Friday, February 21, 2014

Sensory Processing Disorder Gets A Spotlight


 On the way out to run some errands, my garage door opener decided to get a little moody. It’s an older door with the original clicker, so knowing precisely where to push is key to getting the clunky rectangular box to cooperate. I sat in the driveway, tried all the tricks in the book, but nothing worked. Timing is everything, and as I was in a rush to beat the next winter storm, I closed the garage manually and went on my merry way.
            Then it hit me.
            Nova recently tweeted a quote from Thomas Edison, which hit the nail on the head: “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this; you haven’t.”
            The answer was right in front of me. Try replacing the battery.
            Guess what? It worked.
            Isn’t that true about so many things in life? We assume addressing problems the same way will always solve them. If that approach doesn’t work, then the problem “must” be faulty equipment. In my case, I assumed the garage door opener finally bit the dust (not an unreasonable hypothesis, due to its age). At home or school we may blame the lack of discipline for difficulties with the kids, when the root of the problem, such as an underlying illness, is overlooked. Thankfully, we can choose to shift our perspective and remember Edison’s quote. Have we truly explored all possibilities?
            As my daughter comes into her own, it’s interesting to discover the things that she is passionate about. I’m not talking Special Interests here.  Heaven knows she’s always had those in spades. Disney films.  Animals. Now the Hunger Games saga. What I’m talking about here are things she cares deeply about and wants to help others understand. One such thing is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
            Sensory Processing Disorder affects how others interpret and react to stimuli, and this reaction varies tremendously. Some can detect scents or sounds from what seems like a mile away. For others, it can be lighting, touch and so on that make life a richer though more treacherous journey. No matter how each individual experiences SPD, the effects on that person are very real. Unfortunately, this can result in difficult situations. During this winter that has no end, it may mean getting off the bus in sub-zero temps with no coat, no gloves, no hat because, “Mom, I don’t feel cold, so why do I need to wear these annoying things?” Other times, it can lead to behavior issues in the classroom, which are often addressed using the same old methods, instead of identifying the root of the problem.
Dr. Temple Grandin used with permisson
            Some with sensory sensitivities will work to avoid situations by placing hands over ears (or eyes). Others will melt into tears. Some will have outbursts while others hide under a table. Just as triggers vary, so do the reactions to them and the personalities behind them. The concept of poor discipline as the root cause of these behaviors really has very little, if anything, to do with these responses to stimuli. Dr. Temple Grandin addresses sensory concerns regularly. In fact, a quote on her website from her book, “The Way I See it”, sums it up eloquently: "I have been talking and writing about sensory problems for over 20 years, and am still perplexed by many people who do not acknowledge sensory issues and the pain and discomfort they can cause.  A person doesn't have to be on the autism spectrum to be affected by sensory issues."
            Kristina now tells her story, herself, of the time she was in elementary school at yet another way-too-loud-for-her assembly in the gym. After years of holding it in and covering her ears as tightly as possible, she discovered legs work better than hands in removing herself from a sensory onslaught.
            She took off.
            You can imagine the reaction of the teachers – and the following calls home. As parents, we were so very thankful for the individual who provided gentleness, patience and understood she was in immense pain and reacting to it. We remain discouraged by another who chose to scold Kristina and interrogate us about our home life (the standard approach), appearing reluctant to accept the reality of SPD and how that was the underlying reason for her behavior. To be true, poor behavior is an issue in our schools that does not appear to be resolved any time soon. But how we approach behavioral problems makes or breaks the child. We cannot afford to take a “one size fits all” approach.
            As I meet and speak with families of children on the Autism Spectrum, one things rings clear; many feel their child is sorely misunderstood, leaving the family to blame for pretty much everything. It’s heartbreaking. It all boils down to understanding the root, doesn’t it? In fact, Dr. Jim Ball, Ph.D., the lead speaker at the upcoming conference in Raleigh says, “Sensory issues are often the ‘elephant in the classroom’ because the behavior problems are visible but many do not understand some of the major causes so they can be addressed in a way different from those that are caused by lack of discipline.”
Photo by Julie Clark (copyright 2014)
            Oddly enough, my husband, who understood (intellectually) our daughter’s sensory struggles, became personally familiar with this issue after his brain bleed. (You can read about that HERE.) He's always known it, respected it, but hasn't always understood it. After his stroke, he could relate. Sounds were impossible, and talking on the phone was not an option. Lights that flickered and flashed were unbearable. He commented that he always knew certain sensory stimuli were hard for Kristina, but now he "knew" (experientially) it. And it made certain places and situations very difficult to deal with. In fact, trying to convince others he could not physically handle phone conversations was virtually impossible, and downright irritated some individuals. But it made my husband incredibly sympathetic to his daughter, as well as her struggle to convey these difficulties to others.
            One thing I love about my publisher, Future Horizons, is their commitment to understanding - to education and improving the lives of those on the Autism Spectrum. This also includes those with SPD (including many who do not have autism). They accomplish this work through publications, as well as amazing, practical conferences. On Friday, April 11, 2014, Future Horizons will be in Raleigh, NC, presenting a Behavior Strategies Conference. I absolutely cannot wait! The speakers are Dr. Jim Ball and Maria Wheeler, M.Ed.  They are two of our nation’s leading authorities on behavior problems, and will share strategies for helping those whose sensory issues impact behavior, among other things. This is beneficial for both teachers and caregivers, and I’m excited learn their insight.  If you’d like more information, please go to, or click HERE for the direct link.
            Have you been to one of their conferences? No? My sister, who is a Special Ed (EC) teacher, speaks highly of the one she attended, saying it was, by far, the most practical and interesting she had been to, providing her with tools she could immediately take back to the classroom with her. I am thrilled that the focus of this conference is behavior in light of sensory stimuli. It’s sorely needed.
            And, no, Dr. Grandin won’t be at this one, but it will still be fabulous, as they always are. If you can make it, there is plenty of time to sign up. I’ll be there, too, so please stop by and say, “Hi!” I’d love to see you there!



  1. Having a child with SPD, I especially appreciated this post. It's difficult to remember sometimes that behavior that may seem odd or bad on the outside is often just him reacting to an overwhelming world. Thanks for the reminder. :)

    I have not been to any conferences, although the one you mentioned sounds great! I'll have to see if there are any in my area.

  2. Thanks so much, Bethany! :) This is a new conference series, so check for new venues. Also, feel free to contact them and let you know that you'd love one in your area! :)

  3. Julie, is Future Horizons doing the conference in Raleigh, NC any longer? I can't find it on the fhautism page...

  4. Hi Denise, thank you SO much for your comment! I JUST found out that there was not enough interest this time around, which is rather disappointing. :( Crossing fingers that will change in the future.