Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sensory Processing Disorder

Stella starting to "zone out" at All About Kids.

She still had tons of fun, though!

Her adorable friends. Whom she's completely ignoring.

A few weeks ago, Dave and I took Stella to a birthday party of one of her classmates, Alex. It was at a fabulous place called All About Kids where they teach gymnastic classes and have bouncy gyms and ball pits and general awesomeness. Dave takes her there many weeks when the weather's bad, so we knew she loved it.

However, when we got there, we were confused. Although Stella seemed excited to play, she completely ignored all the other kids, walking to a secluded corner and sort of zoning out. A couple of times, she even lay on the floor, face down, ignoring us.

I'll admit, I got peeved. Here we are spending our weekend eating store-bought cake (you know how I feel about that) and drinking Kool-Aid so Stella can be with other kids her age, and she just ignores them?

So, I emailed her teachers (like the over-attentive yuppy mom that I am) and asked if she's social at school. I expected them to tell me that I'm overreacting and that things will improve with age.

Instead, we got an email back saying they were in the process of emailing us about similar concerns.

Well, crap. Crappity crap crap.

I did what I do best - jump to far-fetched conclusions. Not interacting with other kids, rarely liking to hug or touch, an obsessive personality that caused her to learn her alphabet, numbers 1-15 and all her colors more quickly than I could have imagined. Obviously, she was autistic.

Thankfully, her amazing preschool teachers calmed me down and led us to a great resource - First Steps, Kentucky's early-intervention program. They were responsive and friendly, and set up an appointment with us right away. We filled out questionnaires about Stella's ability and social skills, and had a couple of counselors come over to do things like roll a ball on the floor with Stella and ask her to "read" a book to them.

And the conclusion they came to was Sensory Processing Disorder. And my little teacher brain said, "WELL, DUH!"

I have no clue how I missed this, considering I learned about it in grad school, spent two weeks over a summer at an intensive training course learning more about it and other disorders, and even had a couple of students with it. How did I not see?

Sensory Processing Disorder is a huge umbrella term and can explain a lot of different behaviors, but its definition is: a neurological disorder that results from the brain's inability to integrate certain information received from the body's five basic sensory systems.

Stella has a very mild version of it, which is great, and it can be vastly improved or even reversed with occupational therapy, which is also great. And best of all, catching it this early is the most effective way to work with it.

What this is all means is Stella has a really sensitive system. Which explains why she basically didn't sleep for 16 months. The world was too bright, too loud, to smelly, TOO MUCH to allow the poor girl to sleep.

It also explains some of her other quirks - like why transitions MAKE HER SCREAM, why she hates to have her face washed, why certain foods make her gag, why really loud places cause her to "zone out" and seek seclusion. And friends? Friends are too unpredictable, touching you at odd times or screaming in your ears or, sometimes, even smelling funny. Friends are simply sensory overload for a kid like Stella.


I'm also amazed that I didn't recognize the same condition in myself. How many nights did I simply lay awake as a child because the car lights on the street were distracting or because I could hear my sister breathing? How many times did I sob at the hairdressers because combing my hair felt excruciating? How many times have I had a friend ask if I was paying attention to the conversation because I kept looking around at all the other people and lights and displays at the restaurant?

Stella got this from me, and heredity is the most common cause of SPD.

I learned to adapt to being very sensitive, but it did make things more difficult for me. I remember my legs simply ACHING from sitting all day at school. I remember hating getting my hands dirty but refusing to say anything about it because I didn't want to be made fun of. And I was very tentative and scared on the playground because I dreaded getting hurt.

How on earth did I manage to have a natural labor? Because I'm just that awesome, yo.

Anyway, her teachers thanked us today for being so receptive to hearing this about Stella and so proactive in seeking early intervention. I was floored. Shouldn't I be thanking them for keeping such a close eye on our kid?

They said many parents refuse to listen to this sort of feedback because it makes them feel bad. But I feel relieved to have an explanation for Stella's more puzzling behavior, and thankful to have a FREE resource to help her (and us) find natural ways to deal with it.

I'm also grateful to have any insight into my amazing, gorgeous child and the knowledge to not only be patient with her differences but also proactive in helping her. Nobody's perfect, and if I'd be OK getting a math tutor or an allergist to help her, why wouldn't I want an occupational therapist to teach her how to process the intense sensations she experiences so she can enjoy this vibrant, loud, kooky world we inhabit?

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