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Life Learning for a Child with Sensory Integration Challenges

Life Learning for a Child with Sensory Integration Challenges
By Isa Sinclair

Everything I did for or with my infant daughter seemed to take more out of me than I had expected. None of the other mothers I knew seemed to be quite as busy as I was with my baby. We always seemed to be on the more extreme side of things. Jacinda nursed more often and longer. She did it throughout the day and all night long. She demanded to be carried all the time. When she laughed, she did it with all her might and when she cried she put all of her energy into it. She was very intense. Getting teeth was a very intense experience for her too. Each tooth was a torture for the whole family. She did not eat any kind of solid foods until she was two and a half and then only because I was pregnant and my milk dried up.

What is Sensory Integration Dysfunction?

In children (or adults) with Sensory Integration Dysfunction the brain inefficiently processes sensory messages that are received from the child’s own body and her/his own environment. The child has problems responding in an appropriate way to everyday situations. Sensations that other people hardly notice are hard for a child with SID to adapt to.

SID can be very different from person to person and can vary from day to day for the same child. Emotions, fatigue, stress and other factors affect the child’s performance. It may appear like a short in the child’s sensory circuit when all of a sudden everyday situations that were no problem to the child the day before, become too overwhelming, or are impossible to cope with.

Unusual responses to the sensations of touching and being touched, of moving or being moved, to the senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, or tasting are typical signs of SID.

SID-children often avoid ordinary sensations or seek excessive stimulation, their bodies can be uncooperative, and their behavior may seem difficult.

The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz (Perigee, 1998)

Sensory Integration and the Child by A. Jean Ayres (Western Psychological Services, 1979)

Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight : What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World by Sharon Heller (Quill, 2003)

Somehow I managed to carry on with my household chores and whatever else needed to be done with Jacinda in a sling. I kept telling myself that it would all pay off in the future. These were just the baby years and as she grew older she would be all the more independent because I gave her now what she needed.

But things did not get less intense. Around the age of four-and-a-half she started developing major tics. She showed obsessive behavior, had a hard time with changes and the unexpected; everyday things like getting dressed started becoming major problems for her. She was overly sensitive and saw, felt and heard things that normal people don’t perceive as intensely. She became unpredictable and moody. At times we were stuck at the front door for an hour because putting the shoes on was impossible or the label on the shirt irritated her too much and we had a major breakdown and never actually got to leave. Her tics started to interfere with her life.

Sometimes she could not continue with a sentence unless she had stopped for a tic, getting from the bedroom to the kitchen was an obstacle course for her because she had to stop numerous times to touch the wall, using the toilet was never quick because there was a certain ritual of looking in exactly the same directions for a few times before she could get up again and there were many more tics that started to dictate life.

At the end of each day I was exhausted. I was wondering when my parenting would finally pay off. It seemed to get more difficult rather than easier. I started questioning myself. Did I overdo my attachment parenting? Did I not set enough boundaries? Or did I not follow her needs enough? Was I talking wrongly, using wrong words, was I not understanding enough? What was it that I did wrong?

Since Jacinda’s birth I knew that I would homeschool and following her needs soon made me believe in child-directed learning. I received wonderful help from author and parenting counselor Naomi Aldort who reinforced my belief in attachment parenting. After a weekend retreat with counseling, I came home all charged again and thinking that things would get better if I only hung in there a little longer.

Things did improve in some areas but Jacinda remain hugely intense. She often couldn’t let go of a situation and got herself stuck in it. She had better days and worse ones. Her tics remained with her but we found ways of managing them. Because she was free to express herself at home and do what felt good to her, she was able to “function” well most of the time when we left the house.

“Jacinda is learning how to learn. Her lack of grasping certain things has not had an effect on her self confidence. She knows what to do with herself and she is learning who she is and how to cope with her special energies.”

We soon learned to balance Jacinda’s days, kept most of our week quiet, avoided certain events that we knew stressed her, limited the length of our outings, and made sure that she always had enough time to recharge at home in between play dates. School could never be flexible enough to meet her needs. If, on top of the stress that everyday things pose to her, she had been made to learn to read and write with all those stresses, she wouldn’t have been able to cope with her life.

One day I found the book The Out-Of-Sync Child and a huge light bulb went on for me. I didn’t need a label for her but the description of the child with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) so much fit Jacinda that it was very healing for me. All of a sudden I knew that I had not done anything wrong. I had actually done very well and prevented much bigger challenges for my daughter. Her problem transformed little, everyday situations that seem like nothing to others into a huge problem for her. Little things meant a big struggle for her and even when we did not perceive a problem, she always had to put more effort or more energy into whatever she did. Some Occupational Therapists work with SID children and a lot of what they do is what Jacinda gets to do at home with me. She has always been able to get the sensory stimulation that is healing for her.

Jacinda does not read or write. She has no concept of the alphabet or math. Even counting is not easy for her. Number 30 seems to be hard to remember. She does not know much of what her peers from school know. But she knows so many other things about life. She gets to be exposed to situations that other kids don’t. Jacinda learns as she spends time with me while I do my chores. When I go to the dentist, she gets to come and help the assistant. When our goat had her baby, Jacinda was there to witness it. She learned all about birth, how the mother cared for her little one and saw the baby grow up. She was at home when our cats had their kittens. She helps with our chickens and knows a lot about animals and nature.

She does not learn this from books but from life. She was there when we saved the little hawk who got caught in the fence. We brought him to the vet and she learned about rehabilitation of wildlife. She has her own little garden where she grows vegetables and flowers. Because we are a bilingual family she doesn’t even notice that she is learning a second language.

The wonderful thing is that she can learn at her own speed and in her own way. We have many German stories on tape. When she listens to a German tape, she listens to the same tape over and over. Often she rewinds the same sentence many many times until she understands all the words. When she practices on her violin, she sticks with the same rhythm for a long time and cannot switch to a different one. But when she feels ready for it, she will move on to the next.

Learning things her way and not a teacher’s way is vital for Jacinda. You can’t just tell her anything; she won’t take anything that anybody says to her at any time at face value. You can put the idea in her head but she has to come to the realization herself, in her own way. She has to prove it to herself.

Jacinda is learning how to learn. Her inability to grasp certain things has not had an effect on her self confidence. She keeps asking a lot of questions, has a wonderful imagination and is very spiritual. She knows what to do with herself and she is learning who she is and how to cope with her special energies.

I understand now why she only ever wanted to be with me. Even as a baby she knew that nobody knew her better than I did. I was lucky enough to have trust in my intuition, which told me to follow Jacinda’s needs. I gave her the security she needed to cope with her day and as she grew older I was able to mirror her behavior back to her. When she got overwhelmed I was the anchor in her life. She could come back to me and take a break or assess the situation. I would help her figure it out and unconsciously I gave her the stimulation she needed. Even for my husband it was harder to understand her and he would not be able to always give her the safe haven a child with sensory integration problems needs. Her own sensory input was confusing enough for her so she tried to stay away from other people who were not aware of that and could not read her behavior well enough.

Because Jacinda is life learning, we are able to provide her with the kind of activities that are healing to her and provide her with adequate sensory input. Yes, she is still very intense and struggles with her days. But she lives a happy life, without being labeled with a learning disability (the term SID just helped us understand what was going on, that she had some “special energies” as we call it in my family. We normally don’t label her). She is confident of herself and I am confident that she will find out what she wants to do with her life. She will find her strengths and will find ways of coping with her energies or how to use them to her advantage.

Isa Sinclair is the mother of two life learning girls who were five and eight when she wrote this article. After growing up in Germany where school is mandatory, she now lives with her Canadian husband, her children and her mother on an acreage near Calgary, Alberta with lots of cats, a dog, and chickens. Her children have taught her more about people than five years of psychology at university did.

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