Monday, June 7, 2010

Samantha's Sensory Processing Condition

What exactly is sensory processing dysfunction? The easiest way to understand it is by seeing it as a condition that’s been ranked by specialists at the bottom of the autism scale. We all know what autism is – the inability of individuals to interact with their outside worlds. In some cases, an autistic person is totally mute but can communicate in other forms. Autism also prevents individuals from appropriately processing all the things that bombard them on a daily basis.

If you think about it, there are a multitude of things that create noise in our modern lives. We take them for granted because we’ve learned to adapt to them over time. Right now as I type this I’m only consciously aware of the noise of the keyboard because I’m thinking about it. Up to this point I didn’t hear it. At the same time, there’s a hum from an appliance, birds chirping outside, and pages flipping as Samantha looks at her book. In actuality what I can do as I write is block out all those noises and focus just on the words I’m recording here.

This is a fairly quiet morning. Add to that the noise of the day as it gets going and you get the picture. Not only audible noise is an issue. What we see with our eyes is another thing that comes into play. Right now I’m focusing on the things within my peripheral vision in this room. A moment ago I didn’t “see” them at all. The other sensory things that we all easily identify are what we smell, what we feel or touch, and what we taste. There’s also a “sixth sense” that affects people that I’ve learned about as I’ve researched this topic. That is our sense of balance and position in space.

A person with sensory processing dysfunction can exhibit problems with any or all of these inputs from their environment but still function at a fairly normal level in everyday life. In our case with Samantha, she has issues with all, and functions well as long as she’s not overly stimulated. When she gets overly stimulated, she reacts in the extreme, by crying or becoming hyperactive. She has great difficulty in controlling her emotions and is unable to express what’s bothering her. Lots of times I just “know” because I’ve observed her for so long. When she was a baby, she hated sitting on the floor because of vibrations from appliances (it took me a long time to figure that out). She also reacted very strongly in cold and windy weather. Now I know that on a windy day she’ll get agitated and I’ll try to help her deal with it without needing her to tell me. But in other cases, I’ll know something’s wrong but can’t get her to talk; because she’s already agitated she’s unable to verbalize the problem. She resorts to baby babbling and fussing, sometimes even panicking. She has some gaps in language anyway which might not be related to sensory processing, but that’s a whole different story.

All of the specific ways sensory processing dysfunction affects Samantha are too many to list here. Suffice it to say that all of life is a challenge for her. Nothing comes easily or automatically. Most children learn to process inputs and then “pick up” on things without much extra effort, like speaking and running around in their back yard free of fear. Believe it or not, Samantha gets freaked out by moving clouds in the sky. She wants to hold my hand when we cross a bridge, fearing that it will not hold her up. I could go on and on, with feeding issues, clothing, and schooling. Even playing is a challenge – in fact there’s a book on sensory processing dysfunction titled “The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun” listing specific ways to “teach” your child to play.

I have struggled a lot with raising Samantha but now am used to it and feel fairly confident in my ability to deal with situations as they arise. That doesn’t make it easy, but it’s less stressful for two reasons: I understand what’s going on and can deal with it appropriately, and I don’t worry as much about how she’ll be able to function in life in the future. If she needs medicine to keep her anxiety under control, then we’ll go that route. For now, we’re working on desensitizing her and seeing how much she can outgrow on her own.