The number of times I have had to defend my child against comments from others is definitely on the rise. When my eldest was younger others would often comment that it’s just terrible two’s or he will grow out of it. However it’s not as simple as that, our four year old has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), this does not mean he is autistic, in fact the majority of children with SPD are not on the autistic spectrum at all (check out this page for more info.).
I have personally known our son has had SPD for a long time, but it’s just so hard to explain to other people who just think he’s behaving badly! Children with SPD basically have brains that are wired a bit differently, sensory signals are not organised into appropriate responses and they behave in ways that may seem inappropriate to others.
For Mr O there are several ways that he’s affected by SPD:
Firstly he has an unusually high activity level, it may be mistaken for ADHD, but it’s simply part of him and SPD. Our favourite way to manage this is to get outdoors and race around, enjoying all the sensory fun of puddles, mud and anything else we discover. If we’re at home for the day then trying out new sensory play ideas such as those from Adventures of Adam’s Pinterest board definitely helps.
Next we have the impulsivity and lack of self control. This has to be one of the ones we, as parents, find difficult. I personally find it difficult to not keep telling him off, but the problem is he just can’t help it, when you ask Mr O why he did something he will simply tell you ‘I don’t know’, which is because he really doesn’t know, it’s just something he felt he had to do, despite knowing he shouldn’t. I have to keep reminding myself he can’t help it and instead just get down to his level and talk to him. He does his best and I now (just occasionally!) catch him thinking before doing something, which is definite progress!
One of the ‘behaviors’ that a lot of others will notice in public areas, such as at soft play or when he’s at pre-school, is that he finds it very difficult to calm down and will have big emotional outbursts. Recently we were happily building a structure out of big soft blocks at a soft play setting and then another child knocked it down (as they do!), Mr O burst into tears and started screaming so loudly that everyone in the room turned round to see what was going on. As embarrassing as I may find it to have everyone looking at my four year old and I, the first thing I did was scoop him up in my arms and give him a big bear hug and kisses. This initial show of love and connection calms him down and then we discussed building it again, but perhaps not so big so he can be the one to knock it over. I know others would think that it was all a bit dramatic and say hes too old to get so upset, but it’s just the way his brain is wired and he needs help to calm down. I have noticed, over the last year, that he is actually calming down a lot quicker and occasionally after a melt down he will say something along the lines of – ‘it’s ok mummy, I can build it again’, which is real progress for us!
His difficulty with social skills is another one that I am sure many other people who have met him have noticed. It’s not that others don’t want to be friends with him, but he just doesn’t know quite how to react when people want to play together with him. He likes to play a game his way and if someone wants to play then he wants them to play it his way too. This is most obvious at home with his brother and he will get extremely annoyed if Mr A won’t play his game. He also doesn’t like to speak to people he doesn’t know very well (that can include those he’s known for over a year!), although he will chat to close family and friends very easily and some may say that he just doesn’t stop talking… I know at preschool he doesn’t speak to many people, partly as he’s too engrossed in his own play and partly because he doesn’t know quite how to join in. However, he DOES want to join in and he is not shy in that respect. If he’s comfortable with the setting he will initiate play, from a game of chase with a friend’s children to crashing bikes with a friend, but this play is likely to have limited verbal communication from him and more playing through action. For example he started chasing a friend’s two children around a hall, being a little older they thought it was funny and quickly started running off and trying to encourage him to chase them, Mr O thought it was hilarious and raced around for a good 10 minutes, but then he started talking to me about something else and then he just ignored his ‘new’ friends attempts at continuing the play and left without acknowledgement or a word to them. He will get there eventually, but I do need to discuss these situations afterward and this process helps him understand future social interactions and how he could continue the relationship with his friends.
Something that can upset other children, or more often, their parents is that he needs to touch things and people. Yes, he is the one who has to touch people with an outstretched hand as he passes them in the supermarket or tap a friend’s younger child on the head a little too hard. The intention is not to hurt, but combined with impulse he needs to touch people or things around him, bumping into people on a bouncy castle or wrestling with friends a bit too vigorously. Again, this just needs me to be watching carefully in social situations and taking him to the side to discuss what is appropriate and if necessary redirecting him to play with something else instead.
The last thing, which others may not notice unless they are watching is that his fine motor skills aren’t great. He refuses to hold a pencil in the ‘correct’ way and he has only just begun to actually draw things. It has taken me a long time to convince him that his drawings are lovely, I think this stems from seeing peers drawings and writing and thinking that he can’t do that so he won’t try. But in the last month he has found a joy in actually trying to draw things, from stick people to otters (cue proud mummy moment!), they might not be obvious to others, but they are definitely much more obvious to me and I know that he will progress with this each day, through chalk drawing outside to painting at the table. He just needs a little encouragement and more fine motor skill activities to practice this. Check out this Pinterest board for more great ideas for encouraging fine motor skill development.
As you can see from everything above, despite the fact that Mr O still has melt downs and behaves differently to how his peers would in the same situation, he is progressing, he is finding coping mechanisms and he is getting there, just a little slower in some areas compared to his friends.
So, if anyone is wondering why my child appears to be behaving badly or getting dramatic over ‘nothing’ he simply can’t help it, SPD is not obvious to others, but it is definitely there. Please do not judge children or their parents on a child’s behaviour, you have no idea what other underlying issues there are, they may not have a disorder at all, but they may well be dealing with a change in their home life (from a new sibling to moving house) and that can result in big feelings and a child acting out. Please be kind!
If you wonder whether your child might have sensory processing disorder you can check out this list of possible symptoms here.