Tag

sensory stimuli

A Halloween for Those with Sensory Challenges

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Julie Robinson, OT
Director of Clinical Services; Occupational Therapist, NESCA

Halloween – a holiday full of tricks and treats. For some children, getting in the Halloween spirit by getting dressed up, carving pumpkins, and going trick-or-treating with friends is what they look forward to all year. For others, dressing up in an itchy costume, not being able to see someone’s face because they are wearing a spooky mask, being out in the dark with crowds of noisy trick-or-treaters, carving pumpkins and having to touch the oooey goooey insides of a pumpkin, and seeing decorations that make sudden noises or movements may make this holiday overwhelming for these children. Halloween can be tricky for families with children living with sensory processing difficulties, but with some creativity and planning ahead, families can build their toolboxes with their own tricks to combat the challenges that come with Halloween so their child can enjoy the treats that Halloween has to offer.

Here are some tricks for some common challenges that Halloween brings up:

Prepare for the day

Have an open discussion with your child about the traditions and activities associated with Halloween. You can read Halloween-themed books or watch Halloween movies (perhaps not the really scary ones!) to prepare your child for what to expect, because the anticipation of a new routine or anticipation of participating in unfamiliar activities can cause stress on a child. Discuss the plan for Halloween regarding decorations, attending parties, going trick-or-treating, etc., ahead of time so the child knows what to expect when celebrating the holiday. Consider the use of a visual picture schedule with activities that may be added into your typical routine. Provide ample warnings for transitions, when possible, to give your child time to move from one activity to another.

Be creative and imaginative with your child’s costume

The most important aspect of a costume for a child with sensory processing difficulties is ensuring that the costume is comfortable. Certain costume material may be itchy or scratchy, costumes with masks may occlude a child’s vision or be too tight on their head, or make-up may smell off-putting to a child. Children should have the opportunity to try on their costume when walking, sitting, and reaching for things before wearing it for real to make sure they are comfortable moving around in it. It is important to remember the idea of “less is more” and to use your imagination when coming up with costume ideas. For example, if a child wants to be a superhero, consider attaching a superhero logo to the front of a shirt they wear regularly rather than having your child wear a full superhero one-piece costume that may be itchy, tight, and hot.

Choose activities that best fit your child’s sensory needs

Meaningful participation in Halloween festivities doesn’t just include carving pumpkins and going trick-or-treating. Halloween activities can include roasting pumpkin seeds, setting out the candy bowl for trick-or-treaters, doing Halloween-themed crafts, etc. It is important for you to pick activities that best fit your child’s sensory needs. For example, if your child dislikes carving pumpkins because they have to touch the messy pumpkin insides, consider having your child paint their pumpkin or decorate it with stickers instead or make a pumpkin out of paper to decorate. If you and your child really want to go trick-or-treating but your child becomes overwhelmed with noisy crowds, consider trick-or-treating on only quiet side streets, or limit your time, allowing for breaks in between. If your child becomes overwhelmed with flashing lights, loud noises, or scary decorations, consider doing a drive-by of the neighborhood before taking your child out for trick-or-treating so you know which houses to avoid. For some children who crave a great deal of movement, it may be useful to engage in some heavy work activity before participating in a Halloween activity: wall push-ups, yoga poses, carrying weighty objects, for example. It may also be useful to engage in calming sensory activity to ease the transition from a busy setting back into the house: tactile materials like playdough or putty, water play, or a sensory table may be worth trying, or consider making a play tent or fort with quiet books or puzzles, or drawing to smooth the transition.

Monitor for overstimulation

Knowing when your child has had enough of Halloween festivities is just as important as knowing how to get your child engaged in them. A child may not be overstimulated at first, but may become overwhelmed minutes later. It is important to give your child choices of activities and next steps they can take as well as alerting your child about the sequence of events and the timeframe of events so that they know what to expect. If possible, help your child learn to advocate for themselves by saying things like, “please don’t touch me,” or “no thank you, I don’t want wear that,” in order to give them some autonomy over the activities that they participate in. However, in situations where this isn’t possible, it is important as the parent to know when to stop or disengage from festivities when sensory overload occurs and return home or to a quieter, more familiar space to give the child time to decompress.

Resources:

Enjoying Halloween With Sensory Challenges. (2021). Aota.org. https://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Patients-Clients/ChildrenAndYouth/halloween-sensory.aspx?fbclid=IwAR23ux4OKqJmXEZdnCIzb2_Uh0of55YKuCf8ek97UEAc1jZflndR_ZEBRwM

Morin, A. (2019, August 5). Halloween Challenges for Kids With Sensory Processing Issues and How to Help. Understood.org; Understood. https://www.understood.org/articles/en/halloween-challenges-for-kids-with-sensory-processing-issues-and-how-to-help

5 Ways to Help Children with Sensory Challenges Participate in Halloween Festivities. (2021). Aota.org. https://www.aota.org/Publications-News/ForTheMedia/PressReleases/2019/102419-Halloween-Tips-Sensory-Challenges.aspx

 

About the Author

Julie Robinson is an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician. The work Julie does is integral to human development, wellness and a solid family unit. She particularly enjoys supporting families through the process of adoption and in working with children who are victims of trauma. Julie has extensive experience working with children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or who have learning or emotional disabilities. She provides services that address Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and self-regulation challenges, as well as development of motor and executive functioning skills.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services or other clinical therapies, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

The Safe and Sound Protocol: Increase Self-regulation and Decrease Sound Sensitivity

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Julie Robinson, OT
Director of Clinical Services; Occupational Therapist, NESCA

NESCA is excited to announce that we now offer our clients the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP)—a therapeutic listening program, designed to increase self-regulation and decrease sensitivity to sound. This new service is provided through our occupational therapy (OT) department and is facilitated by either Julie Robinson or Maddie Girardi, both of whom have been trained and certified in its administration. The process begins with an initial phone intake with Julie, who will help you determine if the program is a good fit for you as an adult, or your child. For new patients, we always initiate the program in the office for two to three visits. After this point, (if it seems feasible), you can transition to a home program. If not, we can continue through direct office visits until the program has been completed. In addition, we can offer the program as part of an existing OT treatment protocol.

Who is SSP appropriate for?

SSP is appropriate for anyone over two years of age through adulthood, who has the capacity to listen to music with over-the-ear headphones. It is ideal for patients on the autism spectrum, or individuals with sound sensitivity, sensory processing disorders, or difficulty with self-regulation. It can be used to facilitate more frequent calm and settled states of arousal for those under stress, or who have experienced trauma. It has been also observed to improve sleep and even feeding patterns in some of our clients who have difficulty in those areas. We have seen this carry over into improved behavioral control, independence, and focus in completing daily routines and academic work, as well as more availability for social interactions.

What if my child cannot tolerate wearing headphones?

Your OT will work with you to find an appropriate pair. In our experience, most children can learn to wear headphones with a bit of gentle coaxing and positive reinforcement. Sometimes we need to start with music, outside of the listening program, that a child is already interested in. Other times, we can start right in with the program and, bit by bit, build up increased tolerance.

What type of music is played in the program?

All programs are offered with both children’s music (common tunes from TV or movies, such as Disney programming) as well as adult-oriented songs (pop music or classical music).

NESCA offers two programs, each described below:

  • SSP CORE—This is the basic listening program, appropriate for most patients who are program, and what most individuals are ready to start with. This program has been used since 2017 as a mechanism to reduce stress and auditory sensitivity. It consists of a five-hour long listening protocol, that can be done ideally across five one-hour or 10 half-hour sessions, depending on tolerance levels. For some of our clients who cannot tolerate it as easily, listening sessions can be even shorter in duration. For clients who tolerate it well, and would be compliant, it can also be delivered as a home program after initial set-up through a clinician. It presents music that has been acoustically modified based on a specific algorithm that triggers physiological states of safety and trust. Calming the physiological state helps to promote social engagement and self-regulation, and further therapy can be enhanced or even accelerated. It has music with high frequency sounds gradually filtered in, allowing for slow and steady desensitization to auditory stimuli. It is suited for those who are accustomed to listening to music with headphones, those with subtle sound sensitivities, or those with general difficulties with self-regulation.
  • SSP CONNECT—SSP CONNECT is intended to be used as a less demanding introduction and foundation to the SSP CORE program, specifically for those who are not yet used to headphones, or who do not tolerate filtered sounds well. There is a classical music playlist—one for adults and another for children. It can be used for individuals who are highly sound sensitive, or very young listeners without high frequency filtering to get them ready for the CORE program. It also has five hours of listening time and is intended for use before the SSP CORE program, therefore resulting in a total of 10 hours of active listening time. The SSP CONNECT program should yield a sense of safety with the listening process and expectancy of what is to come next. It is important for the therapist and client to establish a strong rapport, with since there is a good deal of support from the clinician.

If you are interested in talking with a clinician who can determine if this would be a good fit for you or your child, please contact Julie Robinson, OT, Director of Clinical Services, at: jrobinson@nesca-newton.com.

 

About the Author

Julie Robinson is an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician. The work Julie does is integral to human development, wellness and a solid family unit. She particularly enjoys supporting families through the process of adoption and in working with children who are victims of trauma. Julie has extensive experience working with children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or who have learning or emotional disabilities. She provides services that address Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and self-regulation challenges, as well as development of motor and executive functioning skills.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services or other clinical therapies, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Is It Sensory? Or Is It Behavior?

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Julie Robinson, OT
Director of Clinical Services; Occupational Therapist, NESCA

As parents or other caregivers of children with special needs, we can often find ourselves confused between what is a sensory response and what is behavior. Although this is often a complex question, and one without a straightforward answer, there are some tools of the trade that OTs use to help us determine just what is going on with these children. What makes this so complex is that each child is an individual, with their own unique ways of responding to sensory stimuli, to social interactions, and when out in varied settings in their community or with family. Children may also present differently from minute to minute or day to day, depending on sleep, hunger, and fluctuations in mood. But we can often look closely for patterns that may help to guide us in finding the answers.

When working with a child who seems to be in a meltdown, one of the best things you can do is take a quick scan of the environment. Is there a loud or distracting sound in the background? Did someone touch the child unexpectedly? Is the overall environment too busy and overstimulating, such as at party or a restaurant? Sometimes just naming or removing the stimuli, if possible, is enough to help get things back under control. If you know a triggering situation might arise that provokes a meltdown, see if you can give the child a warning and a plan of where to go for comfort. “We will be having a fire drill in 10 minutes, so when it happens you can hold _____’s hand, or we can get you some headphones to cover your ears to make you more comfortable” is one example. Find something soothing from a sensory perspective to help the child settle: a quiet corner with books, some tactile play or fidgets, calming music, a tight squeeze ( but only if tolerated and given permission to do so ). If you know you are entering a highly stimulating environment, it may be best to go in for short periods, with frequent breaks built in for your child every 10 minutes or so to take a walk, use the bathroom, or get a drink.

If you do not see something sensory in your environment creating the discomfort or the meltdown, then behavior and emotions are more likely at play. You child may feel confused about a social interaction, about expectations, or what may be coming next in a transition. Your child may feel a lack of confidence or anxiety in a situation, that although may be seemingly simple and straight forward to you, may not to him or to her. An academic task may feel misunderstood, and not knowing how to start can result in a meltdown for many of our children.

When you see that the child you are caring for is beginning to ramp up, that is the best time to intervene. Once a meltdown has begun, language processing will be limited, and the child may not be reachable for a period of time in order to settle down. The best thing you can do in those moments, is to help the child to stop. I often use a stop sign to hold up in my therapy sessions, that cues the child to take a quick break from interacting with me when I see things starting to spin out of control. I limit my language, provide a calming sensory activity, then we can talk about the upset once I have the child back in my court.

Here are some things to think about and questions you might ask yourself to help guide your interactions and expectations when you, as the adult, are confused about whether this is sensory or behavior:

  1. What are the undesirable behaviors that my child observes when he or she is upset or uncomfortable? Are they different when there is sensory discomfort, in comparison to when he or she is upset with a person or a demand? Notice quality of voice, bodily tension, inability to stay still or focused, aggression, flight or an attempt to get away, shutdown or inability to interact. You may start to see patterns in behavior when you look at them in relation to a sensory event or something that is more emotionally-laden.
  2. What occurred just before this behavior appeared? Was there a sensory distraction or discomfort or was he or she upset with a person or a demand?
  3. How did the child behave during this episode?
  4. How did adults or peers interact with my child during the episode? Did it calm the child, or make him or her more agitated?
  5. List sensations that may have triggered a meltdown: tactile, auditory, visual, smell, taste, movement. Were they loud, distracting, uncomfortable? Was the child in a space that may have been too small or too large? Was the child able to get away from the uncomfortable stimuli, or did he or she feel stuck in the moment?

It will be beneficial for team members to share information and write these things down, perhaps in a format of a journal, so that the team can work together to uncover the patterns, find strategies that are successful, and provide consistency across the board. We all know consistency for these children is one of the most effective tools for learning, and although it may take some extra work up front for caregivers, the pay off on the other side is often so rewarding that it is worth the effort.

If you would like to explore this topic further with NESCA OT Julie Robinson, join us for a free webinar on this topic on September 13, 2021 at 10:30 am ET. Register in advance for this webinar at:

https://nesca-newton.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_-edHNIwkRBKnjk0gq6-bUw

 

About the Author

Julie Robinson is an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician. The work Julie does is integral to human development, wellness and a solid family unit. She particularly enjoys supporting families through the process of adoption and in working with children who are victims of trauma. Julie has extensive experience working with children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or who have learning or emotional disabilities. She provides services that address Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and self-regulation challenges, as well as development of motor and executive functioning skills.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services or other clinical therapies, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Parenting Orchids and Dandelions

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Nancy Roosa, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

I recently evaluated a 15-year-old boy, who we’ll call Sam, whose parents brought him in due to some concerning new behaviors, including failing classes, disobeying his parents’ rules – particularly around curfew and technology use – and smoking marijuana on a daily basis. When meeting Sam, I was amazed at how engaging, polite and good-natured he was. It was hard to imagine this young man disobeying his parents and staying out all night, which he was also doing frequently.

Sam had grown up in an affluent and supportive family, the third of four children. The other three were, like their parents, easy-going, adaptable and successful – academically, socially and athletically. They were on the path to becoming independent and successful adults. Sam had always been a bit different. He was the child who had colic as an infant, sleep disturbances throughout childhood, separation anxiety at preschool, and extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli. His parents cut tags out of his clothes, bought him loose-fitting pants, and avoided birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s – or almost anywhere there would be crowds of loud children, as these situations could reduce Sam to tears.

When evaluating Sam, I was impressed by his intelligence, quick reasoning and solid academic skills.  There was nothing obvious that standard neuropsychology tests uncovered. But Sam was also open and articulate about his difficulties. He explained that he was easily overwhelmed – “jangled,” he called it – in social situations, in a fast-paced classroom or on an athletic field. When he started ninth grade in a challenging parochial school, he was faced with more stressful situations, academically and socially. He became extremely anxious about tests and lengthy homework assignments, so he fell behind academically and developed pretty serious school anxiety. Given his sensitive nature, he was particularly likely to struggle in a class where the teacher was, in his words, “too strict,” or even “mean.” He wasn’t successful enough socially or athletically to sustain his self-esteem in these areas, particularly compared to his talented siblings. He found himself becoming angry and anxious, and he started using marijuana to calm himself. As he described it, getting high was the only time he felt happy and relaxed.

Sam was clearly struggling, easily meeting criteria for an anxiety disorder and a substance use disorder.  But I wanted to explain some of the “why” behind his struggles, so, in talking to his parents, I relied on the explanation put forth by Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, in his book, Orchids and Dandelions: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. He explains that most children are like dandelions, born with sturdy, resilient temperaments so that they, like dandelions, grow and thrive wherever they land –  assuming there’s some minimal level of appropriate conditions. But about 20% of children are more like orchids. They are born with a very sensitive nervous system, which is highly attuned to all the stimulation in the world around them. Dr. Boyce found that for these children, lower levels of stress precipitated a full-fledged anxiety response, involving the release of stress hormones that create a Fight, Flight or Freeze response – an appropriate response for a life-threatening situation, but not much help when facing, say, a strict teacher or a hard test. These children are therefore much more likely to develop full-blown anxiety disorders. On the positive side, their high level of sensitivity to the world around them means they are typically very empathic and emotionally attuned. Like an orchid with careful nurturing, they will develop into exceptional adults.

Fortunately, many orchids do naturally gain resilience as they grow, according to Elaine Arons, Ph.D. In her book The Sensitive Child, she cites studies that find most children who are shy as preschoolers – suffering social and separation anxiety – will develop coping strategies and not appear shy by the time they reach school age. These orchids gain resilience without losing their sensitivity.

But this positive evolution requires good parenting. While dandelions do fine with the average “good-enough” mother, as famously defined by psychologist Donald Winnicott, orchids need parents to be just a bit better.

How does one do this? How can a well-meaning, good-enough parent help these orchids become better able to manage the squalls, large and small, that occur in any one’s life?

Fortunately, there is a wealth of research – contained in books and articles – on building resilience in children. Most emphasize that we need to allow children to struggle with challenges, even to the point of sometimes failing, so they learn that they can cope and succeed in the face of adversity. This message is clear from the title of several such books: e.g. The Blessing of the Skinned Knee: Using Timeless Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, by Wendy Mogel and The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

We also have a neurobiological explanation for this process. We know that continued exposure to a stressful situation allows the body to habituate and the terrible feelings – such as fear and panic – that accompany a stress response gradually recede. As this happens, the previously scary situation becomes routine, and the child’s self-confidence and willingness to tackle new risks grows. Every preschool teacher knows this. The crying child who is being left by his parents in an unfamiliar preschool will eventually calm down and start to enjoy himself. The process goes more quickly if parents calmly and confidently reassure the child, then leave. The parent who is also anxious, who hovers over the child, attempting to sooth his fears, only increases the child’s anxiety by sending the message that this IS a scary situation. This phenomenon was dramatically illustrated in a study by Susan Crockenberg and Esther Leerkes (Development and Psychopathology, 2006). They found that 6-month-old children had different levels of reactivity – or startle – in response to unfamiliar stimuli. These infants also showed differences in how much they tried to avoid the situation, versus distracting themselves while staying in the presence of the stimuli. Children with high reactivity and a tendency to withdraw from novel stimuli, along with parents who were less sensitive, were more likely to show high anxiety at 2.5 years of age. Exposure to challenge causes the body to habituate and builds resilience. Trying to avoid stressful situations only exacerbates fears.

However, this can be counterintuitive for parents of very sensitive children. In fact, the more attuned a parent is to his/her child’s sensitivity, the harder it becomes. Sam’s parents had always coddled him a bit more than their other children. Knowing that he didn’t like loud birthday parties, his mother tended to decline these invitations. When he became upset and started to cry at a soccer game, his father felt so sorry for him that he didn’t insist that Sam return the next week. This avoidance did not allow Sam to grow and master new situations, but instead narrowed his world.

This is not to say that Sam’s parents should have been less emotionally attuned. Rather, it’s important for parents of children like Sam to walk a fine line between exposing the child to moderate challenges that he can manage but do not overwhelm him. It’s also important that they stay calm themselves, empathizing with the child’s fears but reassuring him at the same time. Not an easy task.

Fortunately, Sam has many strengths, not the least of which are his sensitivity and his intelligence, as well as great artistic gifts. He also has a solid relationship with his parents, even though it has been quite strained of late. After our evaluation, Sam and his parents decided to place him in a therapeutic wilderness program so he could withdraw from daily pot use in a safe place and learn skills from therapists there, as well as learn from peers who were going through similar struggles. This coming year, he will not return to the challenging parochial school he attended for ninth grade and will instead start at an independent school that offers some academic supports and a flourishing arts program. Sam’s roots are well-established, and with a bit more awareness of the gifts and challenges inherent in his sensitive nature, he is expected to grow into a self-confident and resilient young man.

 

About the Author: 
Roosa

Dr. Roosa has been engaged in providing neuropsychological evaluations for children since 1997. She enjoys working with a range of children, particularly those with autism spectrum disorders, as well as children with attentional issues, executive function deficits, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or other social, emotional or behavioral problems. Her evaluations are particularly appropriate for children with complex profiles and those whose presentations do not fit neatly into any one diagnostic box. As part of this process, Dr. Roosa is frequently engaged in school visits, IEP Team Meetings, home observations and phone consultations with collateral providers. Dr. Roosa has also consulted with several area schools, either about individual children or about programmatic concerns. She speaks to parent or school groups, upon request.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.