When I was a little girl, long before I knew I had ADHD, I was considered a difficult child. I was anxious and upset a lot of the time, but for no good reason, according to the adults around me. Certain triggers set off my anguish and panic. Getting my hair washed and dried; taking children’s aspirin, which, to me, tasted like sewer water; walking on grass or sand without shoes; going to the dentist.
SPD and ADHD
What my parents didn't know at the time was that I had ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a neurological condition that makes it hard to process and act on information received from the senses. For some children with SPD, information reaching the senses feels like an assault of competing stimuli. For others, outside stimuli are dulled, as if a shade has been pulled over the environment, muting sights, sounds, and touch. These children crave extra stimulation to feel alive.
Most children with SPD display elements of both extremes, suffering from sensory overload at some times, seeking stimulation at others. It's not difficult to see how the symptoms — distractibility, the need for intense activity, problems with social interactions — could seem like ADHD.
We now know that many children with ADHD also suffer from SPD. Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., director of the Sensory Processing Treatment and Research Center, in Denver, Colorado, has found that "more than half of children suspected to have ADHD had SPD or both conditions."
What about your child? Does your son hate the feeling of being sprayed by water in the shower or gag when brushing his teeth? Does your daughter feel overwhelmed in noisy places or avoid certain foods because of their texture?
My daughter, who has ADHD (and other challenges), struggled with many of these sensory assaults when she was younger. As a parent, it is a challenge to deal with your child's daily upsets. It's even more difficult for the child, who can't explain the discomfort, and, in some cases, the horror, of these sensory struggles.
What to Do
Many professionals recommend getting a diagnosis by a pediatrician or doing occupational therapy — the earlier, the better. Treatment may include a "sensory diet," in which the child is slowly introduced to activities in a gentle, fun way, in order to get used to a range of sensations. A child who gags on a toothbrush, for example, might practice having his lips massaged gently.
Parents can also try these strategies:
> For the hyperactive, sensory-seeking child, have him help you carry the laundry basket, push the shopping cart, and bring in the grocery bags from the car.
> For the tactile-sensitive child, try finger-painting activities at the kitchen table. Bring shaving cream into the bathtub and let him draw pictures on the walls. Fill a plastic bin with dry beans or rice and hide small toys in it for her to discover.
> For children terrified of loud noises, have a rain dance party. Bring out the pots and have them create their own thunder. This works especially well during a thunderstorm. Ask your child to "beat the thunder first," or to bang louder than the thunder.
> Prepare the foods that a child dislikes in new ways. If the texture of cooked peas is unbearable, mash them and put them in stews or a meatloaf.
> If your child chokes when swallowing a pill, have her practice with tiny candies. If the sweet gets stuck in her throat, it will melt quickly and reward her with a pleasant flavor.
> If your child has a poor sense of space and balance, try swimming, horseback riding, or jumping on a trampoline.
> For oral sensitivities, give your child sugarless gum or chewy, healthy treats (make sure to brush teeth afterward or, at least, rinse with water). Have him suck up thick shakes through a straw to stimulate oral movement.
> If your child is driven crazy by labels sewn inside her clothing, buy tops and pants without them. Soft Clothing manufactures tagless items with flat seams that are specially washed to feel natural against the skin.
> After baths or showers, give your child a rubdown, which will calm him down.
> Have your child paint himself with kid-friendly body paint and then scrub it off.
Most children won't outgrow SPD, but the symptoms can be managed with appropriate treatment. My daughter's symptoms are barely noticeable these days. She handles noisy outings by wearing large headphones. She either listens to music on her iPod or simply blocks out the noise. Her meltdowns are rare, and our relationship has improved beyond words. She is much happier and calmer than ever before. I am, too.