How can I help my family understand my child’s behavior and sensory disorder
If you have a child with sensory issues, Autism, ADHD or a Sensory a Processing Disorder (SPD), you can empathize with the mother at the store whose child is in the middle of a meltdown, or the child at the next table who is getting overly vocal about how gross their food is and their refusal to eat it, or the child that’s just shy of swinging around the place like a monkey. You’ve been there, done that, and then some. By some miracle (and a lot of hard team work between you and your sensory child), that kid isn’t yours this time around. You’re feeling for the poor parent, but you’re also feeling pretty good. Then someone in your party leans over and mutters a comment about lack of discipline. And your heart takes a dive. Helplessness. Frustration. Humiliation. Desperation. Apprehension. They’re all emotions you’re probably more acquainted with than you like to think about. What’s more difficult is when it is a close family member or friend that struggles to understand your situation and what your child is going through. Many people don’t know that no matter how hard you try, it can’t be controlled. It’s one thing if it is a stranger in the grocery store, but when it is someone close to you, comments like that can really sting.
You’ve read all the parenting books. You’ve tried everything under the sun to help. I’ll wager you’ve even made loads of progress now that you understand you’re working with a sensory disorder or other learning challenges, but that doesn’t always lessen the blow from a comment that suggests you’ve been anything less than completely dedicated to helping your child function in everyday situations.
So the real question becomes, what can we do to help our family members and friends know and understand sensory disorders, learning challenges and behavioral outbursts when they happen at family parties, birthdays, meal-time, sleepovers and especially during holidays?
Kids and families dealing with learning challenges and sensory disorders face the very real stigma of misunderstanding. ADHD and the long list of behaviors that are commonly lumped in with bad parenting are all front and center on social media and the news and many of those behaviors are the result of SPD. That friend or family member in your group didn’t mean to drag your emotions through the mud, they just haven’t been graced with all the wonderful knowledge your sensory child has taught you. So instead of slinking away feeling down, or avoiding situations that might trigger one of these misunderstandings, we can kindly speak up and share our wisdom.
Spread The Word
The fortunate thing about the stigma of misunderstanding is that it’s easily dispelled by spreading a little understanding. So here are ideas of information you can share to help those around you understand the ins and outs of a sensory disorder.
What It’s Not
Since a sensory disorder is often mistaken for other things, it can be helpful to start by letting them know what it’s not.
- It’s not ADHD or Autism. Although commonly diagnosed as this, it’s not. And it requires a very different level of treatment. However, children with ADHD, Dyslexia and Autism may show signs of sensory sensitivity.
- It’s not Bad Parenting. As we mentioned, parents with sensory kids, Autism, ADHD and Dyslexia work very hard and meltdowns can happen anyway.
- It’s not something that can be fixed with a little firmer discipline. It’s too easy to look at a child and think I’d never let my kid get away with that. It might take discipline, but it’s more the discipline to plan ahead and therapy. Even if your child has been taught that certain behaviors are wrong, they may have meltdowns anyway because of sensory overload.
What It Is
After we’ve established what it is not, then we can help our family and friends understand what it is.
- It is like a traffic jam. Help them understand that sensory kids take in sensory input just like everyone else, but because the wiring is a little different, that information gets stuck like the cars during rush hour traffic. And we all know how frustrating a traffic jam can be.
- It is a disorder that affects behavior. Most people take in that sensory info and then their brain provides an appropriate response or action. A brain currently undergoing a traffic jam either panics and spits out an inappropriate response because it knows it’s supposed to respond, or gives little to no response at all because it doesn’t know what to do. Either option tends to look less than favorable from an outside perspective.
- It is a disorder with a wide array of symptoms. Some kids suffer hypersensitivity, others are hyposensitive. It can affect anywhere from one to all five senses in one person. Be sure to share some examples of normal things that become unbearable like clothing tags or food texture.
- It is a huge source of stress for parent and child. Meltdowns, hyperactivity, struggles in school, sensory information overload are just a small piece of what SPD families deal with. Anxiety and depression are also common side effects. And it can take a lot of extra prepping and emotional energy to get through tasks most people don’t think twice about.
- It is more common than you think. According to the Sensory Processing Foundation, sensory disorders affect as many as 1 in 20 children strongly enough to disrupt everyday life.
How to help them understand
Here are some ideas to help your family and friends better understand your situation before family gatherings and special activities.
Have the talk
You don’t want to stop going to family parties, birthdays and holiday activities because you are worried about family comments or a misunderstanding. No one wants to be left out of all the fun. If your family and friends don’t understand your child’s special needs, sit them down as a family and talk about what your child is going through. Help them understand the disorder, why they may have trouble with behavior and what steps you are taking to make it more comfortable for everyone.
Don’t be offended
Talk to your family and friends about not being offended if you fed your child before you came to the party or if you brought your own food to the party for them to eat. Explain that it’s not that their food is bad, but it is because your child may have sensitivity to certain textures and cannot physically eat the food. Also, if your child behaves or acts a certain way, ask your family to give them a little leeway because chances are they don’t know their behavior is inappropriate.
How they can help
When families and friends begin to understand what your child is going through, oftentimes they want to help. If they see your child going through a meltdown at a family party, you can ask them to help you redirect their attention to something that may help calm them down. If you brought sensory items, like you see here, ask your family to make sure your child has these items with them if they start getting anxious or frustrated. Ask your family and friends when you arrive if they have a quiet room you can take your child too if they get too overwhelmed or start showing signs of sensory overload. Sometimes they need a quiet place to recuperate and settle down. Finally, if they hear others making negative comments, ask your family and friends to help spread the word about what your child is going through and to create awareness about their needs. The best defense is a good offense.
Why we have to go
If you have to make a quick exit because your child just can’t take it anymore, explain ahead of time that you may have to leave early. You want to avoid offending them, but your child is your top priority. When families and friends have an understanding before the party begins, they may miss your company, but they will better understand why you had to leave early instead of thinking you just didn’t want to be at their party.
While your child may have sensitivities that lead to meltdowns and behavior issues, it’s still important to make sure they understand what is and what is not ok. Help family and friends know that you will do all you can to prevent meltdowns, but there are certain types of behavior that you won’t enable or tolerate. For example, if your child becomes violent or starts hitting other adults or children, promise family and friends you won’t allow your child to continue this type of behavior. If it becomes bad enough, you may have to leave, but you will do all you can to help calm them down or redirect their attention.
Sharing what you know about sensory disorders and sensory sensitivity when the opportunity arises is a great way to help spread the word. Not only does it help dispel misunderstanding, but it might be the information needed to help someone else who is struggling that doesn’t understand.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
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