My daughter was diagnosed with mild Sensory Processing Disorder at 18 months, when she was referred for physical therapy to correct toe-walking. As a former and occasional toe-walker myself, I knew how problematic it could be for postural reasons. My daughter walked very high on her toes, and had difficulty descending stairs because she couldn’t place her feet correctly as she went down the steps. I also sensed something else was amiss, but as she was my first baby, I didn’t have anyone else to compare her with in terms of normative behaviors. However, one of my friends has a son with more moderate to severe SPD, and she mentioned a few things that made me pay attention.
My daughter intensely disliked being touched as a newborn. She would scream if we touched her, although that aversion did go away. She needed constant movement in order to sleep. My husband and I spent hours walking, rocking and pushing her in strollers around the house and outside in order to lull her to sleep. She also spent a lot of time in a baby swing for the same reason. She needed to be swaddled tightly and actually slept better in an infant car seat, which is what we did at night for the first two or three months. She disliked having her clothes changed and as she got older, it became difficult to brush her hair or teeth. She would get ramped up energetically and have difficulty calming down. In fact, some of these things are still issues. They resolve, evolve and present themselves in different ways as she ages.
For example, I rocked her to sleep at night until she stopped taking a bottle. Then, she went through a period of time where she would go to bed and fall asleep on her own easily. Now, at nearly 4 years of age, I have to sit and rock her in the dark for a while as I used to when she was an infant. She brushes her teeth on her own now (after months of daily battles) but still dislikes having her hair brushed. Getting dressed and undressed is improving, but if she had her way, she’d live in her pajamas (and maybe I can’t really blame her for that!) Tags, sock seams and denim jeans can bother her at times. She will put her hands over her ears and yell that a certain sound is too loud if she is overwhelmed by stimulus. And yet, a recent hearing test indicated she is unable to hear or respond to certain tones. We still have issues getting her to settle down if she gets wound up. Bedtime can be a tough time. I am a Reiki Master (energy healing) and it’s one of the things that does help her calm down, especially at night. Sometimes she will even ask for it, which is good because it tells me she is becoming more aware of what she needs.
However, by far, one of the biggest issues is still with her feet. She can walk properly down the stairs now, but still tends to walk high on her toes, especially when barefoot. She likes owning shoes, but doesn’t especially like wearing them for any length of time. If we are in the car, at a restaurant or if she is in the cart at the grocery store, the shoes immediately come off. I’ve had to return shoes because she would try them on, instantly take them off and refuse to wear them again. And yet, she likes wearing socks. She likes running barefoot in grass, but initially hated walking in sand on the beach.
In her, I see so much of myself and my own sensory preferences. Growing up, I never knew there was anything different about the way I neurologically responded to the world, other than the way I looked walking on the balls of my feet. I hear constantly from people, “I bet she’s going to be a little ballerina!” and I grit my teeth and smile, because that’s what was said to me as a child too. Although it seems cute to look at, I know what years of walking off-balance does to your pelvis, sacrum and hips. Like her, I feel overwhelmed when I get overstimulated by too much noise or too many people and their energy. It explains why I often felt the need to be alone in my room as a child and teenager. I appreciate the feeling of calmness and grounding that my Reiki practice provides for me. And yet, in terms of physical stimulus, I tend to have a fairly high pain tolerance. I like deep tissue massage work and prefer my bath or shower water and my food piping hot. I’m also not especially ticklish.
Most of us don’t think of our sensory aversions or cravings as being unusual, but I’ve learned that there’s a continuum where these can be problematic if the aversions or cravings are more intense than what other people experience. To the average person, my daughter either seems cute with her toe walking or spirited, because she’s fighting against certain environments or stimulus. I’ve learned to read those cues as her body needing more or less of certain types of input. Trying to address those cues hasn’t always been easy. And as many parents of kids with SPD know, the need for certain input may change from day to day, and even sometimes from minute to minute. It’s a continually changing journey through a different kind of mind-body integration.