I’m not in control, and I’m not seen as THE expert, then I’m a failure.” And what does fear do? Again, it blocks us from our curiosity and creativity. Finding a new way to approach a problem, or a better way to express ourselves, requires executive function, not limbic brain fear. Our kids need us to put aside our egos and make the best possible effort to communicate respectfully and effectively with all members of the team, including the child.

What special education accommodations does your child need? How will you work with the school to ensure they’re provided?

And as our kids get older, they need to be more involved in the decisions regarding their schooling. They need to learn to self-advocate in a socially acceptable way. If a student is assigned a regular seat in September and then, in October, becomes extremely distracted by the construction noise outside the window, and would hear better if he moved seats, will he speak up for himself? Will the teacher notice? Will the parent have any clue? Have we taught our kids to let go of fear, anger, and resentment and use their executive function to become creative (“I could ask to change seats and solve my problem”) and communicative (“I could ask nicely”) within the classroom? Do they have the confidence to express their needs appropriately and collaboratively problem solve?

 

What’s more, we have to remember that we’re the adults and that doesn’t just mean we make the final decisions because we’re the authority figures. It means we have to be bigger people. When a child lashes out verbally, are we being the bigger person when we immediately engage in a power struggle? Or are we being the bigger person when we take a deep breath, observe what’s going on, and use our creativity, curiosity, and collaborative skills to discover the root of the problem and address it?

 

Our kids are complicated, but we make life easier when we take the time to calm our own anxiety, fear, and anger and get curious, creative, collaborative, and communicative. Only then can we find the right accommodations for our special kids.

3 Comments

Filed under A.D.D. and A.D.H.D., classroom accommodations sensory, exercise and movement for sensory kids, IEP, schools, sensory diet at school, sensory processing disorder, special education

Strategies to Help Kids with SPD or Autism Focus in the Classroom

Here’s a wonderful blogpiece from National Autism Resources on helping kids focus in the classroom CLICK HERE.

It’s fascinating to see how much difference and inflatable cushion or fidgets can make. There’s a Canadian company called Kid Companions that sells chewable jewelry and you can also find nontoxic chewables, and hand fidgets and inflatable cushions, in catalogues such as Southpaw Enterprises.

Wintertime is especially challenging because kids don’t spend as much time outdoors running around and using playground equipment. Encourage your child at recess time to kick a snow or ice pile, carry snow and make snow forts and snow men, and of course, shovel! But then too, check with him or her, the teacher, and the school OT to ensure your child is getting enough sensory diet activities throughout the day to stay focused in the classroom.

Leave a comment

Filed under affordable sensory items, autism and sensory issues, classroom accommodations sensory, heavy work, OT, playground issues, recess, schools, sensory diet, sensory diet at school, sensory seeking

60 first graders, 4 teachers, one open classroom = Sensory Hell

Do I laugh or cry at the misguided professionals who borrowed an idea from an elite private prep school to create a overpopulated first-grade classroom  for public school children, a group that includes kids with sensory processing issues?  According to the New York Times article, the class is held in an open area with 60 first graders and 4 teachers who can all hear and see what’s going on with the other groups. Transitions that involve a change of activity and moving the children to a different part of the room are a nightmare, which is frustrating for the teaching team.

Up to ten percent of children have sensory processing differences that make everyday sensations such as background noise or visual clutter incredibly intense experiences that are difficult for the brain to process, distracting, and anxiety provoking. Although we can be grateful our own kids aren’t in the sensory hell of 60 kids, 4 teachers, no walls, this story is a good reminder of how important it is to be aware of how sensory kids experience auditory and visual clutter.

Neurotypical people and children have the ability to automatically “turn down the volume” on sensory input that isn’t important and “turn up the volume” (that is, pay attention to) priority sensory input. Neurotypical children can usually tune out the sound of a truck rolling by a classroom, a dog barking outside, a chair scraping as someone pulls it out, or the squeak of a marker on a whiteboard isn’t important noise–unless they’re bored or antsy because they’re hungry or tired of sitting. However, most of the time they probably won’t notice the sound or, if they do, they automatically know it’s unimportant and they don’t instantly break their focus. Of course, younger children do get distracted by sounds they find especially interesting–the sound of money jangling in a bag, described in the article, would probably excite a six-year-old eager to see how much money it is. The sound of a dog barking outside a classroom door might elicit excitement (“Ooo, there’s a doggie in the building? Can I see him? Can I pet him?) or anxiety (“Oh no, a dog. I’m scared! My aunt’s dog bit me once!”).

Imagine, though, that your brain simply can’t block out the sound of children’s feet as they move across the room, or the teacher talking to a different class. Imagine that your brain is taking in the sight of 60 kids all moving, some of them moving suddenly, or bursting into giggles that pierce your ears because of your auditory sensitivities. Your brain can’t process all this information quickly enough and some of it is being processed as danger signals. Sudden high-pitched sound? Sudden movement to your right? Your body responds with panic: the fight or flight response. You start chewing your fingertips and rocking, shutting down and not hearing the teacher’s instructions. You feel yourself getting agitated, and when another child moves too close to you, you take a swing at her. You feel yourself so excited by all the stimulation that you start hand flapping and making silly noises–which the other kids laugh at, which makes you more excited, so you start bopping your head side to side and rolling on the ground. Fight, flight, sensory overload–these are not responses that will help you learn in this environment. And if you have poor self-regulation, which many sensory kids have much longer than neurotypical children do, you’re not going to come back to a calm and alert state simply because the teacher says, “Tommy, calm down now.”

Does this sound familiar? Are you seeing these behaviors and situations in a classroom of just 20-25 kids? If there’s a child with SPD in that classroom, and statistics tell us there is, the answer is “absolutely.”

So what’s a parent or teacher to do?

In general, kids with sensory issues function better in smaller classrooms because of the lower amount of stimulation. Any time you can reduce sensory stimulation and sudden transitions, it will be easier for all children, but especially those with sensory processing differences, to focus and remain calm and alert. Many parents have found that having their child with SPD in a private school classroom with 8 children is more supportive of him than a public school classroom with 30 children, but then there’s the issue of can you get special educational services (such as OT for sensory issues) paid for by the school district if your child is in private school? It’s very difficult.

Small private school classroom but no services, large public school classroom but services, including in-class services? It’s a tough call for many parents. Whatever choices you have before you, do check out the information on my website, SensorySmartParent.com, about helping your child at school (start HERE) and the chapter on Advocating for Your Child at School in Raising a Sensory Smart Child. There are MANY ways to make classrooms more user friendly for children with sensory processing issues, and many of the accommodations are simple, low cost, or no cost. You can begin to set up a sensory diet for your child today (hopefully, with the help of a sensory smart OT). No child should be put in “sensory hell.”

1 Comment

Filed under anxiety, auditory processing disorders, autism and sensory issues, back to school for sensory kids, books on SPD, boys in school, schools, sensory diet at school, sensory integration dysfunction, sensory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder symptoms, sensory seeking, SPD and auditory, special education

Today is Backpack Awareness Day: Is your child’s backpack too heavy?

While sensory kids can benefit from wearing a heavy backpack because of the deep pressure input (also known as proprioceptive input) it provides, and certainly proprioceptive input needs to be part of a sensory diet at school, a too-heavy backpack is a problem. Because our kids often have organizational issues, they can end up overloading their backpacks with items they don’t need, causing muscle strain. AOTA, the American Occupational Therapy Association, offers these tips for National Backpack Awareness Day: TIPS.

Keep in mind that a rolling backpack may be your best option.

Backpacks and ruckpacks rule: No more than 15 percent of body weight

Leave a comment

Filed under backpacks, heavy work, organizational issues, Practical tips for sensory issues, proprioceptive input, schools, sensory diet, sensory diet at school, sensory integration dysfunction, sensory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder in the news