Do you think you don’t have a role in your child’s sensory development? That they just are who they are and that’s that? You have more influence than you think. 100 percent guaranteed.
Back in the olden days, the 90’s, I was an undiagnosed sensory mess. My temperature regulation, sound sensitivities, and being prone to carsickness made me “high maintenance” and “difficult” and well, it was before name calling wasn’t PC, so my dad referred to me as “weirdo.” I’m sure he meant it in the nicest way possible, as this was before Dr. Ayres’s sensory processing contributions had gone mainstream, and pre-Facebook sensory processing support groups. How was he to know back then that my “weirdness” effects 1 out of every 6 kiddos?
I adapted out of necessity by sleeping in the car during road trips, bringing a coat along with me wherever I went, and wrapping that annoying ticking clock in towels at night to muffle the maddening sound, but now I’m a mom and one of my biggest duties is Sensory Barometer. Like all parents, I’ve found I am the sensory hub of the household.
As the Sensory Concierge, when my little bodies need anything they come to Mama. I’m cold, I’m hot. I’m hungry. It’s too loud. I can’t hear it. That smells funny. It’s squishy. And from my child with sensory processing disorder I hear, “The ocean water feels like nails. The sand burns. My head is pounding with sound, make the birds stop chirping. Looking at that makes me gag.” And so I accommodate their sensory systems the best I can. I adjust the temperature, or modify clothing. I turn down the volume, I open the windows, and I spray the chirping birds with my water gun so that my child’s head doesn’t explode (no birds are hurt in the process, but they do get a bath).
As a result, I’ve become a sensory chameleon, putting my sons’ needs first, and sucking it up when I am uncomfortable. Oh, the many things us moms do that will never be recognized! I may sound like a sensory martyr, but there’s a method to my madness.
Why do I cater to my kids’ sensory needs? First, because I get that you can feel stuck on a roller coaster when riding on the freeway at 80 mph, and watching the other cars weave in and out of lanes makes you dizzy, and that the sun beating through the car window can make your vision blurry, your neck hot, and bile climb up your esophagus. I understand my son’s sensory dysfunction, because I have it on a much smaller scale then he does. And so he’s had hours upon hours of OT, sensory integration, and feeding therapy, and I’ve read every single OT book and tip out there, to learn what I can be doing on my watch. I apply this cornucopia of information that is out there, and I’m grateful for occupational therapists Lindsey Biel, Angie Voss, and Britt Collins for sharing their knowledge. They allow moms like me to be proactive in helping our kiddos.
Secondly, because the more I help him adapt, make changes, and prepare in advanced, he learns to self-regulate and meet his own sensory needs. He knows to watch a DVD in the car to keep from getting motion sickness. He stims, on either trampoline or pacing, before school to calm his internal turmoil, without my prompting. He can articulate that his body is craving heavy work and proprioception (he doesn’t use that word, I do), and pressure squeezes (he’ll back right up and place my hands on his shoulders). By accommodating him HE FEELS BETTER, and in turn knows that he has the power to make himself feel better when he’s out-of-sorts, uncomfortable, or in debilitating pain. I teach both of my kids by showing them it is possible. And then other times, that it’s not, because all lessons are multi-layered.
Over Spring Break, my son with SPD refused to wear sunglasses, ate a blue snow cone, and a quesadilla (yes, 100% gluten and casein molded together!), and went on clunky, jerky rides at the Yuma County Fair. Seriously, it was a binge of total craziness in our world, but I let him, because he has to be the master of his own sensory system. He’s highly sensitive to what goes into his digestive system (it’s all connected people!) and at 13, I’m assuming I only have another five years (or less) where I can control what goes into his body. At some point, I will officially hand over the reins and he will have to know how to steer. So, I let him drive that day. And that night as he lay in my lap with his hands over his eyes, wincing in pain from the headache of the century, he cried, “Mommy, I made some really bad choices today!” That is a lesson he could not have learned by me badgering as I do all day, “Don’t eat gluten, put on your sunglasses (we have pairs of them everywhere for his convenience due to his extremely sensitive eyes), and dyes make you crazy!” Those rainbow cakes you see on Pinterest would kill my child. Yes, they’re beautiful and fun in appearance, but his body can’t tolerate food coloring. And he knows this and can make the choice to feel good or to eat the blue snow cone and ride the Tilt-A-Whirl and physically suffer.
As their mom, I’m also the Sensory Tour Guide. I plan trips, adventures, and projects to expose my kiddos to the great, big sensory world out there. Since we live close to Disneyland, you better believe that mad house of happiness is a go-to sensory therapy day quite often. The crowds, the sounds, the colors, the tastes, and smells, make this a plethora of sensory stimulation, and we get through it, and they want to, because it’s fun. On a simpler note, I make sensory bins, although my kiddos respond quite differently to these contained boxes. My oldest can search for toys and play with rice and beans for hours at a time. When he’s done, we put the lid on and wait for his next stereognosis experience. With my youngest, he’ll dump the rice and beans out onto the lawn in two seconds flat, and be done. No sensory bins for him, thank you very much. So I plan and expose them to sensory stimulation to meet their individual needs any way that I can.
And at the end of the day, when I am sensory drained, I go back to my sensory well and refill, because as the mom barometer, I not only predict their sensory needs, I am paving the way for them to have a sensory fantastic life. I’d like to encourage other moms to do the same. It’s easy as moms to forget that we have such a massive influence on our kids’ lives and even their sensory systems. And it is my hope that pediatric OTs will encourage their client’s moms, and arm them with the tools to add to the sensory foundation they are creating.