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HOW TO HELP AN OVER-RESPONSIVE CHILD

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by Jennifer Jo Brout, Psy.D.

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Imagine if something as harmless as a song on the radio, the smell of pizza wafting from the oven, or somebody accidentally brushing against you readied you for a fight, and you could not flee nor calm down.  Imagine what a struggle it would be to stay composed and get through a day!

   My daughter, Lilly, suffers from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD (formerly referred to as Sensory Integration Dysfunction) is an umbrella term describing different subtypes of a brain-based condition in which individuals process sensory information atypically. Lilly has problems modulating the intensity of sensory stimuli, and is over-responsive. This means that she reacts adversely to certain stimuli that others find harmless, or may not even notice. When she hears sounds such as the continued hum of an air conditioner or the repetitive tapping of a pencil, Lilly becomes so irritated that she eventually explodes or cries, or both.


   Atypical sensory processing may be a symptom of other developmental disorders such as Autism and Asperger’s, but it also exists independently.  Studies estimate that SPD affects at least five percent of school-age children in the United States. Yet because this disorder has been treated mainly within the field of occupational therapy, both the medical community and the public have very little information about it. As a result, over-responsive children are frequently misdiagnosed and are even prescribed medications that are wrong for them.

   Feeling continually bombarded by stimuli, SPD children experience unpredictable patterns of physiological over-arousal, anxious feelings, and mood instability. The resulting emotional dysregulation can impair a child’s functioning, causing even pleasurable activities such as play, school and family living to be difficult or unbearable. Because over-responsive children feel so “out of control” some react by seeking as much control as they can in particular environments, manifesting as bossiness or stubbornness.  Other children avoid situations that they fear and often appear withdrawn or anxious. Many children display characteristics of stubbornness, withdrawal and anxiety, and their reactions vary from context to context and over time. Due to the lack of general knowledge of the nature of this disorder, these children are often difficult to identify and understand.

   Many psychologists thought Lilly’s issues were behavioral, not physiological. Over-responsive children react with more intensity and are unable to calm down as quickly as others because the branch of the nervous system meant to subdue their responses takes longer to kick in. Lilly was not "behaving badly", but the perceptions of her behavior that is caused by her disorder are an ongoing challenge that can only be lessened by wider understanding of SPD.

Resources:
Positive Solutions of NY: positivesolutionsny.com
The EMB Brout Sensory Processing and Emotion Regulation Program at Duke University: Dukescience.org
The SPD Foundation: KIDFoundation.org
 
Jennifer Jo Brout, Ed.M., Psy.D., of Scarsdale, is the mother of 13-year-old triplets and writes a quarterly column, Ask the School Psychologist.  She launched Positive Solutions of New York in 2006, and founded the EMB Brout Sensory Processing and Emotion Regulation Program at Duke University, where doctors study how sensory processing impacts mental health. Dr. Brout is on the Board of Directors at the SPD Foundation and the Advisory Board of Mothers of Supertwins (MOST). She is a parenting expert for iparenting.com. For more information, go to www.positivesolutionsny.com.


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