Reflections of and on a probably Asperger's parent parenting an Asperger's kid (or 2)!

dragon pups

dragon pups

Monday, December 26, 2011

On Sensory Processing Differences

So, for those who do not know, there is an idea specifically addressing those "weird" behaviors that we see in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) people - Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).  Personally I think the "D" in both would be better filled with the word "difference" instead of "disorder", but I don't get to vote on what the American Medical Association Diagnostic Manual (AMA-DM) uses as vocabulary.  So the idea is that the senses of a person on the [autistic] spectrum just function totally differently - that what the body is telling the brain is not like what a "neuro-typical" person receives/ processes. 
There is some debate on the validity of this idea, and even more on whether a person has to be ASD to have SPD, or whether a person can be SPD without being ASD.   The occupational therapist (OT) at the public school we have been attending believes the whole SPD idea to be hogwash, and from what I am reading on other parent support sites, it seems that getting those "sensory needs" addressed and managed is a great hurdle to MANY parents.  For anyone who is remotely familiar with ASD kids (or SPD kids) none of this is earth shattering news, they are living with it.
For me, I have found that the SPD vocabulary is a GREAT tool for understanding and discussing and managing my Aspie's behaviors, and my own.  I tend to think that probably EVERYONE has a Sensory Processing Difference - after all you are a distinctly unique combination of your body & soul, so shouldn't you be totally and completely different that everyone else?  I am betting that the "laws of physics" for biology are not the same "laws of physics" for the soul/ spirit, so it's not hard to believe that we will see many different expressions of the combination of the two [genetics is all about how many different combinations come from two].  In the back of my heart, though, I still find the verbiage somewhat deflating.  It takes the amazing, miraculous being of "ME" and reduces it to scientific vocabulary that sees me as a balance (or mis-balance) of mechanical "input".
Further explanation:  SPD proposes the regular 5 senses (that Kindergarteners study), and adds two more: vestibular (a sense of balance, associated with the inner ear, and with sensations of weightlessness) and propioceptive (the sense of... motion? place?... the idea that the joints tell the brain where the body is - associated with coordination and motor control).  SPD proposes that a person is either over-sensitive or under-sensitive in each of these 7 sense "spectrums" - and that a person can be over in some and under in others. 

Let's look at taste - an overly sensitive taster would seek bland foods, would "feel" the heat of spice as "hotter" (crunch doesn't count here - that's propioception). So instead of my dad's love for Thai food being a personality trait, it is now defined as his under-sensitivity to taste - he needs "more" to even register the sensation. My diagnosed Aspie seeks strong foods - ate a packet of wasabi (hardly teared), loves seafood, curry and Latin foods.  My younger kid only wants rice - plain by itself, sometimes fried rice, and seeks candy.  So does this indicate that different spots of the tongue are operating differently?  One seeks salt, the other sweet?  I myself prefer bitter - dill pickles, cranberries, vinegar sauces, coffee, dark chocolate, but apparently my sweet doesn't work very well - all fruits and veggies taste the same to me... like fresh cut grass smells.  Do these differences in taste constitute a disorder? Or are these the natural differentiation of individuality?  Is it worth getting treated for veggies tasting bland to me?  There are those that might argue so, looking for a therapy to make "healthy" foods taste "better" – after all, we are holding McDonald's responsible for our food choices...

Let's look at vision - an overly sensitive visual receptor would seek milder colors, less pattern, less clutter (clearer visual distinction), maybe even less contrast.  Some would argue that the lack of clutter is an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) thing - like my grandmother who needs everything geometrically balanced in wall hangings, or my friend who needs the desk tools placed in a specific location. I for one have NO issue with clutter, and come from a long line of hoarders.  Got the plaque that says "the gift of disorganization is that you always make new discoveries".   The L.A. Times reported that one of the "hidden adults" with autism it found is a magician with his materials everywhere - his significant other said he "needed everything out where he could see it" - that describes me EXACTLY.  We got rid of all the chest-of-drawers in our house - clothes are stored on shelves, in cubbies or clear baskets.  Then there's the case of my other grandmother's house: every piece of furniture in a room is a different patterned fabric, with every one a different shade of her 3 base colors (red, green and blue).  Now it is not that she has incredibly bad or eclectic taste, it is that she is under-sensitive to visual input (I recognized this when she complemented the strongly contrasting oversize plaid pants that my son was wearing 3 times in one hour).  It really just proves that beauty IS in the eye of the beholder, and she saw that riot of color and pattern as comforting, pretty, attractive - like the flaming orange kitchen she had when my dad was little (neighbors called the fire department twice because of the glow in the basement window). 
My bet is that further definition/ research/ introspection of minutia will show how this is related to reading - like with dyslexia or photographic memory. I have worn reading glasses since high school because we figured out that I have a ghost double image of words, but I am still an avid reader. Some with ASD have found vision therapy very helpful. 

Let's look at touch - this is where we get into the "itchy tags" on clothes - the one that therapists treat often with "brushing techniques" - and it effects the whole body.  For my Aspie kid, we saw it when we put a jelly-consistency silly-putty in the hand - gagged IMMEDIATELY.  It was very odd.  My Apsie diagnosed kid does not like to wear clothes, we have finally convinced that one that clothes must be worn to exit the house or when people visit [other people are modest, and it needs to be respected]. When there are clothes: no jeans - too hard - everything is sweat pants.  The younger one is almost never naked - dresses head to toe as soon as out of the shower, have to fight to get "less dressed" in swim suits.  Touch is supposed to affect eating - like being able to force down super smooth yogurt, or not being able to swallow the powdery/ crumby crackers.  My younger one's speech impediment is defined as an over-sensitive gag-reflex - can't make the letter "G" sound, or a hard "K".  I've read more than one blog of an ASD adult describing how the sensations of different textures scream inside their heads. 
So now my fabric habit (and yes, it is a bad habit for me - I have bolts and bolts of fabric) can be reduced to a clinical sensation - no longer my hobby, my interest.  But I have better vocabulary for why I prefer long haired dogs, and flannel sheets.

Take a look at hearing - well, really I don't know what to say on that one. I like lots of different kids of music, because they illicit different reactions from me, and drown out the voices in my head - let me concentrate. (the ADHD tie in - needing lots of sensory input in order to make one come into focus by contrast).  I know that I heard more when I was a kid and can cognitively process more than one conversation at a time.  I am definitely an auditory learner, and my Aspie relates what was heard before what was seen or felt in a situation.  My youngest has been labeled with Auditory Processing Disorder - and I think it affects not only that child's speech but also the ability to carry a tune, and the level of sassiness we see in conversations.  It can affect social cues (hearing the "punch-line" or the "sarcasm").  Could it define a preference for loud or soft music? For a strong beat or a flowing melody? I don't know.  Some ASD/ SPD people have reported a sensitivity to high-pitched electronic whines - like florescent lights.

I'm not getting into smell too much. It is so strongly tied to taste (spices, etc.)  I will say that the place I wish I had known this SPD vocabulary was in potty training.  ASD/ SPD kids are notoriously hard to potty train.  This is explained by their "inability" to register sensations of full bladders or bowel pressure.  It also seems to take so long 'cuz this is where those "sensory seekers" like to play with poop.  My gross-threshold expanded EXPONENTIALLY as we potty trained my Aspie.  I read a tip about a year ago (too late for me) that letting them play in used coffee grounds keeps them out of their own crap - I WISH I HAD KNOWN. I hope that other parents take that one to the bank! - but it clearly implies that smell is a driving motivator in that behavior.

So how about vestibular sense?  Well, this is supposed to be what we see in that kid who loves to swing.  My Aspie is apparently vestibularly over-sensitive - saw it in how swings were conquered.  It took over a year. Every time we went to the park the child would spend hours walking around them, looking at them.  After 6 months + the child finally laid across it, and swung with feet on the ground. After several more months, the feet were lifted - just once.  Each time we went to the park after that, a couple more swings with feet up were added. Now we have reached sitting in the swing, but those feet drag every time they get close to the ground.  As an infant we saw it on the carousel - a TOTALLY freak-out experience for that infant (and the grandmother who insisted on taking him on it).  My younger - not so!  That one swings self right off the swing - often - hangs upside down on bed, prefers merry-go-rounds.  It's quite amusing to watch them side-by-side on swings at the park.  This is the sense that equestrian therapy is supposed to help so much.  The idea is that for those who are unable to walk "normally", the gait of a horse provides natural rhythm that the brain is unconsciously seeking, that makes the brain "re-coordinate" itself. 
As I watched a neighbor ride their horse once, I thought about how the vestibular sense was being engaged so continuously.  If some people are born seeking/ craving that kind of input, would that mean that they have a natural propensity for horse riding, or sea faring (rocking boat)?  Would we be able to see patterns of that in families that have those histories?  If this is a genetic coding thing, would "natural selection" strengthen these traits in, for instance, landed-gentry (moneyed enough to own horses) or maritime communities?  And what about that one kid in the sailing family how has uncontrollable sea-sickness? Or the "gentleman" who prefers to walk, or the "lady" who prefers to ride?  Are those SPD issues, or personality descriptors?

And propioception - THAT is a hard one to wrap your head around.  Basically we are saying that all klutzes lack propioception; they "lose" their bodies "in space" and just cannot make the body do what the head envisions.  One physical therapist (PT) told me once that my Aspie would just have been called "uncoordinated" in an earlier time.  This is a particular concern with parents, I think.  The playground picking-on often stems from being an un-talented athlete - the last kid picked, because they are not an asset to the team.  PT and OT are supposed to work together to improve this sense.  For many it is seen in writing - the hand just does not create legible words - like a doctor's signature.  There are many "academics" who have this issue, often unable to read even their own writing.  The OT's working with my Aspie say it effects how hard the pencil pushes, the amount of friction the implement has with the paper can overwhelm, the fingers and wrist cannot twist to create shapes.  The most common "accommodation" made in schools is to let ASD/ SPD kids type instead.  [Ummm, it's pretty much the same skills to me - but I am a "hunt-and-peck" typer 'cuz I can’t get the coordination down right - and a fast one too, though lots of mistakes.] 
Another place we see this is in hugging.  My Aspie is a propioceptive seeker - he is constantly leaning on things ["melting" is the term one OT used].  Swaddling was VERY important as an infant, sleeps under many quilts and heavy blankets, pushes heavy boxes around the library, constantly asking us to wrestle ("tickle-fight"), has even asked the sibling to sit upon self.  My mother even saw it as an infant, said my Aspie was "more cuddly" than most babies.  My younger kid - not so much.  Asks for hugs, but stops them quickly, wrestles/ tickles with us, but not for long.  This is supposed to be the sense that makes kids bang their heads, seek crunchy foods, play "too hard" or "too rough". 
I am thinking that it is what makes football players play football instead of the crazy fast ping-pong of Asia.  Is this the reason boxers box? They don't "feel" the hit?  Is it why my family is full of competitive shooters, because they "seek"/ enjoy the recoil from the gun?  Can propioceptive sensitivity explain why many couples have difficulty with the one who is a cuddle sleeper and the one who spends all night elbowing for more space?

So are the peculiarities that define "ME" just a list of symptoms from my senses?  It just makes me feel... cheap... to think that I am not a magical mix of what makes me feel happy or sad, but only a compilation of electric exchange between cells.  There is a GREAT deal of value, to me, in being able to use this vocabulary with myself and my family - to say that I am having a auditorily sensitive day and the screaming has to stop, or that when my Aspie is literally bouncing off the walls, we need to do a propioceptive activity like trampoline, or when the youngest swings for hours, it's because that one needs it, or when I need my husband to remember something, it has to be written down (visual). 
Of course, I could just keep doing what I am already doing - telling my kids that God creates each and every person different and special, because each has a job that only they are designed to do - and our job is to respect and honor those differences, in ourselves and each other, because God creates everyone and everything for His reasons, not ours.  Difference is divine.

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