Most, if not all, kids who fall on the Autism spectrum have sensory issues, but how severe and how they manifest are quite different. I thought I would share with you the challenges Katie faces when it comes to sensory processing.
Smells. Remember when you were pregnant and suddenly you could just smell everything more? And sometimes you wanted to divorce your husband because how dare he cook that gross sausage thing in front of you? No? Just me? Well, I am sure most moms can relate to that heightened sense of smell when with child. Now just imagine having it all.the.time. And magnify it like 1000 times. This is how it is for Katie. Heaven forbid we cook anything offensive to her. Fish, anything with a spice other than salt (I’m looking at you pepper and garlic), any ethnic food (which is unfortunate because my husband loves anything that ends in -urry or flakenhaukenstreudel). Forget vegetables like broccoli, too. Even things like flavored chips can be too much for my child. And if she thinks something looks as gross as it smells…well, she has seen the underneath of a lot of restaurant tables.
Sounds. All through preschool Katie coveted the big yellow cruiser. I mean school bus. She was completely obsessed with the bus and every single day, for at least 2 yrs, I was asked, multiple times, when she could ride it to school. When Kindergarten came and her wish was finally granted, she was so happy (and so was I because I am not a fan of drop off/pick up). But…it didn’t last. She hated the bus. It was loud and the kids bothered her. Kids are mean and they were mean to Katie. Top that with the constant chatter going on and the whole experience was overwhelming. A good parent would have immediately removed her kid from the bus, but did I mention how much I hate drop off/pick up? Especially in crappy weather? With a younger sibling who always falls asleep on the way to school and needs to be carried? Up hill. Both ways. In snow and rain.
Aaaanyway, I kept telling Katie how much she LOVED the bus. Didn’t she remember all those years in preschool she looked forward to the day she could ride? Didn’t she? Heh? Heh?
We asked about her taking a van, and were told, by the school, that there was a stigma attached to that and did we really want the other kids to see her take the van? Yeah, I’m not even going to touch that one.
This year the bus became even more unbearable for her, though, even when seated at the very front, with headphones and an ipod on. SO, I finally relented and now do the driving. I just couldn’t allow her to get that upset over the noise on the bus.
She is also not a fan of loud noises. While Ben happily jumps around on the 4th of July watching fireworks, Katie rolls herself up on a blanket and screams for us to go home. On the town field. In front of the whole town. Yes, parents of the year here, folks.
She often complains the cafeteria at school is loud, too, and I am sure it doesn’t help that she has to smell cafe food everyday. either. She has run from music class because of the noise. You get what I’m saying. We have noise reducing headphones, but sometimes even those aren’t enough.
Often times, being around a lot of people and a lot of noise completely overwhelms her. We have had bbq’s where she has retreated either into the house, or into our car, to get away from it all. Birthday parties at loud venues never go over well. Every sense seems to get overwhelmed sometimes and it’s too much for her to handle. We have done a lot of leaving over the years. Chuck E Cheese is one of the places where she knows the underside of the tables quite well.
Tactile. Katie is a weird kid. She can roll around in the sand on the beach and be perfectly happy, but heaven forbid a sock seam touches her foot the wrong way. (yes, we have the fancy seamless socks that are way overpriced). She HATES long sleeves. Sometimes I force her to wear them when it gets into the single digits, but most of the time she is in short sleeves. Even when she wears long sleeves she ends up pushing them as far up her arm as humanly possible. She flip flops between seeking input and having too much. It’s a very fine line with her. She can swing around in a circle indefinitely (whereas I would have already tossed cookies many a time), but has extreme reactions to temperatures and some fabrics. Her body can become very restless and she has the need to jump up and down endlessly on our beds and couches (gotta get that trampoline), but then also can require quite time, completely alone, in order to regulate.
Taste. This is along the same lines as smell. She is a very bland eater. She really doesn’t eat anything that has any type of flavoring, except the orange chicken from the mall food court. (random). Usually something with a strong flavor has a strong smell, so before she even tries a food it’s already been a complete fail because of the smell part. I think it’s kills my ethnic food loving husband because he would love nothing more than for is kids to be slopping away at the Indian food with him, or throwing back some sushi, but it just isn’t happening.
These are some of the things we deal with on a daily basis. I could list a lot more examples, but you get the gist. Having super senses is not really something you want. For some kids with autism the sensory part is so overwhelming they can’t get out from under it and it can make them look more severe than they really are. Imagine fighting with your body, day in and day out, just trying to regulate yourself enough to somewhat exist in the world. This is something most people take for granted.
Unfortunately, not everyone believes sensory processing is a real problem, and it can be hard to find a therapist that does a good job targeting it. The school offers Katie nothing, at this point, to really help, but we do see a private OT and work on things at home. Thankfully, the next version of the DSM includes sensory issues, so hopefully when that comes out there will be a lot more help available for kids with sensory processing issues. I should add that it isn’t just kids with autism who suffer. SPD can be a stand alone diagnosis, too. Regardless of underlying cause, how it affects a child can be profound and it’s definitely something that requires therapy and understanding.
So the next time you are eating out and see a kid screaming and ducking under the table, or you notice a kid melting down at an amusement park, or a child wearing short sleeves in the dead of winter or shoes on the beach, don’t be so quick to judge. Sensory processing is very real and can be a very big deal to those affected.