Have you ever been bothered by a shirt because the fabric is too itchy against your skin, feeling desperate to change into something more comfortable the minute you return home? How do nails on a chalkboard or hands rubbing on a latex balloon sound to you? Is there a food that makes you gag because of its texture or strong taste?
Do you have a favourite pair of joggers that you always wear at home because they’re considered your ‘comfy clothes'? Do you bounce your knee, or click your pen cap if you’re thinking hard about something? Doesn’t it feel amazing when someone washes your hair and massages your head at the salon?
If you’ve experienced any of these instances you know what it is like to have a sensory preference. A sensory preference is a desire or dislike for a specific sensation. While the sensations I described above may have distracted you at that moment, you were likely able to either avoid or do enough of it until you felt satisfied and be able to go on with your next daily activity.
For people with autism, it may be a different experience. Sensory issues often accompany autism, where the person may have difficulties processing information taken in through their senses. This might include:
- Being overly sensitive or under-reactive to touch, movement, sights or sounds.
Activity level that is unusually high or low.
Difficulties with coordination and/or motor skills.
And even a presentation of challenging behaviours.
Check out this video by the The National Autistic Society. It gives you a glimpse of sensory processing through the eyes of a child with autism.
As you read this post, keep in mind that the behaviours presented by children who have sensory processing challenges are most likely not making conscious choices. For this week’s blog post, I’ve decided to share Bella’s sensory diet, as I have learned many treatment strategies that have helped manage her sensory processing dysfunction. Check out some of my #MomBehindTheLabel hacks!
Between the ages of 3 to 6, Bella would only eat foods that were crunchy. Her diet included the following three foods: Goldfish crackers, Quaker oatmeal square cereal, and grilled cheese sandwiches. When we started going to the Bloorview Feeding Clinic, we worked with a multidisciplinary team that included a speech and language pathologist and an occupational therapist who helped us develop a plan to improve her feeding skill development. Today, Bella is able to eat rice, waffles, soup, yogurt, and applesauce!
Going to new environments can also pose a sensory overload for Bella. We’ve been to a few birthday parties held at bowling alleys, where I soon realized the combination of the bowling balls hitting the alleyway and the crowds of noises made her feel very uneasy. I’ve even asked people in public bathrooms to not use the hand-blow dryer while we were in the stall so that Bella could use the toilet without protesting. Today, I owe it to the Beats Solo3 Wireless headphones as they not only block out unwanted noise, but they provide a kick-ass listening experience as she jams to Raffi’s nursery songs.
In our home, this is known as our bibby-box.
From 4 months old and to this day, Bella has always been quite the messy drooler. The ducts in her mouth over produce saliva, and with the combination of her mouth always being open, she needs to consistently wear a bib. On average we go through roughly 30 bibs within 5 days. During the winter season, I find that Bella is more oral, where she is sucking her fingers and licking her hands to the point where her skin is raw. She also starts gravitating towards certain toys to put in her mouth which then made me realize that she was craving a specific texture. If you know Bella, she is always wearing a chewy tube clipped to her shirt.
Chewy tubes are a safe and effective tool to help children who are developing oral motor skills. They are also useful for children who seek additional oral input. Here are three different kinds of chewy tubes that Bella owns, each with a specific texture and shape. You can purchase them from Amazon or directly from the Chewy Tube.
Bella has always enjoyed being spun around in circles, and pushed back and forth on a swing. When Bella was 1 year old, one of her favourite activities was being swung around in circles while sitting in the Loblaws green grocery box.
Lifting a 20 lb toddler and swinging them around in a bucket can get quite tiring. So my DIY-Dad decided to drill holes into the bottom of the bucket to attach a lazy-susan. Voila, we were able to spin Bella with just a push of a hand.
There are also many different types of swings you can purchase at a reasonable cost. To start, check out these $5 Ikea EKORRE ceiling hooks. If you have an open space in your home, find the beam in your ceiling and drill these hooks in. Purchase some large carabiners used for climbing from MEC, and then attach your child’s favourite swing in your very own space. Here is a picture of Bella on a platform swing made by my DIY-Dad. We owe it to this swing as it had an important role in teaching Bella how to walk.
We recently re-introduced the swing again as a daily exercise to embed into her balancing repertoire.
If you want a swing to promote a calming and relaxing experience, try the Ikea Ekorre Swing from Amazon. In this swing, Bella has the option to lie on her tummy. My mother cut two slits at the back of the swing for Bella's legs to hang out.
When Bella was a baby, she always enjoyed being swaddled with her arms tightly wound by her sides. My mom was able to create a velcro contraption that allowed us to swaddle her until she was just over 1 year old. We were also able to get a hold of an old dentist vest. We slipped it into a soft pillow case and laid it over her to help her stay asleep.
Today, Bella sleeps with a weighted blanket. These blankets can be very pricey, as a quality-made one for a decent price is hard to find. I ended up purchasing the Brookstone Weighted Blanket from Bed Bath & Beyond. If you add on their monthly 20% coupon code, it will make the purchase worth the nights of uninterrupted sleep.
Bella also enjoys my husband Peter giving her a whole-body hug. When Bella receives this deep pressure, she laughs uncontrollably and goes into complete relaxation. Bella’s occupational therapist recommended us to purchase a thoracolumbar sacral orthoses made by a company called SPIO. I like to call this a Spanx-vest made for kids. Bella wears this vest under her clothing when she is doing physical activity for a long period of time in a large open space. She also wears this vest when she exits the swimming pool. This vest helps keep her sensorily organized, which in return allows her to control her gross motor movements to attend, learn, and behave to the best of her ability. If you have a good healthcare plan, you will probably be able to get this item covered as medical equipment.
When Bella was still learning how to walk, her occupational therapist introduced us to Therapeutic Listening. Therapeutic Listening is a specific sound-based intervention that is embedded in a developmental and sensory integration perspective. Specialized headphones are used to play music that give Bella unique and precisely controlled sensory information. The music for this therapy is electronically modified to highlight the parts of the sound spectrum that naturally capture attention and activate body movement, synchronizing it with the environment. Our therapist selected a specific progression of albums based on Bella’s challenges with understanding how to control her gross motor movements. Here is a picture of Bella at age 3, listening to her therapeutic listening tracks as she was playing with Petie.
When Bella’s service dog Kadence joined our family, she was having a difficult time regulating her energy levels as she was very excited to have a 4-legged furry friend. She was overly active and unable to stay in a calm state, thus making it challenging for her to bond with Kadence. We decided to reach out to our therapist again, and she was able to prescribe us listening tracks to promote her to sit down for a snuggle with Kadence. Within a few days Bella was able to sit for 5 continuous minutes with Kadence by her side.
Bella presents different forms of self-stimulating behaviour, or commonly known as stimming. In people with autism, stimming can be such a habit that they’re not even aware they are doing it. For example, when Bella is very excited, her screams are accompanied with her walking on her toes while twirling her body and clapping/flapping her hands. Looking at bright lights, such as the sun or a pot light through the corner of her eye is very pleasing to her. She also enjoys banging her homemade sensory bottles and looking up close as they spin.
Bella also stims from looking through fences and small openings. She has a routine every time she enters her school, where she takes a minute to rock back and forth while looking between the grates of the radiator.
I don’t believe in suppressing Bella’s need to stim. I believe this is her way to calm herself down. Here is a VLOG to showcase some of Bella’s favourite sensory toys along with our DIY sensory boards.
Check out these stores to help build your own sensory playground.
All through trial and error, I continue to learn strategies to feed Bella’s sensory diet. It is important to respect a child’s sensory integration needs, as I hope this post gave you some sensory-smarts to help you be a little creative!