Category Archives: Sensory Processing Disorder

A Reflection on a Traumatic Event

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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

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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

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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.


Overcoming Fears

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We’ve gotten into the habit of prepping Isis whenever there is some big external thing happening such as the 4th of July and fireworks. In case she’s woken up by a loud noise and feels scared, at least she has some context. However there is always the unforseen consequence.

This time it was that a 3.5 year old brain has no concept of what a year is, nevermind a holiday that only occurs only once a year, nevermind what fireworks even mean. She knows: they happen in the sky, they’re colorful, they’re big, they’re loud, they’re scary and she has no control over them. Phobia is born. From that night forward for two months, every night before bed she’d ask “Mommy is tonight a fireworks night?” I’d then have to explain every night for 50 + nights, “No honey, there are no fireworks tonight. Fireworks only happen 2 times a year on special holidays.”

“But Mommy, when is the next firework night?” AND so I would explain 50+ times the next fireworks would be on New Years Eve, and it wasn’t until I explained that it would be after her birthday in December (she’s just starting to get that a birthday happens once a year) – and that it was 100 days (or so) away that she was able to let it go, and stop asking me every night.

Last week when I was at the Party Surplus store picking up balloons, I spotted some sparklers and thought, what a great way to introduce Isis to the idea that fireworks could be fun! So I picked up a box and put it in my purse. This evening, I finally remembered I had them, so I pulled them out and said to Isis, “Hey honey, I wanted to show you some little fireworks I got.”

“Fireworks!?” said a betrayed and bewildered voice, “I’m afraid of fireworks!” As she bolts to the bedroom and slams the door. *doh* I think to myself. Parenting fail. I should have eased into that a little more. I go to the bedroom and open the door to Isis huddled under the down comforter pinching the blanket under her head looking like a little red riding hood. “I’m scared mommy!”

I back peddle to a place I know she feels safe and enjoys. “Isis, I’m it going to do anything you’re scared of. I’ll put the fireworks away. But these are just little fireworks, like a candle. Would you like to blow out a candle instead?” (This is something she has done before, feels safe doing, and has positive memories about).

“Ya mama! Let’s blow out a candle instead. Put the fireworks away. ”

So I keep the fireworks close by, but put them down so I’m not holding them. I show her a lighter and how I light the candle and she happily blows out the candle. Now eyeing the fireworks I put down, she says “Now you do a firework mama!” As she bolts for the bedroom and slams the door behind her again. I light a sparkler hoping maybe she’ll pop her head out and see…. No such luck.

I go peek in on her again. “I want you to do a firework mama!” “I did, do you want to come see me do one? These ones are not loud. They sparkle like a star.” “Okay, mama, but I need a big blanket!” We get her all set with a blanket to hide in her playhouse outside so she can watch me through her “window.” I light a sparkler and she smiles at the star sparkling glow. I ask her if she wants to hold one and she says, “No! Daddy has to do one.”

After seeing daddy do it, she’s ready to try and as she gingerly holds the sparkler between her two pincher fingers (’cause she’s still a little scared it will burn her) she smiles and her eyes glow with excitement and sparkles, and I get tingly just knowing we’ve taken the first step towards relieving a phobia and helping her to experience beauty in the face of fear. Scary can be beautiful and fun too!

The Sensory Checklist

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The Sensory Lens Part 2

Sensory Meltdown or Age Appropriate Tantrum?

First, establish if the meltdown is sensory related (fight or flight panic) or a more typical behavioral tantrum.

  1. Is there any direct sensory stimulation that is clearly over or under whelming them?
    • Use your sensory lens. Look for something you’ve tuned out, or wouldn’t normally notice. ( IE: The bathroom fan humming in the background, a square tile room that causes echos, fast moving objects or videos, a new smell from new hand soap or perfume, etc.)
  2. What is the status of their basic body needs?
    • Food (blood sugar low? Allergy or food sensitivity – what did they just eat?)
    • Hydration
    • Sleep / Rest / Quiet Time
    • Elimination (last time peed or pooped?)
    • Health (feeling ill or body otherwise uncomfortable)
  3. Are they panicked or emotional? Medical definition of Panic as defined by Merriam Webster is “a sudden unreasoning terror…” What I look for in a small child that tells me their panicked.
    1. A sudden onset and a fight or flight response.
      • Sudden physical aggression
      • Sudden running away, hiding, trying to crawl into a small space
      • Sudden emotion: crying, screaming, etc.
      • Sudden physiological symptoms: rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, nausea or vomiting.
    2. The inability to communicate their needs.
    3. A facial expression of terror or anger.

Once you’ve established it is a sensory meltdown – your response should be one of calm support and assistance. Remember your child is in a state of panic, and needs your help to guide them back to equilibrium.


The Sensory Lens

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How to understand and positively approach a sensory meltdown

Flashing back to a year ago, I had my hunches that my daughter had some unique challenges – I had just picked up the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel and was reading it while the water was running for bath time. Oufff… And Isis jumped into my lap. Done reading.

“Bath time, honey.”

“No mama, no bath.”

“Yes, you’ve got sand in your hair, you need a bath tonight.”

“No, no, no, no.”

“Let’s go play the sink or float game.” Sweeping her up lovingly and carrying her into the bathroom. My stomach sinking like the Titanic… This is going to be a traumatic disaster. What am I going to do? I set her down on the bathroom rug, and immediately she turns from obstinate into a panicking, terrified, trapped animal. I reach over to take off her shirt for bath time and my screaming little girl morphs into that Raccoon that once got into our house – a panicked and terrified animal in flight mode.

The raw terror in her eyes hit my loving mommy core – my heart hurt for her – this wasn’t normal. What do I do? Then Lindsey Biel’s book I had just been reading banana cream pied me in the face. *Wake up*

My body language shifted and Isis paused in her panic for a moment. She knew something had just changed in the room.

“Hey honey – I’m not going to make you get in the bath – I have an idea!”

“What, mama?” her curiosity breaking through the tears. “What is it?”

“I’m going to go get your blue bath (baby bath – much smaller than the bathtub – almost too tight for her 2.5 year old body). And we can put it in the bath tub, and you can choose what temperature you want the water in it, okay?”

Panic vanished. “Yes, mama! I want my blue bath!”

“Okay, you stay right here – I’ll be right back with your blue bath.”

I run outside and grab her old baby bath, clean it with a quick rinse, and then put it in the bath tub – empty. She leaps into it – smiling and happy (Weren’t you just a panicked raccoon? What just happened?). She breathes a daddy sized sigh of relief, and looks at me with the biggest brown pools of eyes I have ever seen and says, “Oh thank you mommy! Thank you so much. I needed my blue bath.”

I hold on tight to my tears trying not to let them out. Something was desperately wrong with the bath to her senses – her experience of that bath – so terrifying that she couldn’t function. Her entire system had short circuited and she had panicked.

At that moment I knew my daughter had sensory processing disorder – and a total change in perspective came over me. I now saw the entire world through a sensory lens – a constant flood of sound, movement, sights, touch, proprioception, taste, and smells. And so I started to develop the skills to help her navigate this stimulating modern world we live in. To follow in my next entry will be my approach to a Sensory Meltdown after a year of trial and error, reading, and learning – In hopes that it might help some of you parents out there!

She Can’t Hear You

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We went to the annual Berkeley Kite festival a couple of weeks ago.   Isis (3.5 yrs.) loves kites (in addition to finding them romantic I think she loves the proprioceptive input – the feel of the kite tugging on her arm and the wind blowing her body).  I was worried about the crowds but I knew she’d handle it for the sake of kites and bouncy houses.   It was an added bonus our “shuttle”  from the parking lot was a bonefied full size yellow school bus!   If there is anything cooler than a kite, it’s a school bus, and this was her and her younger sister Kali’s very first school bus ride.  “Oh, is it going to take us to school, mama!?” She asked me in wonder.  “Nope,” said daddy “it’s going to take us to the Kite Festival!” “Oh great! ” She burst out.

After our bus adventure, our next mission as decreed by our daughter was to fly her kite.  Since we totally failed as parents and didn’t bring her kite, we had to avail ourselves of one of the free paper kites she got to color on before attempting to fly.  Then it was on to the next thing, and she again was walking in the crowds in the opposite direction of her family.  “Isis, this way!” my husband shouts after her.   But I know she doesn’t hear him even though she’s still less than 6 feet away… My consciousness slips into hers and for a brief second my vision tunnels and I hear what she hears… Everything – all at once – at full volume – with no filters – The beat of the pop music blaring for the kite competition: “boom chuk, boom chuk, boom chuk” , all the conversations happening above her head in the truly diverse fashion of the east Bay “hoa bu hao” “va manos” “taiko”, the wind “whoooooosh” the vibrating kites “wawawawa” and then I flash back to my own body.  I give my husband the “it’s sensory” look (ya you develop one of those as a parent with a kid with SI challenges) and say “She can’t hear you.”  He knows just what to do, he launches after her, sweeps her up in his arm, and physical reorients her in the direction we were headed.   Now physically and visually on track – our family happily carries on.

Sensory Snippet – Put yourself in your child’s shoe’s and experience the world through your raw senses.  If you’re in a place with a lot of different sounds / noises or a particular type of sound you know they’re sensitive to and they’re not listening it’s not because they’re being obstinate.   Literally, “She can’t hear you”.  

Sensory Solution: Get their attention and communicate in a non-auditory way.  Gently pull them out of their sensory state by physically lifting, pointing, turning, etc as needed.   Or find a less stimulating place to talk.


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