Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sensory School

You know how in certain seasons of parenting, there are issues so huge and all-encompassing that you doubt you'll ever wrangle your way out from under them?

That's what Sensory Processing Disorder was for us just a few short years ago.

I've posted from time to time about our road in helping Atticus--and, to a lesser extent, Logan as well--find a way to balance all of the stimulus his brain was not wired to sort out on its own. It was a two-year journey marked by weekly OT appointments and a life-altering schedule of daily home therapies that took priority over much of our schedule.

And you know what? The kid still has SPD. No joking.

O.k., that's actually a little sensory humor there, for the uninitiated. People with sensory issues always have sensory issues. There's no cure, per se, only coping skills. The world of a person who is sensory seeking or sensory aversive is always slightly askew, but with the right set of pathways firing in the brain, they live just as normally as anyone else. Well, except for the fact that I'm convinced pretty much everyone has sensory issues. Think about it: do you hate a certain cut of pants? Are there noises that make your skin crawl? Do certain food textures gross you out? Sensory issues, one and all.

Now that I've convinced you that your parents were remiss in not getting you the therapy you needed as a child, here's an email I received recently from a mom of a boy with SPD:

Mary Grace,
You mentioned that your son had some sensory stuff going on. I was wondering how you homeschool him. My son is a wreck when we sit down to do school. He falls out of his chair, chews on his sleeve and can't keep his eyes on the paper in front of him. He's 10. I don't know if I can teach him anything. What do you do?

L., take heart. You can teach your son. If you haven't already sought out an independent evaluation by an Occupational Therapist, I recommend it. It's worth the money. A good therapist will point out your son's areas of strength and weakness, giving you a game plan for your homeschooling. A great therapist will help you put the plan together and walk you through the process of teaching your son the coping skills he needs.

As for personal tips I can offer, here are a handful of the tricks I use/have used to keep Atticus on track while he's working:

1. Lap animal. A weighted lap animal is worth its um, weight. You can use a store-bought stuffed animal or make your own. To do the former, simply remove any fluffy filling through a small incision in the animal's back (something semi-flat, like a turtle, works well) and refill it with pea gravel. To make your own, stitch some thick fabric into the shape of a circle, fill with pea gravel and add accessories to give it personality. The animal Atticus used was about five pounds, and kept him company by draping across his lap while he did any sort of seatwork. For a while, it was his constant table companion, even joining him for meals. With this little critter on his lap, he didn't scoot, wiggle or fall. Worth the $7 in materials, to be sure.

2. Head phones. As I mentioned last week, I realized that Atticus has been having difficulty working in our not-so-silent house. A nice set of headphones works nicely to muffle the distractions, and some classical music serves to set a backdrop that's equally non- confrontational.

3. Reduce the page clutter. A brightly colored, cheerful workbook page might seem like just the thing to peak the interest of a distractable child, but it's overload for a child who can't handle the extra visual stimulation.

4. Frequent heavy work breaks. Interrupting a read-aloud or math lesson for five minutes so that a sensory challenged child can press against a wall, carry a load of clothes upstairs or do push ups reduces overall interruption time, believe me.

5. Line-by-line readers/workbook page highlighters. I'll be reviewing (and giving away) some of these neat little doo-dads soon. The idea is to focus the eyes on a specific area of the page, and help a child find their way back to that spot if they look up.

6. Fidgets. Pencil tips, squishy balls ... whatever works for your child. Atticus will often do writing assignments with a specific Darth Vader Lego guy in his hand because he can easily flip it from sitting to standing with one hand. That counts as a fidget, not a toy in my book.

7. Schedules. Yes, it's true. Knowing what's coming, when it's coming, and what it will look like helps a child with sensory issues establish some order in their homeschool life.

8. Stay on top of daily therapy. Don't put the bookwork before the sensory work. While it's nice to check off "science" and "reading," postponing the brushing or other sensory therapies in favor of that to-do list is usually disastrous. If it makes you feel better, write down your therapies on the same schedule you maintain for your school work, and check it off alongside the other subjects.

9. Use it. If a child is particularly affected by specific sensations, put it to use. One of the reasons why Atticus learns so well through touch is that he has an amazing memory of what something feels like. Practicing writing in sand, physical experiments, etc., are all valuable tools for him because of his sensory issues. I try to pull that kind of learning in whenever possible since it clearly works.

Atticus is nearly 9 years old now and no longer requires any kind of daily intervention to help him maintain his sensory equilibrium. His coping skills are enough to help him waltz through virtually any trouble spot that he encounters; if I see him struggling, I know it means he's getting sick. That doesn't mean, though, that's he's cured. As mentioned earlier, this is a life-long state of being, and one that we as a family assist Atticus with as needed. But thanks to a season of sacrifice on everyone's behalf, SPD is just a piece of who Atticus is. His eyes are blue, his hair is strawberry blond, he likes Star Wars and yes, he has SPD.


Big Red Driver said...

Great ideas. I'm going to make a copy of this post.

Melzie said...

I am a constant reader but I think this is my first comment :) I am not a homeschooling household but I do have a 12 yr old with SPD. I know the fidget thing works well, my son likes little squishies, or even sticky pieces of tape, otherwise he ties and unties his shoes constantly..which I am not sure if that is a SPD thing or an OCD thing. J's biggest issues are oral and noise sensitivity, I actually have him on a mild ADD med and it helps him settle some, not totally. (not for everyone I know) :) I will try the weighted toy thing for homework, not sure that would work in a public school setting. I will also check into the line by line thing sounds neat! He does have a hard time visually but I thought that was from a different issue he has didn't ever consider it to be sensory but it makes sense! Thanks for this post ;) xoxo melzie

mary grace said...

Thanks for delurking and leaving a comment, Melzie! Visual issues and their lack of proper attention in mainstream settings (from print size to doctor's offices) is another of my soap boxes. I have a feling that will crop up in my line by line review. I have several items to give away, so make sure you check back before you buy! :-)

Ericka said...

Mary Grace,
I found your site from Anita's and so glad I did.
While I don't homeschool, I found this post incredibly helpful. My son has a hard time focusing. Period.
I'm going to try the weighted animal - genius - and I just bought some of the line by line 'thingies'.
Thanks for the all the really helpful tips :)

G.L.H. said...

Excellent info! My son has Asperger's, but wasn't dx'd until age 27. How much different his life could have been had we known when he was young. I didn't know that sensory issues were a part of it, until he told me he always wears a hat b/c the feel of wind in his hair drives him bonkers.

I'm going to copy your post for a couple of friends. Thanks for sharing your "walk" with us!

The Hayes Zoo said...

Once again Mary Grace I realize that I like you - a LOT. You put out there in word form what's been on my plate but I haven't been able to express. :)

It's so interesting watching these particular issues morph as my kids get older. I can't tell you how much better it is now that my kids can communicate to me AND now that I have ears to listen. Sigh...I just wish I was an expert. :)

I LOVE these ideas and will be working on integrating some of them into our coping mechanisms.