A Different Kind of Normal: Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

The past few months have been quite a revelation for us as we have realised that Lara has a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder.  She has always had strong reactions to certain textures or types of noise; has always hated having her hair brushed or her nails cut; and despite being able to use the potty or toilet effectively, still chooses to wear nappies.  The reason for this is SPD which is a kind of miswiring of the senses, if you will, and results in things that are perfectly OK to most of us being a source of perceived physical pain for her.

At the same time a certain pitch or level of noise can cause her to feel anxious so she may make noises to drown it out, or if she is feeling stressed and it is too quiet, she may make noises to cope.  She is beginning to be able to explain this part to us, which is pretty impressive as she is not yet 5!  For example, she hates the noise of coffee machines in places like Costa, but loves going there, so she has worked out that the machine noise is her trigger and now chooses to sit well away from the machine and will make a noise over the top of it, hold and squeeze my hand, or even chew my fingers as a coping mechanism.  As she gets older I am sure Lara will work out other ways she can manage her big feelings, and we are busily learning ways we can help her to cope too.

As a result of the SPD, Lara can also have problems with transitioning from one thing to another, leaving places, saying goodbye etc, and this can result in monumental screaming meltdowns, or at the other extreme some severely introverted behaviour.

Some of Lara's triggers include:

  • the sensory overload of the supermarket;
  • people preparing to leave/saying goodbye;
  • plans being changed or cancelled;
  • things not working how she wants them to, e.g. a toy not standing up;
  • not being able to do things immediately, e.g. learning to ride a bike, but other times she will persevere, e.g. with swimming lessons;
  • leaving a place/things coming to an end;
  • transitioning from one activity to another;
  • new places or people;
  • being somewhere too busy or crowded;
  • certain noises, or being too quiet;
  • certain textures of fabric, e.g. raffia trims, faux fur.

But one of the points of SPD is its unpredictability so there are no definites, there is no one way that works to alleviate or prevent her reactions, and it can happen quite out of the blue or for seemingly no reason.  Many people will, and do, view her behaviour as being 'spoilt' or 'naughty' but all of this is, at the moment, beyond Lara's control.  Often she doesn't even realise she is doing it, or why, and she is just a tiny little girl struggling with a lot of weird feelings that she is beginning to realise are a bit different to other people's.

The reactions of the good old general public don't help either with helpful comments about home ed obviously not working (i.e. she's not an obedient, docile automaton type of child), or being "glad she's not one of mine!" or that she "just needs a good smack".  Hmm, nice, and of course very helpful.  Quite frankly I have no desire for any of my children to be obedient, quiet, biddable etc, I love that they have strong personalities and stand up for themselves and what they want or believe.  It may mean we don't have a quiet home, but amen to that!  It would be nice if people kept their judgments to themselves, or didn't make them in the first place, after all there are lots of children with SPD and other 'invisible' conditions out there.  In fact, SPD is thought to affect up to 20% of the population!  That kind of makes it normal, hey?

Recently Lara has not been invited to some birthday parties and other events, perhaps because of her slightly different behaviour, which really upsets me, and her.  Yes, she can react a little differently sometimes, but she is just a normal little girl.  We are coping with SPD as best we can, and learning all the time.  We have already made some huge steps, like Lara now letting us brush her hair, and her being able to cope with the sound of the hoover without making noise over the top, so I am very proud of my little girl.  If other people choose not to bother with us then so be it.

Lara is just a normal, happy, exuberant little girl, but sometimes things can be hard for her, and SPD is why.  But she's no different to many, it's just a different kind of normal occasionally.  And as a dear friend just said:

"There's no such thing as normal my lovely, just some people are more common than others. Thank God we're not common."