In Defense of the “Problem Child”

Yesterday evening I read an article in the New York Times entitled, “The ‘Problem Child’ Is a Child, Not a Problem.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/opinion/collaborative-problem-solving-children.html) It discussed how the appropriate method of behavior modification should be used by teachers to help “problem” children fare better within the classroom, especially in the earliest, most fragile years of their education.  The article itself was fabulous, and extremely validating to parents of children with emotional and behavioral challenges.  It suggested that teachers receive more training in adequate techniques to prevent situations like the one highlighted in the article—the case of an eight-year-old child having long-term emotional effects, subsequently resulting in educational challenges, from preschool teachers managing his behavior improperly.  It emphasized that poor behavioral management in early childhood can have lifelong consequences.

Unfortunately, I made the big, no HUGE, mistake of reading the comments.  I have never been so blown away by a lack of empathy, and sheer ignorance about this population.  I am so angered and sad, but mostly, I’m disappointed and fearful.  I’ll be the first to admit that much of the challenge with children like this is their behavioral functioning.  However, another significant challenge is that the driving force behind such behavior is completely misunderstood.  Here, right in front of me, was the glaring proof of such stereotypes- and not just any proof, but proof presented in well thought out and intelligent comments in the New York Times.

I am ashamed to admit it, but often, when I am out in public with Man, I find myself making justifications for his behavior in one way or another- An eye roll to a person here to indicate, “I know, I know, I can’t believe he is doing that either!”  or a harsher than necessary talking-to so others around me don’t think that I’m just ignoring such behavior—a behavior, mind you, that he likely cannot control and that my stern warning will do nothing to deter.  I then find myself feeling terribly guilty- why did I feel the need to defend anything my son is doing to anyone, nonetheless a stranger?  Well, the comments section of this article just reinforced exactly why I feel such a need.

The comments fell into a few horrendous categories:

1)      The “bad children come from bad parents” type of comments.  I hear this often, that a child’s behavior is the direct result of bad parenting.  While yes, it is true that sometimes my seven-year-old simply acts like a seven-year-old and, in that moment, I probably don’t handle it to the very best of my abilities—I mean seriously, who parents perfectly all the time?  This is NOT what is going on for a child with ADHD.  Most of the parents that I know personally—and the thousands that I interact with regularly as part of the vast support networks on social media—work tirelessly on their child’s behavior. We use behavior charts, talk to doctors, use family trainers, send our kids to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and are just generally on their cases about every move they make all the time.  We are stellar parents who have literally tried everything, including medication in many cases, and we still come up short.  Why?  Because our children are just wired that way and no matter how hard we work, we cannot completely deter the behaviors that come along with ADHD and other similar disorders.

 

2)      The “parents should help the child, it’s not the teacher’s responsibility,” type comments.  Most parents are doing all that they can with the resources available to them to help their child succeed in and out of the classroom.  This is true for both the parents of special needs children and typical children.  Even the mother of the child in the article stated that she would leave her child at school and then go and cry with worry.  It is overwhelming to have a child like this in a way that is unimaginable to others unless they are going through it themselves.  Diagnoses that largely manifest themselves behaviorally are incredibly challenging to treat.  Like a medical diagnosis, it cannot be treated in isolation; for behavior modification to be successful, every person that works with that child must be on the same page and CONSISTENT.  I often say that “consistent” is my least favorite word- you try getting teachers, coaches, babysitters, grandparents, etc. to follow a specific plan on how to reinforce positive behavior in your kid.  Any slight deviation in the behavior plan can have dire results.  Something as simple as you attending to your other child and not providing the proper, immediate reinforcement can set you back days or even weeks.  A child is at school for a good portion of their day; if the teacher does not understand the behavior plan then the child might as well not have it.  Additionally, many of these behaviors directly impede their learning, and therefore require the direct attention of the teacher, the person who is responsible for educating them within the classroom.

in defense of 

3)      Which leads me to the next grouping of comments, the “children like this shouldn’t be in class with regular students,” type comments.  These were the most hurtful comments of all.  I completely understand where the parents were coming from; the comment was always based in the idea that these students take away from the learning experience of other, more typical children.  That’s just disappointing and short sighted.  Let me be clear; I am hyper-aware of how Man’s behavior affects others, especially his peers, but separating him is not the answer… for any child.  My son teaches others empathy and understanding.  He shows them that not all children are alike.  He demonstrates daily how one can overcome struggle.  He provides his classmates with a true cooperative learning experience, as learning to work together with a variety of different people is vital to lifelong success.  He is a good friend, and a kind hearted and genuine child.  He adds to the educational experience of other students by requiring their help with reading and handwriting—when students become the teachers, it is excellent for their development.  He also adds to their educational experience by helping them with anything STEM related.   Many of the comments also expressed concern that these children take up too much of the teacher’s time.  I get that—I want both of my children to get the time they deserve from their teachers and some days they are going to be the children that require the time, and other days it will be someone else’s child.

 

4)      The “children like this are just bad kids,” kind of comments.  No, no they are not.  If a child is acting out, it’s for a reason.  One person even went so far as to say that children like this were all psychopaths and that instead of teachers being trained in behavior mod, they should be trained in the early detection of such a disorder.  I mean… really?  When Man can no longer sit still or his hand is aching from writing due to his poor hand strength, he acts out.  He’s tired; he’s seven; he’s being asked to do something that he simply cannot do.  He is not bad; he is just a child who is challenged daily by his ADHD.

in defense of 2

 

The amount of parental blame in the comments was just startling.  Attitudes and ideas like that only serve to alienate the most fragile of students and their parents.  Instead of looking at the parents, we need to be looking at the public education system in its entirety.  We are failing all students, typical and atypical.  Increasing the number of teachers per school and per classroom, allowing for a smaller student to teacher ratio, would do wonders to allay concerns of all parents.  Creating programs that allowed for more flexibility in learning modality, instead of just focusing on the direct teaching method, would also benefit all students.  Pouring money into our educational budget instead of slashing it to its bare bones would benefit all students.  We need to stop looking for the simple excuses and start focusing on better, more effective long-term solutions.

 

I Would Die For My Children, But I don’t Just Live For Them

I don’t often begin writing a post with its title.  Most of the time, I have an idea that I want to express, so I sit down at my computer and within about 45 minutes, it’s gushed out of me with the emotion, power and force of Niagara Falls.  I then go back and spend an inappropriately excessive amount of time trying to come up with a catchy title that screams “click bait.”  A few weeks ago, I read a comment on a friend’s post. A mother had—and I’m paraphrasing here—stated that she lived for her children and that they were her absolute everything.  Reading such a comment left my stomach in knots and my brain reeling.  With my body tingling and tightened with angst, a realization formed: I just don’t feel that way about my kids.  Of course, as a parent, I was immediately flooded with guilt—this line of thinking just felt all wrong, it felt selfish.  I’m a mother, damnit, I’m supposed to live for my kids, aren’t I?  I hesitated to add my own comment, sheepishly returning to the post multiple times throughout the day and reading what other parents had written before finally deciding to comment myself: “I live for myself,” I wrote, “and my kids benefit from the happiness that I exude because of this.”  I left this provocative statement hanging on that page for all the world to see.

There it was, a perfect blog topic.  A controversial feeling that only the boldest of parents would express publicly. Parental condemnation click bait!!!  However, I didn’t know what exactly I was feeling and couldn’t yet quite put it into words.  A million false starts of a post in my head never made it onto the computer, and then, this week, two things happened. I heard the incredible Brene Brown speak (if you haven’t read her books, get them) and we attended a back-to-school picnic at my children’s elementary school.

Brene, in all her glorious wisdom, talked about the concept of “belonging”.  She began with the following quote from Maya Angelou: “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”  Was she talking about me? Has she been following along on my journey this past year?  This quote, stated so simply and eloquently, encompassed the very journey of soul searching and self-actualization that I have been on lately.

This is what the journey of motherhood has been for me; trying to find out where I, both as just Laura as well as Man and Lady’s mom, fit into this complicated world.  And the answer was right there in front of me in 1000-pt font and illuminated on a giant screen: nowhere, but also everywhere.  To belong doesn’t mean to “fit in,” to perfectly fit some mold; it means to always be your most authentic self.  When you’re authentic, real, and true, there is no place you don’t belong.  Honestly, most of my life, even before having children, was spent attempting to achieve this.  I essentially thought that having children would accomplish this very goal for me.  I would finally belong somewhere concrete, I would belong to motherhood.

I was wrong.

From the time Man was born, I lived and breathed for his every need and want.  As he got older and the demands of his ADHD took hold, my mood, my sense of self, my very being, revolved around his various successes and failures.  If he had a play date where he didn’t destroy a friend’s home, I was thrilled for a month.  If he pushed a child down the slide at the park, my week was over.  Everything he did dictated everything I felt.  Add the fact that I had another typically-developing child just 18-months his junior who also needed my love and attention and by the end of the day I had nothing left but my congratulatory glasses of wine and my misery.  I wasn’t belonging; in fact, the opposite was happening, I was losing myself more and more with each passing year.

Last year I decided that I had had enough. I stopped drinking, returned to school to pursue my dream degree, and again begin the lifelong pursuit toward finding my most authentic self. I have never been happier or felt more of a sense of belonging.  Furthermore, my time with my children has become more meaningful, fun, and contented; I am able to be present for them in a way I never was before.  In allowing myself to accept my truth, that I needed more than just motherhood to complete me, I have become the best versions of both Laura the person and Laura the mother.

 

fam school

Family back to school day!

 

Yesterday, at the kids’ school picnic, I was reminded of just how significant this journey is and how important it is to be steadfast in its pursuit.  Usually Man shies away from big events like these. They are too crowded for him and very overstimulating.  However, due to the way the day’s events unfolded, I unexpectedly found myself standing on the school playground watching my kids play, feeling miserable – a feeling which had become all but foreign to me in the last year.  Instead of adopting an attitude of belonging, I let my worries and fears about Man get the best of me.  I watched every move he made, I saw every social success, every stumble, and everything in between.  Instead of allowing myself to see what a HUGE step and triumph this was for him, or to even enjoy some time chit chatting with lovely ladies who I don’t often get to see, I was an emotional mess.  My mood was, once again, tied to his every move, and ironically his moves were mostly absolute perfection.  I was transported right back to a year ago and it was a harsh reminder that that person no longer belonged on the playground.

There is no doubt of how much I love my children. I would take a bullet for them, donate a kidney, and if it was possible, painstakingly remove every obstacle and hardship that this world will throw their way.  I love them with every fiber of my being.  I would die for them, but I can no longer just live for them.

mothers day

 

Back to School With ADHD

Even before I had children, I always knew that the end of summer was near because of one specific commercial. I can see it now: a dad glides gleefully down a store aisle, gingerly tossing school supplies into his shopping cart as his children follow behind him.  “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” plays in the background as an announcer plugs the great sales on all things school-related at Staples. 

As a student, I always loved purchasing school supplies. Putting dividers into new colorful binders and filling my pencil case was always so exciting.  With each new year, came new possibilities and I truly looked forward to all of them.  Even now, in returning to school as an adult, I get a little thrill each semester when purchasing textbooks and fresh packages of erasable pens.  Dorky? Absolutely!  However, completely true. I love being a student and assumed that my son would as well.  How could he not?  He is brilliant and always interested in learning.  Most of our time together is spent answering questions about obscure subjects or listening to theories on even more abstract concepts.  I mean, his hobbies include learning all about sharks (do you know what ovoviviparous breeding means?  Because he does.) and building Rube Goldbergs.  The very idea that school would not appeal to this child’s brain never even crossed my mind.

Like the dad in the commercial, I figured that back-to-school shopping for Man would bring me the same joy.  I would relish in the excitement that he would get from a new folder covered in hammer head sharks and a new 12-inch ruler, as that meant he would get to measure things all day, another favorite pastime.  I would meet him as he came running off the bus on the first day and listen intently as he eagerly told me all about his new teacher and all the fun they were going to have that year.  A little unrealistic?  Maybe, but in those early years especially, much of school should be relatively enjoyable.  They should instill a joy of learning and an understanding of the importance of school.

 This has not been the case for my Man and me. Every item purchased on the school supply list means just another thing that he must maintain and keep track of.  And getting off the bus for those first few weeks, even months, I’m met with a child who is deeply saddened and frustrated by the day’s events.  In that initial period, I get almost daily phone calls from the teacher and the vice principal, listing his challenges for that day.  In those early months, every morning, I hear a little boy ask why school can’t be more like summer camp—an engineering-based camp that does hand-on, academic-based projects, mind you – and ask the question, “Do I really need to go today?”  Every day, in these final weeks before school begins, I am filled with worry; will this year be the same as the one that came before it? 

ADHD causes specific academic and behavioral challenges in students.  Man has difficulty organizing and executing tasks, making in-class assignments very challenging.  Once he feels like he can’t do something that every other child around him appears to be doing with ease, he does what he does best – runs off and does something else he knows will bring more success.  For children with ADHD, their classroom challenges often manifest as poor behavior.  Most of the time, they don’t even know where the challenge lies, or how to say, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing right now.” What they do know is that causing a disruption will get the attention of the teacher.  It takes a savvy, patient teacher to understand this fact and to have the capability to find the root of the behavior and not just dole out immediate punishment.

Because children with ADHD are wired differently, their intelligence doesn’t present itself in the same way as their neurotypical counterparts.  Man will never, EVER be the child that can complete classroom assignments with little to no assistance.  He does not learn like other children do – lecturing from the front of the room and then expecting him to complete an assignment quietly at his desk is pretty much out of the question.  He has already lost focus on what the teacher is saying by the second sentence; his thoughts began running wild with what was expressed in the first one.  Therefore, he requires a lot of repetition and asks a lot of questions.  Unfortunately, this can make him seem just average, or even slightly below.  Thus, he is treated accordingly by all who must educate him and he misses out on the opportunity to learn on an appropriate and stimulating level.

Many things come easily to Man, however, when something is a challenge, he wants no part of it.  Challenges for other children are 100 times more difficult to a child with ADHD.  It’s like hiking up a steep mountain with an extra 100-pound backpack on.  This is what ADHD does to my child, especially in a classroom setting.  When he is tired and just can’t take on the extra work that each day brings, it makes him look defiant or like he cannot follow simple classroom rules.  He needs a teacher who is going to understand this, look past it, and make it interesting for him to want to attack the challenges head on.  Will this be the year that he gets such a teacher, I wonder? 

Just like neurotypical children, atypically developing children are all dissimilar as well.  A diagnosis of ADHD means different things for different children and the educational strategies are not one size fits all.  When someone tells me that they have experience teaching children with ADHD, that means almost nothing to me.  The most important thing that a teacher needs to understand is that they must look beyond the diagnosis and assess my child’s needs based on what they see, not what they expect to see.  This was not the case last year and he suffered greatly because of it, and as his mother, I suffered right along with him.

Public school, it seems, is not designed well for Man, or any child with ADHD and other learning disabilities.  It’s no one’s fault; they must teach to the masses, and I totally get this – the entire school system does not need to turn on a dime for my son’s specific needs. While I appreciate that the district trains the teachers well and makes accommodations for my son, ultimately the expectation is that as a round peg, he adjusts and fits into their square holes.  In fact, every accommodation he has is to help him function better in a classroom designed for neurotypical students.  They have nothing to do with helping him use the brain he has, to learn to the best of its own ability.  They have nothing to do with teaching him how to use his strengths and overcome his weaknesses to simply learn the information that is vital to his education. 

I stress again that this is no one’s fault; it is just how the public education system is designed.  They do their very best to help with the resources available to them, but the end goal is always the same, to make sure every child is “on grade level”.  It doesn’t matter how much potential the child has, simply whether they meet the national standards for their grade.  Man did 50% of the work that the other students in his class did last year, 50%, and at the end of the year he was on grade level.  While only doing half the work as the other students in his class, he still came out on grade level.  Yes, while I’m thrilled he is on grade level, am I not allowed to expect that he could possibly be doing better if his educational environment was more conducive to his learning style?  Should I just ignore the fact that he no longer qualifies for certain accommodations because he is on grade level, even though the challenges within the classroom are still the same as they were the previous years?  Am I not allowed to be upset that my son already feels disappointed in himself every day because he sees the other children able to produce more than him while trying half as hard?  It’s not pressure that I put on him, it’s simply what he sees going on around him daily. 

So yes, I worry every day.  I worry that this year will be the same trying year as the last.  He does not deserve that, nor does any child who is like him.  Going back to school, it seems, isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for every family.

 

Eight Coping Strategies For (Special Needs) Moms

I have always wanted to be a mother. I had a childhood fantasy of having twin girls named Stacey and Tracey (adorable, right?).  I was more than eager to start a family after getting married.  At that time in my life I was working as a speech therapist and not enjoying it.  It seemed like the perfect time to take a break from one job and begin my lifelong dream- starting a family.

I was sure that the void I was feeling in my life and career would be filled the second I became a mother and I would finally have the sense of purpose I was longing for.  And in many ways, this did happen.  Man came into this world, tiny and perfect, and filled my heart with so much love—a kind of love that I didn’t know existed. However, from early on, he was a challenge.  I can recall him military-crawling across the room at four and a half months old and thinking he was a physical phenomenon.  I realized shortly after—when I found he had slid himself to the top of the staircase and was about to take a ride down the stairs headfirst, that a phenomenon he was not.  What he was, was a danger to himself.

People often ask when I knew my child had ADHD and SPD.  I didn’t know immediately what he had, but I knew from birth that he was different, and challenging in a way that many kids were not.  At two, when other parents were reducing their babyproofing efforts, we were upping the ante in our house.  By four, when his peers had begun to listen to directives from their parents—directives that would keep them out of bodily harm—Man was still deaf to my warnings, running wildly through parking lots, thrilled and care free, as I yelled at him to stop.  He was my sweet, loving, first born little boy, and he made my heart sing—but he was (and still is) HARD.

I wrestled with my feelings about this for years.  Parenting was supposed to make me happy and complete me in a way that nothing else did, right?  Imagine my sadness and fear when I had to face the fact that motherhood was taking a larger toll on me than I had expected.  All parenting is challenging, but being the parent of a child with special needs, whether mental, physical, or medical, comes with its own unique set of challenges. It took me a long time to accept that.  I found it nearly impossible to face the fact that being a mom, something I had wanted forever, was not exactly what I thought it would be.  Having such feelings was confusing and depressing.  It was tough to distinguish the feelings regarding my role as a special needs parent, from my feelings about my sweet Man.  I loved my Man, but I did not always love the challenges he threw my way- and that fact in no way made me a bad mother.

It took time to come to the realization that our challenges required a different set of answers than those of my mom friends with neuro-typical children.  Over the last year, I have completely overhauled my life and the way I view my parenting.  Here are some things that I have done to stay sane and productive as a special needs mom:

 

I stopped comparing my child to those of my peers. This was huge for me.  Every child is different and unique.  The strengths of one are not going to be the strengths of another.  This fact is what makes the world go around.  If we were all the same, there would be no innovation, no advancements.  Every person serves a purpose, and my child’s purpose is different than yours.  He might never play soccer, or be class president, but mark my words, he is brilliant and unique in his own right.  He may cure cancer one day.

I sought out other special needs moms. I need other moms of children with special needs in my life.  They are my rocks and my support.  They understand my day to day successes and failures in a way that other moms just can’t.  I simultaneously stopped trying to get parents of neuro-typical children to understand my plight.  It was taking an emotional toll on me to continuously try to get other parents to understand that their day-to-day lives were just different than mine.  I’m not diminishing that their days are difficult, but it truly is just different.

I got a babysitter and sought more help from family! For far too long, I thought that I could and SHOULD do it all myself.  I was afraid to put the responsibility of Man on anyone else.  Frankly, following a few bad experiences of babysitters dismissing my warnings about his behavior as me being a “hover mother” and then learning the hard way that I was not, I was also too worried leave him with anyone.  But as he got older, I let go of this fear and accepted the fact that I desperately needed a break and that didn’t make me selfish.  I found someone that I trust and now she spends oodles of quality time with the kids while I spend a little time on me.

Which brings me to the next one, I spend time to myself! I gave myself permission to focus on me.  Being a parent doesn’t mean that I must be my children’s sole caregiver.  I now have returned to school to pursue my passion.

I exercise.  Endorphins are amazing things, my friends!  It gives me a mental and physical health that allows me to face the day to day challenges in my life.  If you feel good about yourself, it makes everything else in your life that much easier.

I accepted that my best was good enough. As a parent of a special needs child, we want to fix our kids, to make that square peg fit into a round mold.  This is just impossible.  All we can do is our best to support them in the way that they need it, and the rest is up to our kids, and that must be ok.

I stopped hiding my feelings and I forgave myself. When I finally admitted that I was unhappy with the life situation I found myself in, I could begin making changes.  You can’t control your feelings, but you can control how you express them.  I was angry for a long time, and now I have the chance to let go of that anger and replace it with more positive energy.  But that was only possible after I could let those feelings out.

Being a special needs mom isn’t easy, in fact, it’s downright hard most days!  However, your personal happiness does not have to be tied to your child’s challenges!

Dear IEP Mom,

Dear IEP Mom,

It’s that season again.

IEP season, that is.  It’s the time of year when sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days all lead up to one single meeting that will determine the course of the next full year of your child’s school career.  That time when you sit alone at a table of teachers, therapists, and psychologists who all think they know your child’s needs better than you do, while you fight to prove otherwise.  A time when you struggle to maintain your composure while simultaneously jumping through hoops to make sure your child’s educational requirements will be adequately met.

I want you to know that you are not alone. That I am there, sitting right next to you.  I feel your frustration when it seems that no one at that table can hear you.  I too wonder why I can see them listening, but how they are not really hearing me.  I am also fighting back the tears as they list my child’s challenges but seem to want to provide little in the way of support—this phenomenon perplexes me as well.  I am your inner voice telling you to remain calm, reminding you that being strong and assertive does not mean having to yell.  My palms are sweating too, and my heart is also pounding—the constant drumbeat of, “Am I doing and saying enough?” is racing through my mind too.

I am here to tell you that you are doing enough.  You need to know that you are a superstar, a fighter in a way many parents can’t understand.  I want you to shrug off the belittling comments that you may hear from others—turn a deaf ear when someone says, “What’s the big deal, it’s just a meeting?”

It is a big deal; it’s not just a meeting, and unless you are going through it, you absolutely cannot understand the depth of its importance.  I too feel misunderstood sometimes, that many mommy friends just don’t understand my struggle.  I also feel alone and exhausted from trying to explain it.

Do you know how strong you are?  That you are your child’s single most important advocate, teacher, therapist, and psychologist?  That you wear many different hats every day just to make sure your child gets from the morning to the night successfully.  I know that, whether the teachers across the table from you see it or not.  You have the strength of 10,000 women!  You alone sit at this meeting to make sure that your child receives the educational support he or she needs—the support that he is legally entitled to which will allow him to successfully navigate the least restrictive educational environment.  I jump for joy right along with you when he thrives and hold him in comfort, crumbling silently inside, when he fails.  That’s right, IEP Mom, you are a rock, a warrior, and a hero!

I am right there fighting alongside of you.  We all are!  So, IEP Mom, go into that meeting with your head held high, your paperwork prepared, and your arguments rehearsed, as this is just another battle in the war that is your child’s education.  However, this time, know that every mom in a similar room, in a similar school, just a town, state, or country away is right there fighting along side of you day in and day out.

~ManVsMommy

IEP meeting

Picky Eating and Sensory Eating Are NOT The Same! A Guide to Improving Feeding in Sensory Eaters

Today, Man took a bite of a carrot, chewed it, and swallowed!!!  I tried to remain calm on the outside; I didn’t want him to notice the amount of excitement, relief, hope, and importance I placed on that one single bite.  I didn’t want him to shrink under the pressure that I placed on his ability to take a bite of a carrot.

“Nice job, buddy!!  I’m really proud of you!  Did you like it?”

“Meh, it was ok…”

That was enough for me!  On the outside I maintained my calm demeanor, my “this was no big deal” face; but on the inside, I was celebrating like it was New Year’s!

Now, at this point you’re all probably thinking, “Wow, a bite of a carrot! She’s really got to check her brag-o-meter, because that sounds about as insignificant as watching television…”  But for us, this was HUGE.

I’ve ready many, many articles and blog posts about picky eaters.  They put forth an expanse of knowledge and make loads of professional suggestions. They also all miss one thing: there is an enormous difference between a “picky eater” and a “sensory eater.”  The valid suggestions these articles provide are for picky eaters, but a sensory eater is a different ball game altogether, and this is rarely if ever mentioned. I suspect that this leaves parents who have tried all the suggestions mentioned in the articles saddened, frustrated, and feeling like failures.

I recently wrote an article called, “Imagine Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder.”  Imagine Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder It highlighted many of the major aspects of dealing with SPD.  Sensory eating is one of these challenges.  What is sensory eating and why is it different from picky eating?  Picky eaters don’t like a variety of foods, much like the sensory eater, however, when they eat new foods it doesn’t cause a sensory overload.

What do I mean by an eating sensory overload?

It comes in a few different forms.  There is a sensitivity to textures, where children can only handle one texture, often smooth pureed foods.  They can eat yogurt, however hand them a bag of chips or a slice of turkey and they immediately begin to gag.  This is the most common sensory eating issue.  Less common, but equally challenging, are sensitivities to flavor and smell.  Man, has a sensitivity to flavor, I have seen him break out into a cold sweat, red faced, and teary eyed because a Starburst was “too sugary”.

What does this mean when eating?

It means that children would literally rather starve than put food in their mouths that might cause physical and/or mental pain.  One of the number one suggestions in every article on combating picky eating… “They get what they get or they don’t eat.  Eventually, they will be hungry enough to eat.”  The other variation of that suggestion, “They MUST try at least one bite of the new food that you give them.”  This is a suggestion that will NEVER. EVER. work for a child with sensory eating issues.  They see food as pain, and it doesn’t matter how hungry they are, they would rather starve than be in pain.  Wouldn’t you?  If you knew that every time you put certain foods in your mouth, it would make your feel as though your mouth was on fire, would you want to eat it?

 

Unfortunately, as time goes on, inevitable behaviors begin to develop.  It’s Pavlovian in nature, and they begin to fear foods and meal times.  Even if it’s a food that might not “hurt” them, they will begin to refuse to eat it.  They often don’t like to eat out at restaurants and they do not enjoy the social aspects of a meal, choosing to eat alone or engage in reading or watching an iPad to be able to get through a meal, rather than engaging in lively chit chat with friends and family.  Parents must provide constant reminders and prompts to get a child to complete each meal, every day.  This often lends an additional level of stress to food, eating, and mealtime.  Many children are uncommonly thin and vitamin deficient as well.  This provides another layer of fear that parents must try to avoid inflicting on their child.

Suddenly, it’s not just the body’s physiological reaction to the food, but also the behavioral and emotional stress that comes along with it.  Now, considering these factors, it becomes more obvious why there must be a differentiation between picky eating and sensory eating.  For years, I would read these articles and think to myself, “none of these strategies will work for my Man, he would just rather not eat.”  I would see other parent’s comments laced with sadness and frustration that their children had too, chosen not to eat.  It’s not as simple as being a picky eater; it’s not as simple as choosing to just suck it up and try a food that they might not end up liking.  For them, it’s knowing that a food might make them throw up or set their little tongue on fire; it’s about being made physically uncomfortable from food.

 

 

Here are some suggestions that come from both the parent in me and the Speech Pathologist:

1)      Most importantly, do not pressure your child!  There is already enough fear associated with eating that you don’t want to increase those fears.  As scary as it is to hear a diagnosis of “failure to thrive”, placing added pressures on them to eat will not help.

 

2)      Address their fears, discuss them openly, and validate, validate, validate!!  Let them know that you understand how hard it is for them to eat certain things and that’s ok!

 

3)      Make food fun!  Desensitizing them to foods is very important, so cook and bake with them often.  Also, do art or craft projects that involve playing with food.  Make chocolate pudding and crush up Oreo cookies to make “dirt”, then place gummy worms in the dirt, etc.  Let them get used to the textures on their hands first.

 

4)      When you feel they are ready, introduce new foods in small increments.  As your child gets older, his or her sensory system will naturally mature, however, the fear and maladaptive behaviors that they have developed over the years might remain.  To combat these fears, you must go slowly!  I recently implemented a chart system for Man and so far, it seems to be helping:

 

Monday: smell the food

Tuesday: kiss the food (or touch to lips)

Wednesday: lick the food

Thursday: hold a bite of food in their mouth

Friday: chew a bite and swallow

Saturday: REWARD, REWARD, REWARD!!!!!!!  For Man, it’s two ice cream sandwiches with lunch!

feeding train real

Feeding Chart (please pardon my lack of artistic and creative abilities).

After your child has successfully chewed and swallowed that initial bite, every day following they should take one bite of the new food for about a week, then the next week two bites, and so on until you feel they are eating an acceptable amount to incorporate into meals.

Now this sounds slow and laborious, and it is, but remember, they are fearful and many foods actually cause them physical discomfort.  Our goal is to decrease the physical discomfort and remove slowly lessen the fear.

A variation of this method is to use a “feeding train”.  Each compartment of the train contains foods that they like and then when they get to the caboose, it contains the new food.  The expectation that they interact with the food in incremental stages remains the same.

 

5)      The “trying plate” is another variation of this method.  Place new foods on the “trying plate” and allow them to take bites when they are ready.  This plate is separate from their breakfast/lunch/dinner plate.

trying plate

The Trying Plate!

 

These methods should be used at one meal per day, unless you feel that your child can handle it for two or even three meals per day.  I cannot stress enough these key points, no pressure and go slowly!!

Remember, our children are not just picky eaters, if they choose to starve rather than eat the food that you put in front of them you are not a failure!!!

Imagine Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder

I have written a lot about ADHD, however, I have only merely breathed a mention of a lesser known challenge among kids today, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).  When many of you think of SPD you either have absolutely no idea what it means, or you’re like, “yes, yes, that’s when your sensors are processing all wrong, right?”  Well, in a way, yes, but do you understand what that really means for daily functioning?  I’ll break it down for you in a way that is most easily understood.

You have five senses, touch, sound, smell, sight, and taste.  Additionally, and less known, our bodies also take in information through body movement, position, balance, and muscle control.  During your day, these systems work seamlessly together to take in the environment around you- so seamlessly, in fact, that you likely don’t even register the workings of this finely tuned machine until a wrench is tossed directly in its cogwheel.  You have all put something in your mouth, like tapioca pudding, or heard nails run down a chalk board and had a visceral bodily reaction.  You shutter a little, maybe gag on that weirdly textured food, and are generally left with an overall edgy feeling for a few seconds.  What if you felt that way throughout your day, and you never knew when it was coming or what exactly will cause it?

Sensory overload is very real, and very challenging.  It is easy to see a child having a tantrum at a birthday party and think, “There is THAT kid, the one whose parents can’t control him, the one who needs a good spanking, or the one that is just a total wuss.”  Now, stop and think of that same child hearing experiencing the sounds of the other children running around the party like a heard of lions roaring in his head.  Consider that because his balance is off he has a hard time participating in the designated party activity without falling and this makes his sad and frustrated.  Ponder the fact that he doesn’t know where his own body is in space, let alone how far away he is from the kid he is supposed to “tag”.  Now, look at him again.  Does it seem strange that he is cowering in the corner and crying?

man tantrum

SPD infiltrates every aspect of a child’s day.  There is no time in which your body is not using its sensory system.  This is just a small picture of how it affects a child.

 

It’s 4:45AM, your child rolls over in bed and tries to go back to sleep, but a bird chirped outside and it might as well have been as loud as a bell ringing directly in his ear.  He glances at the window and notices that it’s just starting to get light out.  Time to get up, there is no going back to sleep with cacophony of birds and the bright light peeking through the sides of the blackout shades.

Breakfast time, he’s already tired because, well, he’s been up for three hours.  Food choices are severely limited.  This is not just a picky eater, this is an eater with sensory issues, a completely different ball game.  He struggles to get down the same thing he eats every morning, a cooled toasted waffle, with a THIN layer of butter- because too much butter makes the waffle soggy and that feels “weird” in his mouth, a cheese stick- right out of the refrigerator because if it’s sits around for more than a few minutes it warms up and gets “squishy”, and if we are lucky some apple slices, but make sure that there are no bruises or excess skin hanging off of the slice, that would deem it garbage.

Prep for school comes next.  Brushing his teeth only happens with one specific flavor of tooth paste and a very soft bristled brush-  it’s important to keep that gag reflex in check (this issue also makes going to the dentist a nightmare).  Socks must be perfectly placed on the feet and ankles; it’s impossible to put shoes on if there is even the slightest imperfection!

Bus time!  It’s important to sit in the front and it makes him miss sitting with his friends.  But let’s face it, the bus is loud, a sensory overload nightmare, and it makes his body out of control.  When his body feels this way he lashes out and someone might get hurt, or, say, hit in the head with a seat belt.  He’s a young child and only has a mild understanding of what is happening to his body in the moment, he has yet to develop the skills to control himself all of the time.

School… so many different challenges throughout the day.  The cubbies are in a small space and sometimes all the kids gather there at once, he feels claustrophobic and sensory overload is imminent.  He tries to get out of the area but there are just too many bodies in his way.  Overload begins, he is being crushed into a small space with no movement and he starts pushing kids out of the way so he can get free, breathe and calm his body.  Being surrounded in such a close space by so much (kids in this case) is overwhelming, he can’t figure out how close he is to the other children and then when he bumps into them it feels like he is hitting a brick wall that is blocking his much-needed freedom.

He tries to sit and complete his work, but the students next to him are tapping their pencils and moving around in their chairs.  Don’t they know that that sounds like a symphony of distraction and makes it impossible to focus?

Lunch brings its own trials.  Don’t forget that most food is unappealing and has too much flavor to begin with (he has broken out into a cold sweat from certain brands of chicken nuggets that are “too peppery”).  Now add yelling, excited kids to the mix and eating, though being hungry, is practically impossible.

The afternoon wears on and the 4:45AM wakeup is taking its toll.  Any resistance he has had of keeping it together is fading fast and sensory overload comes quickly, often, and hits hard.

After school, he wants so badly to participate in activities but he is shot.  The lack of sleep, adequate nutrition, and heightened bodily awareness work against him.  After some quiet time, he may or may not be ready to participate in an activity of his own choosing.  Translation: there are things he wants to do, to learn, to engage in, and his body just will not afford him the ability to do so some days.

Night time approaches and it’s time to bathe, we have the same argument over washing his hair that we have had every night for years, his hair follicles hurt.  Moms, imagine what your head feels like after you have worn a ponytail for too long and you finally take it out, it’s sensitive, right? I assume that this is what his head feels like all the time.  Fully submerging his head under the water to get the shampoo out… a nightmare.

Finally, sleep time.  Luckily, he is so exhausted from his early wakeup that there is not much resistance.  His body is done and desperate for rest.  Some light scratching on the back and a few deep tissue hugs and he is out like a light.

 

This is just a snippet into a day with SPD.  It infiltrates every aspect of a child’s life because one’s sensory system is always engaged.  It makes certain sports impossible, some types of parties a nightmare, eating, learning, and simply playing with friends a challenge.  Some days it’s not noticeable, and other days it’s a constant struggle from the minute he wakes up until the minute he falls asleep.  So, next time you see a child having a fit in the middle of Target, ask yourself, is this child a “bad kid” or just possibly having a sensory meltdown?

 

sensory-overload