Making Sense of Sensory Processing

Join us at STEPS for Kids in Yorkville on Tuesday March 29th at 7:00 pm for a FREE Community Education Program!  Debra Johnson will be presenting Differences, Disorders & Diets: Making Sense of Sensory Processing.

This presentation will include an overview of what sensory processing is and how sensory differences affect each of us, review of sensory processing disorders and red flags for identifying SPD and a discussion of how to use sensory based strategies to help with self regulation, task focus and skill performance.

Light refreshments will be served and there will be time to network!  Please contact us at the clinic by phone (630-552-9890) or email (info@rightstepsforkids.com) to register for this presentation.

Getting the word out about SPD

I thought about starting this post with all the reasons why I have not been posting, because I really feel bad about starting this and then being absent.  But what is most important today is the reason that has motivated me to post; a phone call from a parent to tell me that a child was suspended from school.  A first grader suspended because of a meltdown and subsequent attempt to run from school.

This is a child who has received services from the public school system for three years.  A child who was observed by an OT at school last year but was determined to not have OT needs.  A child who received a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation that included a diagnosis but no mention of potential sensory processing issues or need for an OT evaluation.   A child who, until just recently,  was not identified as even possibly having a sensory processing disorder.   Because apparently no one among all the doctors, teachers  therapists or other parents they encountered had ever suggested the idea to his parents.   Until I met them they had never even heard of sensory processing disorder.

When I met this child I suggested to the mother that it appeared to be a case of sensory processing disorder with motor planning problems and poor vestibular processing.  There was clear evidence of a coordination disorder and difficulty moving through space efficiently.  From the mom’s description it sounds like the child also has over-responsiveness to sensory input with poor modulation of behavioral responses to the surroundings.   I suggested some books for her to learn about sensory processing while she waited for the OT evaluation to be completed.  She called me later, ecstatic to tell me that what she was reading “was the key to the puzzle.”  She felt like she finally had something solid to help her understand her child.  She was reading the books and using the suggestions. And they were working.  Behaviors improved, cooperation was better, task performance was better.   She was elated!  But today she was angry.

She was angry because no one had ever seen the behaviors as possibly associated with anything like a sensory processing disorder.  Because she had never heard of it before and the school didn’t know what to do about it.   When I hung up from the call I was struck by how long this child had been “in the system” and yet how needs had been unmet.  Because no one considered sensory processing disorder.  And then I thought of Oprah.

A few weeks ago Oprah had an episode that profiled a young boy who had violent tendencies; it was a wonderful way to bring childhood mental illness in to the public forum.  As many Oprah shows do, this one created a flurry of responses and interest….from the SPD community.  Because within the context of this boy’s story the only condition initially mentioned was “sensory integration disorder.”  There was concern that others would be misled as to what sensory integration or processing disorders look like.  There was a call for a grassroots effort to have Oprah expand on this opportunity to educate others about what SPD is and what it is not.   The hope was to get Oprah to do an entire show on the topic.  Something that the SPD Foundation has been trying to do for a decade.

Through the efforts of the SPD Foundation and all those who contributed with comments and letters, the Oprah website has been modified.  The text of the episode now includes a summary of the conditions that Zach was diagnosed with in addition to SPD.  It also provides a description, albeit a very brief description, of what SPD is and how it impacts on Zach’s life.   And there’s a link on the bottom of the page to the SPD Foundation.  It’s a start.

But is it enough to get the word out about SPD so that kids like the one who got suspended today can get the right services when they really need them?  What if Oprah had actually done a whole episode that focused on SPD?  Would this parent have somehow heard about the condition?  Would she have perhaps watched the show or had contact with someone who did?  Would someone have suggested that maybe her child had this condition so that at least the parent knew what questions to ask?  Would anyone on the team serving this child perhaps have considered whether this condition was driving the behaviors?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But if no one knew about the condition, no one could consider the possibility.  You don’t know what you don’t know, as the saying goes.

Dr. Lucy Miller has been on a mission to get the word out about SPD.  Now, I’m not sure that The Oprah Show is the best way to get the word out.  It certainly isn’t the only way.  But it is one way.  And the more we can get the word out, the better.  It would be great if Oprah would help.   Look what happens when Oprah recommends a book!  Maybe getting SPD talked about on Oprah would get everyone talking about it.  So that what happened to that little first grader might not happen again.  So that parents would know enough to ask “could this be SPD?”

I’m hopeful that some day knowledge of SPD will be commonplace.  Someday looking for SPD related behaviors or motor coordination problems might be a part of routine well baby visits and developmental screenings.  Someday early childhood educators and care providers will all be well versed in recognizing the red flags that signal a potential sensory processing issue.  Someday parents will all understand how sensory processing and sensory motor experiences influence their child’s development, behaviors and learning.  To help reach that point, I’m going to keep on talking and telling others about SPD.  You can help, too.   Let’s keep educating others by reaching out to other parents, asking people to be understanding about sensory based needs,  informing the teachers and the doctors who serve our kids of what we know about SPD.  Don’t stop.  We can spread the word.  We can’t wait for Oprah.

Strategies for Change

It’s a week into the New Year and we are all getting back to routines after the holidays.  How’s your year so far?  I’d like to make my 2011 more peaceful, successful and happier…for myself AND my children.   Here are some strategies I’m going to try to stick to this year, for the sake of my kids.  Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

1) Focus on strengths. It is all too easy to see the problems when you have a child with special needs.   They are listed on the therapy report, the progress chart, the IEP, the doctor’s evaluation.  We focus daily on the impairments and work to “fix” the problem behaviors.  This approach can quickly become overwhelming and depressing.  To decrease stress and improve your outlook try focusing on your child’s strengths instead.  Children need to know that we believe in them.  They need to know that we see who they are and what they are good at.  Focusing on their strengths allows us to see the good in our children when we are otherwise overwhelmed by their needs and problems.  It can strengthen the bond with our child and renew our energy to tackle the difficult times.

To stay focused on strengths try this:  write down at least 3 things you notice that your child is good at or that you really like about your child.  Put the list where you can see it – maybe make a few copies to put in different places.  Look at the list often. Remind yourself several times a day about your child’s strengths, especially when you are feeling discouraged or overwhelmed by behaviors.

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Is it sensory or is it behavior?

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting Dana Burke and Jennifer Schuler of ABC Moms, Inc for a great presentation on the Top Ten Strategies for Positive Parenting.  Their presentation focused on how parents can manage challenging behaviors and develop positive relationships with their children.  This can be a daunting task for any parent but even more challenging when you are dealing with a child who has sensory processing issues.  That’s when the question often comes up “is it sensory or is it behavior?”

At first glance that question seems straightforward and sensible.  What parents and teachers often want to know is whether the child is behaving badly because of something they should be able to control (learned behavior) or something out of their control (response to an aversive sensory experience).  But the answer is rarely so simple as the question.  I think the problem is that we are asking the wrong question.  It really can’t be sensory OR behavior because if it is something the child is doing it is, by definition, a behavior.  The question we SHOULD be asking is whether there is a sensory component to the behavior and if there is what can be done about it? Continue reading

Positive Parenting at STEPS for Kids!

Please join us on Thursday, December 2nd for an evening of great tips and strategies to help you meet the everyday challenges of parenting!  STEPS for Kids is hosting a Community Education program by ABC Moms, Inc.  Top Ten Strategies for Positive Parenting will provide you with information that you can take home and use immediately to improve relationships and behaviors in your home.  Do you struggle with gaining your child’s cooperation?  Wonder at how to set appropriate limits that support development?  Wish that you could have a more peaceful and positive relationship with your children? Then this workshop is for you!

Dana Burke, M.S. Ed. and Jennifer Schuler, LCSW of ABC Moms, Inc will be presenting their best advice for helping you meet the everyday challenges that parenting can present.  We all struggle at times with knowing what is the best approach for parenting.  Each child has unique needs that can make parenting difficult.  Finding what works for you and your family can be trying, at best, as you sort through the advice of family, friends and professionals.

Dana and Jennifer have over  25 years of combined experience working with parents and children to support positive relationships at home and in the community.  They bring both professional experience and their own parenting experiences to their practice, helping other parents sort through the confusion of parenting advice and find what works for them.  Not just for parents of children with special needs, Dana and Jennifer offer something for every parent to take home and use immediately to make positive changes in parenting.

This seminar will be held at the STEPS for Kids clinic in Yorkville, Thursday December 2nd at 7:00 pm.  This is a free seminar and open to anyone in the community.  Seating is limited so please call the clinic (630-552-9890), email us (info@rightstepsforkids.com) or Contact Us to register!

Open House!

STEPS for Kids, Inc is now open! Help us celebrate by attending an Open House on Saturday, October 30th, 2010 from 10 am until 2 pm.  I’ll be presenting An Introduction to Sensory Processing: Differences, Disorders and Diets at 2:00 pm.  Seating is limited, so please call the clinic or email us to register.  Check out the website for contact information.

Sensory What?

Sensory Processing.  It’s becoming quite a common term these days.  I hear a lot of people say things like “oh, my son has sensory processing” or “he can’t help it, it’s because of his sensory processing.”  Every time I do, I want to chime in with my very official sounding explanation rooted in occupational therapy theory and neurological principles.  But I have found that it is much more helpful to put it in terms that are easy to understand and that allow each of us to make “sense” of it as it relates to us.  So here is Sensory Processing 101, which I think is a very good place to start.

Sensory processing refers to the brain’s ability to take in sensory information from different sensory receptors within the body, organize it all into meaningful information and then create the appropriate response, whatever that might be.  A simple illustration of sensory processing is when you dip your foot into a swimming pool to see if you want to get in.  You dip your toe, determine the temperature of the water and then respond by either moving away (too cold!) or jumping in (just right!).

But sensory processing isn’t always simple. In fact, it is an extremely complex and intricate process involving a multitude of sensory systems within the body and an even more complex and intricate neurological system.  Picture yourself on the edge of the pool dipping that toe in the water.  Now, let’s back up from there. Complex sensory processing was happening long before you ever touched your toe to the water.  We could say it started when you lifted your foot from the edge of the pool.Continue reading

Hello and Welcome!

You’ve found Right STEPS for Kids and I’m glad you’re here!

My name is Debra Johnson. I’m an occupational therapist and the founder of STEPS for Kids, Inc., a pediatric therapy clinic specializing in helping children and families affected by Sensory Processing Disorder and related disorders or conditions.  I’m passionate about what I do and spend a lot of time thinking, researching and talking about it. So a blog seemed like a good place to put some of that thought, information and chatter about all things related to sensory processing disorder, parenting children with special needs, parenting children in general, and whatever else seems relevant at the moment.  You’ll also find an occasional update on the clinic with announcements related to community events, special occasions and services being offered.

I have over 21 years experience as an occupational therapist and am certified in sensory integration treatment.  I’ve been working in pediatrics for about 15 of those years all the while raising my own children.  If you’d like to know more about me you can read more here.

My hope is that you will find Right STEPS for Kids to be filled with great information all the time, thought provoking most of the time, witty and clever at least some of the time and perhaps even moving or sentimental once in awhile.  I want to engage you in conversation about children, sensory processing disorders, therapy, learning, education, behaviors, nutrition, daily routines and so much more.  I want us to share information, tips and shortcuts that have worked for us and our children.  I want to share my journey as an OT and a mom with you.  I hope that you might share a little of your journey with me.

I hope you like what you see and will come back again and again.  If you’d let me know what topics are of interest as we go along, I’d be happy to explore them with you.  And please let me know if you find anything helpful, so I know I’m on the right track!  Then together we can make the Right STEPS for Kids!