A Reflection on a Traumatic Event

By | Sensory Processing Disorder, Trauma | No Comments

I was holding my youngest daughter at the Koi pond in a local garden today, watching the large orange, grey and speckled white, and golden fish lumber through the water.  Something made me look across the rectangular pond to see a panicked mother plunge her hand into the pond and pull out her approximately 18 month old little boy by the ankle.  His head just missed the concrete edging to the pond on his way back out.  She was hitting his back in fear he had swallowed water, and as soon as she heard the sweet and heartbreaking sound of his scream – his life force – she knew he was breathing.  She set him up right, hugged him in her arms and hurried over to the other 3 mothers and children with her that day.  They doted over her, affirming the little boys feelings that it was scary, and cold, and wet, and comforting the mother (who was still in shock) asking her if she was okay.  All she could say was “I didn’t even bring a change of clothes for him today.”  They said they did, and led her and the boy to get him changed.  I felt in the moment paralyzed, and not knowing what to do, and at the same time, knowing the boy was okay, and the mom would be okay.  They were supported.  It was okay for me to do nothing in that moment… Even though I wished I could help.  My heart went to that mother, knowing that it could have easily been any of us.

As the loving friends helped lay the boy on the bench and strip him of his cold, dripping wet hugging clothes he screamed louder and his panic amplified.  My daughter was looking at him with concern, and I was seeing the tears and shock in the mother.  She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t really act, everything was just happening to her in this moment.  Suddenly, it struck me, I knew how I could help.  I walked up very gently to her and said calmly in her ear with my hand on her shoulder.  “I think some skin to skin contact would help your son to calm if you’d be willing to take off your jacket and hold him.”  The only acknowledgement she gave that she heard me was handing me her purse, and immediately stripping off her jacket and letting it fall to her feet, picking up her naked son, still in a wet diaper, and touching her cheek to his and wrapping her hands around his body.  Immediately, he took that deep body vibrating sigh of the nervous system trying to reset to calm, and he stopped crying.  He wrapped his arm around his mother’s head, and stroked the tail end of her soft pony tail for tactile comfort.  Finally he could feel his mother was there, and that he was okay.  “That’s it, mama.” I said to her, and faded back.  The loving friends continued to remove his wet diaper with him in her arms, and put on a dry one.  And then proceeded to get him dressed, all while still in his mama’s arms.  I walked away to attend to my own family as I knew after that moment, they we’re on their path to recovery from that traumatic incident.

Witnessing the traumatic event today, and feeling my own emotional response to what occurred, I was reminded of what my older daughter and I have experienced together hundreds of times over the past 4.5 years, and what I’ve learned about trauma, and how I really want to deepen my trauma knowledge and training to help my own family and others.  I’ve found, for our family, the true definition of Sensory Processing “Disorder” is the aspect of Trauma.  Children with sensory processing issues, actually experience every day sensations as life or death; as traumatic.  The famed “Sensory Meltdown” sensory parents often refer to, is actually a response to trauma.  A fight or flight or freeze to a hair dryer, an unexpected touch, a bug flying unexpectedly across one’s field of vision, or just too much all at once (grocery store) can trigger a traumatic outburst of panic and a call for help from a sensory sensitive child.  And when my understanding of my daughters challenges shifted from, “this is so difficult, why do all her responses have to be so extreme” to “she thinks this could kill her, and she needs help to calm and recover” healing for her, and us, looked less like desensitizing her to triggers (a more traditional approach to sensory processing treatment), and much more about uncovering the tools of trauma prevention and trauma healing practices.  In the physiological and neurological sense, learning how to help her nervous system activate and deactivate in a healthy, regulated way.  The results from shifting our approach and understanding has been profound.  And while there are still hard times, hard days, weeks, or months, I know that we are on our path to recovery from experiencing every day life as trauma.  And I wish more than anything else to continue to learn and develop my trauma knowledge to help others find their path towards recovery from trauma, as I hope a tinie tiny thing I did today helped one mama and her beloved son.

10 Tips for Dinning Out With a Sensory Friend

By | Auditory, Sensory Processing Disorder | No Comments

In my last post “A side of decibels” I shared some ideas on what restaurants could do to make dinning out a more pleasant experience for those sensitive to noise.  I wanted to expand on this and address the other side, what we can do as patrons who are sensitive to noise to still enjoy going out to a happening restaurant.

1.  Go out after everyone is well rested.  Having a pool of energy to draw from will help one’s nervous system be able to better process high sensory input.

2.  Go out BEFORE meal time.  Don’t wait until you’re hungry, and your system is short circuiting.

3. Go out on a week night, when it’s less crowded and busy.  Go out early or late, so you’re not there at the same time as everyone else.

4. Ask to be seated (or seat yourself) in the quietest spot possible. Away from speakers, the kitchen, the entry way or the bathroom.

5. Ask your server if it would be possible for them to turn down the music as you have a guest who has hyper sensitive hearing. I’ve found at most restaurants where I’ve made this request, they are very accommodating and other guests are often grateful.

6. Bring sound canceling headphones, noise reduction ear protectors, or ear plugs.

7. Bring sensory soothing toys or fidgets.  Hand held fidgets, stress balls, or one of my daughter’s personal favorites: order a glass full of ice to suck and crunch on.

8. For smaller children, bring a safe place to escape to such as a pet bed or picnic blanket they can hide in under the table. Go for frequent walks outside. Visit your car to get a new toy or book. Invent reasons to find quiet places or moments for calming and deactivating the nervous system.

9.  Prepare those you may be meeting at the restaurant.  Let the people you’re meeting know you have someone with you who is very sensitive to noise, so they can understand if they need to take a brief walk, or wear ear protection.

10.  Celebrate a successful meal with no meltdowns!  (Stickers, Dessert, a special trip, a new toy, etc)

A side of decibels?

By | Auditory, Sensory Processing Disorder | One Comment

Let me start out by saying “I love you, San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants!”  You offer me unparalleled food quality, and a superb olfactory and gastronomic experience.  I’d even say you’re worth the money and the sometimes crazy lines.  You do food, customized and allergy friendly menus, personalized attention, crowd management, and sensationalism so well!  You’ve even started creating custom kid play spaces where the kids can play while the grown ups eat and drink (which I love!) But there is an area you’re failing, and it’s letting my whole family down.  You’re ASSAULTING our ears.

No, really, I get it. Your open-ceiling industrial-chic exposed ductwork looks awesome. I especially love the steam-punk dangling incandescent bulbs and the trendy back-lit bar. But that exposed celling, well; it’s a nightmare for acoustic reflections. Your un-covered concrete floors aren’t helping things either.

Since having a sensory child, we can’t go to trendy “family friendly” brew pubs in concrete buildings with echoing walls, blasting music, sports TV, foodies screaming at each other over the music, and dishes clanking in the back.   Nor can we go into South American cuisine restaurants with blasting salsa music, low flat ceilings, and walkie talkies for taking orders and transmitting them to the kitchen.  We now avoid Asian restaurants with oriental tunes, flickering florescent lights, and hard tile floors.  Our new favorite spots are food trucks on a funky corner, outdoor beer gardens, or unpopular restaurants with bamboo flooring, cloth wall hangings and table coverings, and low lighting.  Most often we just order to go and eat in the park.

The average noise level in restaurants has steadily increased.  Many people have come accustomed to having a minimum noise level and are able to filter much of the noise out.   However this isn’t, as many articles call out, a “young people vs old people” issue – this is a nuero-diversity issue.  Some people CAN NOT filter this type of noise.  Their nervous systems and brain functions work differently than other people, and there is no way they can simply ignore or filter the noise level.  There are lots of possible solutions out there, and I really wish more restaurants would at least take into consideration noise level as part of their fundamental design.

Simple solutions include table cloths, cloth wall hangings, and carpeted floors. Consider skipping the background music, or using soothing sounds such as waterfalls, rain drops, or other natural and relaxing sounds.  Acoustic tiles are around a dollar per square foot on Amazon, and 20 or more of these glued to your concrete walls and ceilings would go a long way to dampen the sound. More expensive options might include private dinning spaces, or high end designs including customized architecture and sound design, like these Oakland Restaurants!

However it is delivered, I would be a much happier restaurant patron if my little girl wasn’t so overwhelmed with noise that she turns into a terrified animal fleeing the scene (bolting out the door, just as I order my food, and running down the street).  Please hold the side of decibels with my meal.  I’d like to eat calmly with my family and enjoy the astonishing flavors in your food!

You Don’t Just Have To Ride It Out

By | Auditory, Sensory Processing Disorder, Visual | No Comments

You Don’t Just Have to Ride It Out – 3 Tools for Reaching Your Child While In a Sensory Meltdown

I’ve been troubled lately by a few articles and blog posts I’ve read on “Riding Out the Sensory Meltdown.”  The general idea of these posts is that there is nothing we can do for a child in a Sensory Meltdown other than be there for them and waiting for it to end.  Now granted, being there counts for a lot, and I commend every parent who is there for their child through a Sensory Meltdown.  In those moments our children no longer have control of themselves and need any and all comfort and help we have to give them.  I’ve learned over the past 4 years that there’s a lot more I can do for my daughter than just be there, and these three tools have helped tremendously in reducing the frequency and duration of meltdowns.

A Sensory Meltdown is a form of panic, a form of purely instinctual, animal brain response to something the system has registered as a life or death threat.   Fight or flight.  And so, we need to reach the instinct, the nervous system, to calm a child in this state.

Tool 1:  Take a Deep Breath!
If you can, catch your child before the meltdown hits with full force.  Interrupt their emotional trajectory with a strong but gentle “Take a Deep Breath!” And then do it yourself, audibly so they can hear, with your hands on your stomach so they can see and feel you fill your stomach with air, and then let it out slowly by either blowing it out (like blowing bubbles) or sighing it out saying “Ahhhhhhhh.”  If you’re not able to get to them before they’ve “checked out” into non responsiveness you can still do this breathing yourself to model it, even if they don’t participate.  It will help keep you calm, which in turn helps keep them calm.

How this works:  Deep breathing allows more oxygen to travel to the brain, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps the body to calm down.

Tool 2:  Look Around You!
If you can, help draw your child’s attention to something up high (above their eyeline) and then gradually all around. Some times I’ll shout or whisper excitedly “Look!” And point.   A painting, the moon, a light, a fly, a bug, anything to get them to move their eyes around.   Once you’ve got their attention keep drawing their eyes to new things at a measured pace (not too fast) or ask them to help you visually find something.  If they become calm enough begin a game of “I spy.”

How this works:  The ocular nerve has an impact on the hypothalamus which is responsible for triggering the fight or flight response.  Moving the eyes to look all around helps a child’s nervous system to register there is no immediate life or death threat and helps their brains conceptualize that they are safe.

Tool 3: Rhythm
We are fundamentally beings of rhythm.   Our heart beat is our life rhythm.  Rhythm helps to sooth us.   We find rhythm in physical movement, sound, vibration, or other sensation (use trial and error to discover what is most soothing for your child). Rocking back and forth, bouncing, drumming, tapping, listening to your heart beat on your chest, feeling your chest rise and fall with your deep breaths, poetry, a rhyme, a chant, a song, a story, a visual pattern.  Once our family was on a long road trip and our sensory kid started to loose it (she couldn’t take being in her car seat a second longer!).   I turned on the “Llama Llama Red Pajama” audio book by Anna Dudney, and our daughter immediately went quiet and listened to the rhythmic story…   “llama llama red pajama…” I’ve used this several times since with lots of success.

How it works:  Our bodies, including our brain and nervous system specialize in rhythm.  It is programmed into who we are and it can have very soothing effects on our bodies and minds.

 

The One to One Education Model

By | Education | No Comments

I once had a high school English teacher (Mr. Olzman) who opened his first class with a speech something like this: (forgive my memory almost 20 years later). “I don’t expect you to respect me.  I am going to EARN your respect.   There are 17 students and 17 teachers in this classroom.  We all have something to teach and something to learn from one other.”  This one to one education method was one of the most effective I have ever experienced.  We edited each other’s English essays.   We  actively learned together, from each other, and were respected for our thoughts.  The One to One Model of education – where we learn from each other (parents, students, and staff) by establishing mutual respect needs to be a core component of the future of education.

As a parent I feel like what I want in my child’s educational experience isn’t unique.   I want my daughter to have a place to play with other kids around her age.  I want her to have the freedom to run around outside as much as possible and to be a kid as long as she feels the need to be. I want to be welcome as a parent to be involved in her education and have open and honest dialogue with her teachers.  I want her uniqueness (and every child’s uniqueness) honored and not taught or trained out of her.   I want her to feel safe and loved and excited to learn about her world. 

What I see and am experiencing in education is the opposite and it astounds me.   Already, in only preschool, I’m coming face to face with an educational system designed to make the children fit into a mold that conforms to the system (an out dated model designed to produce conformist corporate cogs. Not free agents or entrepreneurs). In this system we worked to explain her unique needs in detail, a plan was laid out and then the school decides it doesn’t have the bandwidth to meet her needs and changes the plan.   This doesn’t work for her – she has an accident, she feels stress and shame.  I have heard many other parent stories such as these around IEPs and other deviations from the system process in public school systems.  How frustrating is it to have your child treated like a number that is out of sequence instead of a unique human being.

Systemizing kids is wrong and it will never yield educational results that match my dream for kids or their families.   If we are a nation that honors diversity, uniqueness, and merit we must find a different solution than the one to many uniform educational model.  We cannot have young children arrested for making clocks, or suspended for twirling pencils, or shamed because they have sensory processing disorder and are terrified of the public toilets because the flush noise sounds like an explosion to their ears.  We can not teach children to mindlessly consume information dictated to them from a “teacher” and regurgitate it back on to a test later if we hope to have critically thinking, involved future adults.  Children need to be respected for their creative thought and unique perspectives and capabilities.

Science Substantiates 1st Level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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I’ve long been interested in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and often thought that although it is a theory of psychology – it makes complete sense when applied to physiological systems including nerve systems and brain development. If a child, adult, or even mechanical system is stressed – it is not going to develop or perform optimally. If a human being is focused on basic survival – the neural system is not going to develop the ability for complex abstract thought and projection. It’s going to focus on getting air, water, food, and rest. And therefore the brain development in this scenario would be limited to what the body needed to focus on to survive. This article (http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2015/03/poverty-may-affect-growth-children-s-brains) talks about a scientific study that shows poverty correlates with less brain development. A very interesting finding for us educators to look at and find creative ways to address!

 

From a sensory perspective – I wonder what children with Sensory Processing Disorder (a neurological challenge) need in order to learn and develop optimally. Because these children’s systems are on high alert, and often acting at a high level of stress due to unpredictability and fear of assault from the external (or internal) environment – how can we create a safe and calming environment where their nervous systems can calm, and take in new material and develop new pathways? All children to optimally learn need to be able to filter out ambient sensory noise, or need to learn in an environment that limits sensory noise. In a traditional classroom sensory noise includes tiled and echoing rooms, other kids voices, other kids and teachers bodies (standing in line), banging lockers, desks and books, alarm bells, buzzing and flickering poor quality lights, unpleasant smells, traffic, construction, etc. No wonder kids come home from school stressed out!

Rethinking The Education Model

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My daughter would be at high risk of trauma or failure in a public classroom.   Why?  Because certain sensory needs are not addressed in a typical classroom – and when these needs aren’t met for her, the repercussions are pronounced and obvious.  Symptoms of high anxiety (nail bitting, sleep disturbances, emotionally on edge, panic attacks, etc) and sensory over or under responsiveness become very apparent.  For more typical children symptoms of not having sensory needs meet may appear as tiredness, hyperactivity, disinterest, apathy, moodiness, and / or stress.

The bottom line here, whether you have a sensory typical or atypical kid, is the public school system is often failing to address the fundamental needs of developing children.   Much of our educational pedagogy is based on 60 year old theories that lack the benefit of modern developmental and cognitive neuro science and Psychology (Montessori, Waldorf, etc).   And much of our educational policy is implemented in a top down maner from politicians to educators.

Many public schools are also failing at their secondary purpose.   In addition to the failure of meeting the basic educational and physiological needs of students, the system is also failing to produce engaged and participatory members of our society.  As Daniel Pink lays out in his book, Free Agent Nation, our working culture has shifted from a model where an employee dedicates herself to a parent company that cares for that employee over her lifetime (loyalty being the key virtue) to a network of self responsible free actors / individual contributors (self actualization being the key virtue).  Education is still being taught in the one to many, one common core standard fits all method – which is not teaching the critical thinking and self responsibility skills needed to succeed in our present society.

Sensory School is my response to the fact that the current state of education is not keeping pace with scientific research or cultural change.  I want to build a school where each student will have their basic physiological, developmental, and social needs not just met – but full filled.   A school that will help each student on his or her path to self actualization by working with them to build the skills, passion, and confidence to be successful.  A school that knows what it means to be a kid with fundamental sensory integration needs (whether typical, hyper or hypo sensitive) – and will design and evolve a curriculum and educational pedagogy that supports the sensory system.

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