Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition where one’s brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through their senses. This could include hypersensitivity to light, sound, even certain smells and the way things feel.
What Are the Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder
Although many Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) cases are in connection with other disorders such as ADHD or Autism, Sensory Processing Disorders can be diagnosed on its own making it an invisible disability many can’t see. Beyond the visible fine motor skills, the other baffling behavior typically seen is often miscategorized by onlookers as “poor discipline” in a child or “bad parenting.” SPD meltdowns include tantrums, screaming, crying, and even aggression, all of which are typically seen in a poorly disciplined child.
The Difference Between SPD and Poor Discipline
So what is the difference? Due to this disorder a child’s senses are on complete overload. It’s like a having a 5 o’clock big city traffic jam of information in their brain and they feel trapped. Overwhelmed with information, children and even adults with this disorder need to release the buildup in their brain and so they lash out. They release all of the stress and anxiety the information has caused and unfortunately many times that is done through physical reactions and emotions.
Many see these types of reactions as meltdowns which frequently occur in public. The world rushing around can quickly become overwhelming to those with a disorder, and a simply family outing can turn into a hurricane no parent can prepare for.
Feeling helpless and frustrating as bystanders stare and make judgments, parents often feel humiliated and misunderstood. Parents hear accusations about bad parenting and even hear words aimed at their children, such as picky, spoiled, bratty, and poorly disciplined.
However, children’s responses SPD are uncontrollable. It’s a grey area of knowledge that typical discipline does not and cannot apply to. Despite this, there are a few things you can do as an outsider, family member, or friend to help when an SPD episode does erupt.
Although it can be hard not to assume the worst, realize that a parent is trying the best they can and the child is reacting the only way they know how in order to stop the pain. Also, realize that a child with SPD can be assumed to be “normal” if not paired with a disorder that can physically be seen. Not all disorders are physically visible, so be cautious when touching on the subject with others. Never assume that someone does or does not have a disorder simply based on their looks.
As hard as it is to let go of your instincts to negatively react to such a situation, put yourself in their shoes and realize the difficulties the family has to face. Show empathy and realize that a disorder of this type is actually quite common. 1 in 20 children have a sensory issue, many of whom are undiagnosed or unnoticed.
It’s an overwhelming feeling for a parent of a child with SPD to have to endure a public meltdown. Knowing there are people who understand and are willing to help, eases their stress and anxiety and helps comfort parents. In fact, even the child having a meltdown can feel your emotions and presence, possibly even helping them come out of a breakdown.
As uncomfortable as it may be, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn about the disorder and find out how you can help. When a child has a meltdown, it is common for the act of lashing out to engulf them into their own world of destruction. You can help by redirecting their attention to get them out from under the meltdown cloud. By activating a different sense, it can redirect their brain from the overload.
In addition to helping redirect their attention, you can also inform the parents of a quiet or dimly lit area. Tell them where its located and let them know you are there for anything they might need.
Parents know their children. They know when they’re overreacting, and when they’re actually having a sensory overload. Aggression is a reaction to SPD that parents do not take lightly. While aggression to to SPD is something that can’t fully be controlled, it’s something that parents make sure their child knows is not appropriate. So although an outburst or two is uncontrollable, know that hitting, biting, or punching is not, and a parent will try to calm the situation immediately.
Don’t be Offended
As family or friends of a child with a Sensory Processing Disorder, realize that often parents choose not to take their child into public for obvious reasons. It’s quite difficult for them and the child, and parents might want to avoid dealing with an outburst. Don’t be offended visits are short lived. Often parents must leave quite often to take their child to a quieter area or may have fed the child before coming to a party, due to a sensory issue their child may have regarding food.
Tying It All Together
Sensory processing disorders (or any disorder with children involving sensory sensitivity) can be challenging. As a parent of a child with a disorder, it’s important to “have the talk” with your friends and family to inform them of all of the challenges they might see your child facing and teach them how they can help. Not all SPD conditions are alike, and every child receives and responds to information differently.
As a bystander, be empathetic and make sure to show your support. There’s no shame in being different, and although it may create havoc at times, those parents love their child unconditionally. Your help to hold their hand through the pain can make all the difference.