When I was growing up, in my parents’ Asian/Swedish household, we had a lot of strange knick-knacks around the house. Specifically, I remember the brass version of the Three Monkeys. The “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” ones.
The monkeys represent different things to different cultures and people. Among them is that a person who is not exposed to evil (through sight or sound) will not reflect that evil in his own speech and actions. “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” also describes someone who doesn’t want to be involved in a situation and “turns a blind eye” to it.
For me, it means that I am not allowed to watch certain TV shows, listen to or utter certain sounds and certainly not say certain things or sing because it will all cause crying, screaming and major break downs. I wish if we covered his eyes, ears and mouth, it would prevent my son from heading into a full-on sensory-based “overload” from exposure to things he simply cannot process.
You see, for us, hand in hand with autism, goes something called “sensory processing disorder” (SPD). Sensory processing is the way we take in, process and respond to information about the environment and our bodies. We all process our world through our vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, balance and something called proprioception which, as best as I understand it, is our sense of where our body parts are moving and their relation to the space around us.
Sensory processing disorder is a neurological impairment that makes it difficult to receive, process and respond to the senses. Frankly, as a mom, I don’t really understand where autism ends and SPD begins. It all seems lumped together to me.
I do know that what SPD does mean is that something that most of us take as granted, whether it be fluorescent lighting, music, the sound of a fan, the feel of something on our skin or how our feet feel as we walk forward. These things we never consciously think about are things that a child with SPD has to think about or simply has to do differently in order to process information from his senses. Sensory processing disorder problems in my son include such basic functions such as brushing teeth or combing hair. My son can become seriously traumatized from the sensations of this type of brushing.
My son was always a tiptoe walker. He did not consistently walk on his tiptoes but, at home or sometimes in the office, when he shoes were off, he would play and run around on his tiptoes. Not a big deal. He will also run back and forth, across a room, from one end to the other and crash into a wall with his arms first and fall to the floor, laughing. He will jump from a couch to the floor. He will climb on chairs and furniture and take risks that he does not recognize are dangerous. As I understand it from his therapist, he is seeking sensory input to feel the position of his body in relation to the space around him.
Occupational therapists work with children, like my son, who have SPD, to assist in their ability to process and organize informational input from the senses. Occupational therapy for a child my son’s age is fun! He goes to a room where he can use a zip-line, bounce on a trampoline, jump into a ball pit, slide, swing and tumble. All of this enables him to understand better the information his senses are giving him. Then he can process that information neurologically, with less frustration, according to the experts.
Many children with sensory processing disorder have a very tough time with this world. They must wear earphones all the time and have impairment of such degree that functioning is very difficult. As in autism, the degree of impairment is different with each child. We are fortunate to be less severely affected by sensory processing (knock on wood-so far). My son definitely has sensory issues though, most of which are figuring out where his body is in space – the proprioceptive stuff, and sounds and sensitivity to his mouth issues.
The auditory stuff is a lot about his self-talk. Never a problem with verbalization here! He will talk and talk. Sometimes, it is a little scary because he can’t seem to turn it off. Even when in bed when he is supposed to go to sleep and is asked to be quiet. It’s like his stream of consciousness verbalized in a never ending fashion. Then, he will go for an hour without saying a word. I haven’t really figured out what it is that sets him into this pattern.
A second component of the auditory processing issue is related to words and songs. When he was younger, he made it clear by crying, screaming and putting his hand on my mouth that I was hurting him by making animal noises such as saying “moo”, “woof” or “baa”. Animal noises could not be spoken without making him cry. The strange thing about this is that he now requests that I say animal sounds all day long! He seems to be going through some kind of phase in which he is self-working on these sounds that used to terrorize him. Thus, mommy has been making loads of animal sounds for a couple weeks now.
I was also banned from singing. Not that I’m any great singer either but, geez, I didn’t think I was that bad! In addition to crying, he puts his hand over my mouth to stop me. If I try again, he puts his hand right back over my mouth again! My husband finds this oodles of funny.
The last of his sensory processing is actually, in my mind, a bit of a gift. He loves to softly touch objects to his lips. This makes him appear gentle and well mannered at times. For example, he loves to wipe his face with a wipee, napkin or cloth after a bath or while eating just for the feeling of it.
The funny part is that this does not necessarily correlate to a dirty or messy face. My son loves a powdered donut. He can have that white powder all over his face and not know it. But if he gets the tiniest bit of cream cheese on his lip he will yell, “Clean, clean! Vacuum! Mommy get the vacuum,” until it is removed.
The other part of his sensory issues surrounding the outside of his mouth, is that he likes to rub his lips against his stuffed animals for the feeling of the fabric against his mouth. One day he saw a “Hello Kitty” in a toy store. He immediately fell in love with this stuffed “kitty”. I thought the reason for this immediate love attraction was that his best friend Jessica carries a “Hello Kitty” lunch box to work. We went into the store on three different days before I broke down and got him the kitty. Immediately, he pressed his lips to the kitty and began “kissing her” and rubbing her fabric against his mouth and face. It really was a cute thing.
But, the best part of this sensory seeking activity at age 4? This kid likes to give hugs and plenty of kisses. I do love the squeezes we share. In a few years, I will be re-evaluating my position with little Romeo. For now, I’ll just be grateful for it. SPD is not all bad.