Imagine driving a car that isn’t working well. When you step on the gas the car sometimes lurches forward and sometimes doesn’t respond. When you blow the horn it sounds blaring. The brakes sometimes slow the car, but not always. The blinkers work occasionally, the steering is erratic, and the speedometer is inaccurate. You are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the car on the road, and it is difficult to concentrate on anything else. Stanley Greenspan.
Mr. Greenspan well describes what it’s like to have sensory processing disorder.
If you or I have sensory processing disorder, it means that our brain has difficulty interpreting, organizing, and responses to inputs/signals from one of our senses.
Here’s another example of what sensory processing difficulties are like, from Rachel Schneider:
Sensory Processing Disorder Is Like A Soundboard: Except The Sound Technician Is Terrible At His Job
Imagine being in a room listening to music, and the soundboard technician falls asleep or is entirely incompetent. The controls for the lights and the music are out of control so that the music is blaring here, too soft there, too much light here, too little light there.
Now imagine dealing with this 24X7.
Sensory Processing Challenges Are Like A Pesky Sibling
Imagine that I’m your favorite little sibling, and I am poking you square in the eye. Repeatedly. Without stopping. Poke. Poke. Poke. Poke.
At some point, wouldn’t you feel irritated? Wouldn’t you feel angry? Wouldn’t you scream and shove the little twerp out of your way? Wouldn’t you maybe avoid my pudgy finger in the future? Wouldn’t the mere memory of my incessant poking cause you some visceral reaction of frustration and irritation? “Stupid kid," you’d grumble to yourself.
Now multiply this times decades of experience, frayed nerves, and it’s not too hard to understand why you’d lose it: screaming, kicking, biting, and so forth.
Tired Of Sensory Processing Challenges? Don’t Give Up Hope!
In the early 20th century England, eccentric Caractacus Potts works as an inventor, a job which barely supports himself, his equally eccentric father, and his two children, Jeremy and Jemima. But they’re all happy.
When the children beg their father to buy for them their favorite plaything – a broken down jalopy of a car sitting at a local junk yard – Caractacus does whatever he can to make some money to buy it. One scheme to raise money involves the unexpected assistance of a pretty and wealthy young woman they have just met named Truly Scrumptious, the daughter of a candy factory owner. But Caractacus eventually comes into another one time only windfall of money, enough to buy the car.
Using his inventing skills, Caractacus transforms the piece of junk into a beautiful working machine, which they name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang because of the noise the engine makes.
At a seaside picnic with his children and Truly, Caractacus spins a fanciful tale of an eccentric inventor, his pretty girlfriend (who is the daughter of a candy factory owner), his two children, and a magical car named Chitty all in the faraway land of Vulgaria. The ruthless Baron Bomburst, the ruler of Vulgaria, will do whatever he can to get his hands on the magical car. But because of Baroness Bomburst’s disdain for them, what are outlawed in Vulgaria are children, including the unsuspecting children of a foreign inventor of a magical car.
I’m not a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, or a physician, nor do I play one on the internet or on TV.
But I’ve spent some time reading about sensory processing strategies.
I’ve uncovered 3 Sensory Processing Strategies you, like Caractacus, can use to transform your sensory processing difficulties into a beautiful working machine, organizing your life so that you, too, can overcome your challenges.
1. Self-Awareness: Know Your Sensory Processing Challenges
Various studies have shown that autistic children and adults often process information from their senses differently than others (neurotypicals).
As you learn to understand sensory processing disorder, maybe you’ll recognize some of your own difficulties.
Make sure the OT you contact is in your insurance network so that you don’t have to pay the full cost of her fee.
If the occupational therapist you contact is outside of your insurance network, you can ask
a) whether they will provide a sliding scale fee – that is, they will adjust what they charge according to your level of income.
b) whether you can get reimbursed by your insurance company by submitting the receipt, and then the insurance company may pay you back/reimburse you for 50% of the cost or more.
c) Look on the back of your insurance card and call customer service to ask the above questions.
In the following table, borrowing from her article, I’m going to include low-cost items for your sensory toolkit.
You can also search Amazon for any of the items listed, using the form below:
Items for Your Toolkit
Sunglasses, Baseball Hat or Wide Brimmed Hat (if you’re outside),
Soundproof headphones (you can search for these on Amazon.com, or you can go to Walmart and check out soundproof headphones in the guns section! (that’s what one mother did), Nature Sounds Audiotape/MP3
Occupational therapist, Patricia Wilbarger, coined the term “sensory diet”
“A sensory diet is a carefully designed, personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day.” Source: Sensory Smarts
Create a Daily Schedule
Use Dr. Sharon Heller’s Daily Sensory Diet Schedule. This form helps you become aware of your day. Carry your schedule with you for a week. Notice which times of the day are more challenging for you than others. Do you need to use items from your sensory toolkit, or any of the following activities at those times?
Try These Sensory Activities: Choose Ones That Will Work For You
Proprioception – Proprioceptive input (sensations from joints, muscles and connective tissues that lead to body awareness) can be obtained by lifting, pushing, and pulling heavy objects, including one’s own weight.
Wear weighted vest or something as simple as a backpack with varying hand weights to give you deep sensory input.
He also found that hanging from a pull-up bar stretches his upper bodies and “opens up my vertebrae with a calming stretch that relaxes my whole body and helps me feel focused in only a few seconds.”
Heavy lifting. Without straining, teens and adults can shovel snow or lift free weights.
Push, pull, and carry. Rake leaves, push heavy objects like firewood in a wheelbarrow, do push-ups against the wall, wear a heavy knapsack (not too heavy!) or pull a luggage cart-style backpack, or mow the lawn with a push mower.
Vestibular input has to do with your sense of balance and motion.
As an adult, you want to check out swinging and spinning motions.
An old fashioned swing in your yard or garage can do the trick for the swinging.
Use the items from your sensory toolkit to soothe yourself from bothersome touch, or to create the touch input you need.
Sensory Smarts recommends looking into tactile hobbies.
Sculpt, sew, weave, crochet or knit. Create a scrapbook (which involves lots of pasting and working with different textures). Use sandpaper to smooth a woodworking project. Make things out of clay, and try using a potter’s wheel.
Sensory Smarts shares ways to get calming, organizing auditory input (these tips were written for parents, but you can apply them to yourself as an adult as well).
Get outside and listen. Go to the beach or sit still and listen to the rain, thunder, and so on. If you hear birds singing, try to identify what direction a given bird is calling from.
Listen to natural sound recordings. There are many recordings of rain falling, ocean waves, bird songs, and so on. Sometimes natural sound recordings also feature light instrumentation with flutes, keyboards, etc. Some children and adults find they sleep better if they play such music.
Play a listening game. You and your child sit very quietly and try to identify the sounds you hear (traffic, the hum of the refrigerator, a door shutting, etc.) and where it’s coming from.
Find calming, focusing music. Listen to music specially engineered to promote calm, focus, energy, or creativity. Keep in mind, of course, that musical preference is highly idiosyncratic, so this will take some experimentation. The music you love may distress your child, while the music he finds so soothing may drive you up the wall.
Encourage musicianship. Provide your child with a musical instrument and encourage him to play and even take lessons.
Give him some control. For a child with auditory sensitivity, predicting and controlling sounds can be very helpful. Encourage him to turn on the vacuum cleaner, help him pop the balloons after a birthday party, anticipating the noise. Try CDs that desensitize children to everyday sounds such as flushing toilets, thunder, barking dogs, alarms, and other sounds many kids find distressing.
Create pleasant sounds. Get a white noise machine, tabletop rocks-and-water fountain, or aquarium.
2. Create A Sensory Toolkit. Bookmark the article, 26 Sensory Integration Tools For Meltdown Management, and check out her list of 26 tools. See if any of those would be helpful to you. Then go to my table (in the create a sensory toolkit section of this article), and add any items that are helpful to you.
3. Create a Sensory Diet Integrated Into Your Daily Schedule. Re-read my section about creating a sensory diet. Print out a copy (or copies) of Dr. Sharon Heller’s Daily Sensory Diet Schedule. Choose sensory processing activities that will help you get through stressful points in your day.
Apply this three step process to make your life more manageable. Like the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, taking care of your sensory integration needs can transform you from a broken down jalopy to a work of art!
Additional Links and Resources
Closing Quote from Cynthia Kim, author of the Musings of An Aspie blog:
When we think of diet or dieting, we usually think of restricting our intake in some way. But a sensory diet isn’t about restriction, it’s about fulfilling sensory needs and improving self-regulation with a specific selection of sensory activities. Sensory Diet
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