Imagine, for a few moment, living in a world where lights are too bright, certain sounds are too loud, certain types of clothing
cause physical pain, certain food textures make you vomit, or you simply cannot feel where your body is in relation to other things or people and so you crave physical input. Imagine all your nerves misfiring or that your brain is unable to process what it sees, hears, and feels, and you are stuck in this hell because everything that bothers you is simply the norm for everyone else.
Many people have some degree of sensory issues. Personally, for me, I have to have socks on when I sleep and they have to be as tight as possible. If I don’t have socks, I will try to wrap my feet in something or wedge them under an object (like a couch cushion) because I must have pressure on my feet or else I cannot sleep. My ex-husband used to think it was funny to pull my socks off in the middle of the night, which meant I would wake up and have to go find a new pair of socks (once removed, socks are stretched out and too loose and therefore ineffective). Yeah, dude was an asshole. In addition to my sock issues, I have a few other sensory things, like I cannot abide even the slightest rough edge on a fingernail. Can’t do it, won’t do it, you can’t make me. Freshly cut nails must be filed immediately. If there’s a rough edge on one of my nails that I can’t file right away, I will constantly rub it. Yeah, I’m weird, but a lot of people have issues like that and, for most people, they don’t affect everyday life outside of minor annoyances. Things are different for other people, though.
Many people, not just ASD, have sensory issues. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a very real disorder and can be extremely debilitating. Not all people with SPD are autistic, but a lot (I dare say almost all) people with ASD have some form of sensory issues.
I have one dear friend whose little girl, L, has SPD. She cannot tolerate being kissed near her face, only on the top of her head, and, per her mom “she recently has declared that she does not want to get married, because married people kiss and she does not like kisses. at. all.” She will allow hugs, but those seem to be frustrating for her because it’s too light of pressure over too small of an area. Clothing must be skin-tight – leggings and tights only, no loose pants – because loose clothing hurts her (makes her skin “cry”). No long sleeves. Nothing three-dimensional on her shirts – bows, ruffle, buttons, collars. No multi-textural foods. Seams and tags on clothing cause her pain. Wet hair, loud noises, you get the idea. Also, per mom “She can get obsessed with getting anything on her hands— glitter especially is a nightmare for her… she’ll obsess about washing her hands— it’s like watching a pint-sized Lady M in action.” Probably one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve heard of lately was what poor L went through a few months ago. At the age of 4 and fully potty trained, she suddenly began having accidents and making a mess while using the toilet. Her mom finally figured out that the toilet seat was just too cold for L, it was painful for her, so she was trying to hold herself off of it while going to the bathroom, which is damn hard to do, especially for a preschooler. She simply feels these things too much. She also seeks deep vestibular input, very similar to Simon and I’ll talk about this now.
Simon doesn’t seem to feel things enough. As his OT puts it: “He can’t feel where his body is in space.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds bloody scary to me. He craves input from all aspects. One of his things is he is very visual. He loves to watch TV and movies with very bright graphics and anything that involves moving words or numbers. For Simon, that means Pixar movies, especially the credits, and The Weather Channel. Yes, that’s right. My 2-year-old loves the fucking Weather Channel. When he gets up at 5 in the morning, the first thing he does is turn on the weather. He just loves the active graphics and there’s always a word scroll across the bottom, which is the end-all-be-all for Simon.
Simon also seeks a lot of oral sensory input. He doesn’t yet seem to have any food aversions or texture issues (thankfully), but, man, this kid likes to chew on shit. His hands. His feet, sometimes to the point of bleeding. Long sleeves. Books. Furniture. Bowls. Cups. Straws. Toys. Seriously, I’m worried he’s going to mess up his teeth. Some examples of his best work:
Now, as far as the chewing goes, there are special chew items that are made specifically for people who like to, well, chew. They range from jewelry (“chewlry”) to pencil toppers to sticks to toys. Simon is too young for many of the items (choke hazards), but we have tried him on a variety of things over the past few months. Some he just doesn’t like (wrong texture, I guess), others he tolerates, and some he just destroys. Yep, items that are made for the express purpose of chewing, he manages to chew pieces off them. As an example, this is his favorite chew bracelet. See the edges that he’s gnawed off?
Then there’s the tactile and proprioceptive input (sensations from joints, muscles and connective tissues that lead to body awareness) that he seeks. Simon seeks this in a lot of different ways. The pushing his forehead on the floor that he used to do? Yep, sensory seeking. He also loves to run full speed and fling himself onto furniture or people, the harder the better. His head banging is not only a way to express frustration, but it’s also a way to get sensory input and self-regulate. Some of his more eccentric behaviors are sensory seeking ones. For example, he enjoys pressure on his hands; it’s comforting to him and calms him down. His favorite way to get this is to stick a hand down my shirt and between my boobs (I’m a busty gal). Or, lately, if I’m going braless around the house, he’ll push one of my boobs up and stick his hands under it. It’s warm and heavy and he likes it. *shrug* Who am I to argue with him?
Anyway, we have ways to help him with his proprioceptive needs that I will discuss Part 2 of our sensory discussion.
While a lot of what Simon does is seeking behavior, there are also many times when he simply gets overwhelmed by the environment around him. When that happens, he has trouble self-regulating or calming himself down, which can lead to meltdowns or head banging or other behaviors (he’ll crawl under my shirt when he gets overwhelmed or too excited). With the help of his OT, we’re helping him come up with strategies for dealing with this very overwhelming world and get the input that he needs. This has led to numerous DIY projects around the house, ranging from a crash pad to a Lycra swing to a weighted lap pad. Part 2 will cover these in more detail and provide basic instructions, although (DISCLAIMER) these should only be used under the advice and guidance of an OT or doctor.