As I’ve mentioned previously, my son M. has autism. I’m in Holland instead of Italy, and life is definitely interesting here.
One of M.’s challenges with living in our world concerns his sensory processing. Here’s my parental, non-medically trained, limited knowledge on the subject: With typical people, when we invoke our senses by seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting something, our brains know how to handle that information and send messages to our nervous system to respond appropriately. This is called “sensory integration.” However, in people like my little M., these sensory signals get “jammed” en route to the nervous system and the brain doesn’t receive or process the information correctly. This is called “sensory processing disorder.” You can read more about it at the SPD Foundation website.
The first time we noticed signs of SPD in M. was when he started walking in circles and wiggling his fingers in front of his face. Referred to as “stimming,” the movement of his fingers creates extra visual input for M. Likewise, while we travel on the highway, M. prefers to look out the side window of the car. Have you ever tried this? I did so to see what he was seeing and found it intolerable. My eyes couldn’t adjust to the blur and my head started to hurt. But for M., this extra visual stimulation feels right.
M. also prefers to be moving. After our ottoman took a beating, we bought him a trampoline, currently stationed in front of the television so that he can jump and watch at the same time. Again, impossible for us typicals, but settling for M. His therapists and teachers find that M. is better able to handle quiet seat work after he’s done some vigorous gross motor activities.
Interestingly, however, while M. is what they call “sensory seeking” in the visual and motor areas, he is “sensory avoiding” when it comes to auditory input. He often covers his ears while in crowded, noisy places. At bounce parties, where kids jump on giant, colorful, air-filled apparatuses, M. jumps like a mad man, but covers his ears at the same time due to the large blowers and squealing kids. He’s become adept at climbing around these giant contraptions without the use of his hands.
Lately, M.’s new favorite sensory activity is ripping. Everything he can possibly get his hands on. Something about the feel of the paper, hearing the soothing noise of ripping, then playing with the pile of debris really calms him down.
Yep. That’s M. sitting on the table, playing with his ripped up whatever it was. This is a common sight in my house. He loves ripping magazines, napkins, fabric softener sheets, phone books, anything within reach that’s tearable.
Usually, this activity doesn’t bother me. It actually comes in handy with junk mail–no shredder needed. However, once in awhile things go bad.
For example, since the Universe decided that my two children should be polar opposites, my nine-year-old, JC, loves to draw. He’s always on the lookout for paper, pencils, notepads. He’s written books, created masterpieces, painted landscapes with watercolors. He loves and respects paper. Do you see where this is going?
M.’s little hands seem to find the treasures that JC has worked his hardest on, and without warning, without a moment’s notice:
When I hear that sound and then JC start to cry, I cringe. How do I explain to JC that his brother can’t help himself? As much as we try to avoid this scenario, the fact of the matter is that M. has quick hands.
Then there’s the time he did this:
In a matter of minutes, he ripped every page out of the checkbook and colored it orange. He tried to write a check out to himself too, which I have to admit was kind of cute (I saved it). Nonetheless, I could have used that check registry for tax filing purposes. Oh well.
Along the same lines, M.’s also gotten his nutty little hands on personal checks given to M. and JC as Christmas gifts from relatives. That was awkward, for sure. “Umm, sorry but M. ripped up your gift. Can you issue another?”
M.’s sensory challenges are currently being addressed in occupational therapy and at home. “Sensory diets” created by therapists especially for M.’s needs list activities we can do at home, such as jumping and various rough-housing type fun (I draw the line at shaving cream play. Way too messy!). He has a special, extra-tight SPIO vest, which we refer to as his “Superman vest,” that he sometimes wears velcro’d around his body to give him extra input.
In the past, we’ve also used sensory brushes to “brush” M. There’s a method to the madness– a certain technique that we were taught by an occupational therapist. The theory is, that done correctly, the brushing provides sensory stimulation and positively affects the joints. This is what our brush looks like. It’s made of soft plastic and doesn’t hurt.
Back to the ripping, we’re hoping this phase calms down before he gets his hands on the winning lottery ticket (In case you’re wondering, it hasn’t been purchased yet.). Until then, we will accept donations of any junk mail you need shredded.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this: while SPD and autism can make life challenging, they do have their silver linings. My favorite aspect of M.’s SPD– hugs. M. loves giving hugs and he gives really good ones. I love to hug him back, and I know that inside his funny mind and deep down in his big heart that his hugs aren’t just sensory input for him. They are awesomesauce mommy love hugs. 🙂
Thanks for reading!
[Sources: http://www.spdfoundation.net; Photo of SPIO vest: http://www.orthoticsprostheticsne.com/home/images/stories/spio-vest-main.jpg%5D