Month: September 2018

It’s a Sensory World

So I was that kid, the clumsy kid, shins always bruised, chewing on my shirt sleeves, always grubby. I didn’t learn to write my own name until I was in year 2. I can remember begging my best friend to tell me how to spell it just one last time. I promised I would remember it this time ….

My memory of my preschool is the scratchy hessian under our sheets on the cots we used for nap time.

In year 5 I changed schools and went suddenly from the bottom of the class to the top of the class. I ultimately graduated high school with Dux in 2 subjects and an excellent result allowing me to attend an excellent university in the degree of my choice.

The new school had far fewer resources, in fact, the teacher was absent for most of the year and was replaced by volunteers. There was no playground, a sad comparison to the extensive, age-appropriate, multi-level playgrounds of my previous school, so large it seemed like parkland to my small eyes. The new school’s playground was the car park of the church built beside the school.

In reflection, the only thing I could identify that changed in my favour was the school uniform. My previous school was a private ladies college and our uniform included a tie, beret, and a blazer. All irritating and scratchy. Wearing the tie meant I spent much of the day feeling like I was choking. The new school had a loose cotton dress and I flourished.

There’s many stories I could share with you of how the different way my body seemed to process sensory information impacted on my life, how I would carefully select the pen I used in high school because of how it felt on my fingers when writing, how if the edge of the bed sheet came up and exposed the mattress I couldn’t sleep. How I cut open the neck on the brand new skivvies that my mother had brought me (that went down well you can imagine!)

As I grew older and wanted to fit in I experimented on myself and trained myself to wear sunglasses standing in the kitchen in front of the microwave timer ticking down until I had worn the glasses for 30 seconds, then building up eventually to 5 minutes when I felt I could then continue to increase the time without the timer. I gradually learnt to tolerate wearing a hat and how used an odd strategy involving jelly and green peas (it’s a long story!) to learn how to swallow tablets when I was a university student.

How even as an adult a ticking clock or drip would keep me awake for hours, how smelling the artificial air purifier at my workplace felt like someone had physically hit me in the face every time it sprayed and caused migraines by the end of the day.

How I decorated my apartment with white walls and cream curtains because my workplace was so visually over stimulating my eyes felt like they were aching when I got home. How the skin on the back of my hands used to irritate me when I typed.

Now I work with young children who experience similar differences in the way their bodies take in and interpret the complicated symphony of sensory input that washes over us daily.

The difference is I can see how in so many instances these sensory processing differences have been an advantage. Sensitive hearing, sensitive smell, sensitive tastes would have protected my family or my tribe from many calamities in a simpler time.

The heavy work of the lifestyle we lived not that long ago would have dulled some of the sensitivity I was feeling, things like carrying armloads of wood, carrying buckets of water, digging in a garden, using a washing board or a mangle during laundry. Now in our push-button, largely sedentary world there is little “heavy work” that might take the edge off my over active tactile system.

That being said I can without much reflection identify a few practical things this has helped me with including this such as I am always able to detect when food is just about to start to burn, have saved many meals and in a few instances I have adverted a fire (Not my cooking!)

I can hear the electrical hum in devices and know they aren’t turned off (in a time before modern switchboards this could have been a lifesaver).

I am always the first person in the room to hear and react to the baby crying, I have saved people from drowning by being able to spot the change in the visual pattern of the swimmers while working as a lifeguard and swimming teacher.

I won a competitive job application based on my visual processing skills, I have found so much money dropped on the floor over the years it’s ridiculous!

These differences have been a major advantage in so many instances in my life. I remember when I realised not everyone saw everything the way I did and I walked into a room choosing to ignore things and wondering how it felt to live like this all of the time.

To the parent who is worried about their sensory child, I would say, it’s not necessarily the sensory stuff that’s the issue so much as anxiety and the self-esteem your child has that has the biggest impact on them.

I can remember walking home from work one day as an adult and I decided, I made an active decision to be confident. This was after a lifetime of not knowing why everything seemed that much harder for me compared to other children.

I was fortunate to stumble by accident into occupational therapy after I had finished my undergraduate degree. After completing the master’s degree again it was fortunate that my first job was with a clinic that sent me to complete post-graduate training in sensory processing disorder.

That was when I finally saw I ticked all the boxes for sensory processing disorder (SPD) 2 years later when I was at a conference to learn a treatment protocol for sensory sensitivity and followed it strictly myself and I saw and felt the change in myself.

Unfortunately, sensory processing disorder is not yet officially recognised in the diagnostic manuals this means that research into treatments is poorly funded.

Understanding of just how many children and adults experience the world in this slightly different way is poorly understood and both children and adults who have these differences are left with vague a sense of there being something wrong or different but not really being able to put it into words.

So, parents, I will tell you that if your child has sensory sensitivities it does improve as they get older largely because as you get older you have choice and control.

You can provide this to your child now.

My wardrobe consists primarily of brushed cotton fabrics. Fortunately, now more clothing companies are producing clothes without tags and even seamless clothes.

Allowing your child to make decisions such as which scent for shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste (they even have taste free now), fabrics for clothes can greatly help your child by allowing them to chose which is more easy for them to tolerate. I have noticed many people find artificial scents difficult to tolerate, not just people with sensory processing differences. I have found quality natural scents such as essential oils easy to tolerate in comparison to air fresheners or laundry detergent fragrances.

Providing choices to your child doesn’t have to be a major chore. Once you know your child’s preferences for things like toiletries and fabric styles it will get easier.

If your child is sensitive to sound there is a lot you can do. For example, use a digital clock in your house, turn off all devices that aren’t being used at the wall. Remember just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean your child can’t hear it.

Just knowing that your child’s experience of the world is a little different – a little more or less like your experience can be helpful. Your child’s self-esteem can be built to encourage them to participate in things that interest them and build on their strengths. Additional support to overcome challenges and achieve their individual goals can help them to keep up with their peers.

This is my personal experience. Every child’s experience of the sensory world is going to be different.

If you think you or your child might have differences in the way they take in or process sensory information that is impacting on their development or learning I encourage you to contact the Occupational Therapy Association in your area. They will be able to provide you with a list of occupational therapists practising in your area.

If you would like to read more about this topic you can see my #SensoryAwareness series over at www.otworld.com.au

If your child school-aged child is experiencing meltdowns and tantrums you can access my free short course at www.sensorymadefun.com/freecourse

Coffee as Self Care

On just about any mother’s group or social media page you will see memes and jokes about wine and coffee time. We are all joking about surviving on caffeine during the day and drinking wine to relax (to wind down so we can sleep) at night.

While we are all joking about our caffeine addictions I want to ask you, can you actually name one truly nourishing thing you have done for yourself today? This week? This month?

Self care for mothers is often a major challenge. Now when I say “mother’s” I’m an occupational therapist, we like to talk about roles so if you’re in the “mother” role this includes you!

When you find yourself grabbing that lukewarm coffee, chugging it down and call that “me” time, we have a major problem. I’m a mum of 4. I am in the lukewarm cup of tea/coffee stage. I get time to make it but most of the time there’s not even time to sit down and drink it. When it comes to self-care it’s a “what’s that?” response for the most part. It’s hard to get to the bathroom on your let along have some peace an quiet for meditation or reading or any of the other things I’d like to make time to do.
Nourish your soul

I have 4 children. I have to make a conscious decision to model to my children how they can perform the role of “parent”. Does that mean overworking myself until I am left in a state of loneliness and exhaustion? No. If I model this how will my children become parents who practice self-care?

Self care can be uncomfortable like going for your dental check up, pap smear, or having that uncomfortable conversation where you establish a much needed boundary in your life.

So for those overwhelmed parents out there; I ask, “What do you believe self care would look like for you?” I’m going to share some aspects of self care that come up for me as a mother of 4 young children.

Eating nourishing foods? How can I make that easy? Is there a way I can do some preparation in advance? Is there a way I can make shopping easier? Do I have long forgotten devices in the cupboard that make meal preparation, fresh food storage or cooking easier or faster?

Being outdoors in nature? Where can I go? When can I go? If you are in an apartment is there a park you can visit? If you literally can’t find a garden or park put some pot plants on your window sill it’s a step in the right direction. Book it into your schedule weekly, daily if possible. If nothing else making sure you are exposed to some sunlight each day can help you feel good.

Social contact? Having social connections with your community is essential for well being. This includes those loose connections between people that just recognise you. Humans need in-person contact, not just contact over social media. If you work from home you may need to build going out into your community as a way of building these connections. Volunteering can be a great way to build a connection with your community.

Bathing? If you’re in a stage of your life where your feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed even managing to have a shower or bath can become a major challenge. You may need to put it on your to do list, you may find playing music helps, setting a time limit — just one minute then I’m done and build it up to the time frame you enjoy.

Clean House? Cleaning as self care? Really? You ask. Some studies have been completed that have shown reducing clutter helps improve mood. Minimalism may not be for you but having a cluttered messy house is overwhelming. Setting a cleaning routine can be helpful so you don’t have to think about it as much. Flylady.com greatly helped me when I first moved out of home and had to start learning how to manage my own home. I really love how she says, “you can’t clean clutter”.

If you’re feeling really overwhelmed in this department you may find great pleasure in hiring a cleaner and using that time to do some other self care tasks like cooking a meal ahead, exercising, calling a friend, reading a great book or something you’ve been putting off for a while (we all have that mental to do list)

Journaling? It might be as simple as writing down your mental to-do lists, or writing down all your worries and tearing up the paper. I have been completing a quick daily gratitude exercise over the last 2 months and I have found it immensely beneficial and it helped me keep things in perspective.

Music? We all have our favourite songs that make us laugh or cry, making time to listen to music can be a great way to boost your mood but often we get so busy we forget to enjoy this simple pleasure.

Exercise? This is my biggest challenge personally. As someone who is always trying to do multiple things at once I like to walk for errands, but going for a walk around the block? I find that uninspiring, that’s where music can help, YouTube has thousands (if not more) exercise videos. For me personally I love the fun of going to a boxing for fitness class, they have great music, I get social connection with the other class regulars and the instructor and of course it’s a great workout.

Is there any way you can make including exercise in your day any easier? Sleeping in your yoga gear? Having a packed gym bag in your car?

Exercise is essential, we all know that, but it greatly boosts your mood and when completed at the right intensity for your fitness level has massive health benefits. Talk to your GP about what exercises would be appropriate for you, especially if it’s been a while or if you have health conditions.

Sleep? Mother’s often talk almost competitively about how little sleep they get. It is taken for granted that a new baby will be disrupting sleep but older children wake during the night too. Many parents find that it’s been years since they slept through the night uninterrupted.

Chronic sleep deprivation can affect your mood, it has health effects too. While there isn’t a lot we can do about the young people in our lives waking us up we can develop evening habits that promote sleep for both them and ourselves.

Exercise can help with sleep but you may find exercising different times of the day helps you sleep while another time of the day wakes you up and makes it difficult for you to fall asleep. So it is worth experimenting with the timing.

Some people find a bath before bed helps them sleep, others report a cool bedroom helps.

Avoiding screen time in the evening is one habit. Easier said than done I hear you say! Audiobooks, music, games (not on a device but actual games), reading is a nice way to unwind without losing hours of time on a device.

There is now some technology to help reduce the effects of the screen light on sleep and over time this will no doubt continue to improve however this does not reduce the mental stimulation that occurs when accessing social media, doing online shopping or checking emails. Sleep experts repeatedly encourage people to leave their devices out of the bedroom.

Meditation or breathing exercises can help you fall asleep. If you find you are unable to fall asleep regularly I would recommend speaking to your GP who may recommend different options, for example, counselling, based on the possible causes.

Difficulty sleeping? This is where that over reliance on caffeine to get through the day really starts to take effect. If you have difficulty winding down and falling asleep in the evening, cutting back on that coffee and switching to a herbal tea or a cool glass of water could greatly help you. I know on the days when I’ve had too many coffees I have trouble getting a good nights sleep.

Having an evening routine that helps your children and yourself get a good nights sleep can be the simplest and best self-care you could do in your day.

I invite you to ask your self some questions about your self care. Are there things you are missing in your life? Can you identify some ways you can make it easier for these things to happen? Do you have something you look forward to in your life? Can you make self care on the “path of least resistance”? I encourage you to see how you can make self care easier to do in your day.Nourish your soul