Making Sense of Sensory Issues


Once upon a time, I thought sensory processing disorder (SPD) was something experienced by kids with autism spectrum disorders, causing them to dislike certain sounds, textures and lights. My misunderstanding became apparent when my own son showed signs of having sensory issues.

My son has sensory issues involving texture and sound. His sensory issues really became apparent when he was about two years old. When he encountered new textures like touching shaving cream or petting our dog, he would gag, cry and pull away, obviously repulsed. He would recoil when a new object was presented to him, especially if it was bumpy, slimy, moist or wiggly. Even now, when he hears certain noises – car engines, sirens, cows mooing, people applauding – he becomes very upset and overwhelmed. Richie’s auditory and textural sensory issues were preventing him from engaging with others. Surprised at how severe his reactions were, we embarked on a path to desensitize him to textures and sounds, assisted by his therapists and his Early Intervention Specialist. Conquering his textural sensory issues, they assured us, would not only help him to engage with the world, it would also help our efforts to get him to eat orally.

Sensory issues can stem from lack of exposure to various textures, noises and environments. Medically fragile at birth, Richie did not get the same types of environmental stimulation typical kids encounter. Since he doesn’t roll or crawl, he never had the experience of feeling the difference between carpet and tile under his hands and knees. His medical needs cause us to keep him in the home setting so he doesn’t get sick, but he also doesn’t see and touch and experience some aspects of the natural environment. Like other kids who are exclusively tube fed, he has oral aversions and feeding issues that are complicated by these sensory issues. After all, most of our first exposures to new textures are through our mouths. Mobility, medical needs, and exclusive tube feeding worked together to compound Richie’s sensory hypersensitivity. Understanding the reason behind his sensitivity was helpful.

To help Richie with his sensory issues, we started Texture Tuesdays, a family event that involves exposing our son to new textures at least once a week. We simply created new textural experiences and allowed him to use his hands, feet, and mouth to explore. He is sometimes reluctant to touch new things (okay, he downright refuses) , but persistence is key.

Some of the textures we experiment with are: 

  • cooked pasta, rice and grains
  • dry rice, beans, oatmeal and pasta
  • salsa, ketchup, mustard and other condiments
  • pudding, paint
  • wiggly, fuzzy or squishy toys
  • lotion, liquid soap, sugar scrub
  • crumpled paper, sandpaper, kinetic sand
  • ice, snow, dried grass and leaves, live grass and leaves, flowers, tree bark
  • oobleck, slime, homemade play dough and various other concoctions
  • common objects like curlers, rope, toothbrushes, hair brushes, sponges and pumice stones

We also began the Wilbarger brushing method with joint compression. The use of a small plastic brush with firm pressure on his skin surfaces allowed him to be more adventurous with textures. More on the Wilbarger Method

To deal with Richie’s issues with sound, we found ways to make sounds more fun. We got books that made noise (Noisy Vehicles, Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?), and we encouraged him to make loud noises with us. We started by imitating animals, and we progressed to singing loud, high notes with him. When a loud car drives by, we ask him to “be louder than the car” to distract him and calm his fear of the loud noise.

This process has not been quick, but we have seen big changes over time. Richie now eats orally every day; sometimes he still gags when he encounters a new texture orally, but we can talk him through it. He also explores on his own a lot more, makes more noises, and seems unafraid of new objects. The plan and the commitment to setting aside time to carry out that plan have been important in this process. Every time Richie eats a new texture, moos like a cow or grabs something slimy, he shows us that our work is not in vain.

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Charisse Montgomery is the author of the Super Safe Kids series of books and safety tools. These tools engage children, parents, and their families in improving safety and advocacy in the hospital, the community and the home. A former educator, Charisse Montgomery has earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English, along with a master's degree in Educational Psychology, with research focused on informing and empowering parents of medically fragile children. She completed a graduate certificate in Patient Advocacy and serves on the Board at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.

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