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Learn the warning signs of sensory processing disorder

Parent to Parent

October 15, 2012
By Betsy Flagler , The Associated Press

October is National Sensory Awareness Month. If you have a typically developing child, the idea of daily problems caused by itchy clothing tags, mushy green veggies and annoying fluorescent lights may sound unreasonable, but that's the reality for thousands of families.

The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation hopes that events held across the country this month will raise awareness about sensory challenges, as well as boost funding and support.

Problems with sensory overload or lack of stimulation may not be obvious at home, but can become more apparent when kids get to preschool - particularly in boys, says Michael Gurian, author of "The Minds of Boys" with Kathy Stevens (Jossey-Bass, 2007). Gurian is also the co-founder of the Gurian Institute, which trains and provides resources for parents and teachers.

Here are some things teachers should keep in mind when working with boys who may have sensory processing issues, Gurian writes:

* Boys do not hear as well as girls, so consider adjusting your tone of voice to make sure the boys are hearing your instructions. You might also ask the boys to repeat instructions back to you.

* A light touch on the arm might not be enough to get a boy's attention. You might need a three-point approach to get your point across: make eye contact, give a light touch on the arm and speak to him.

* At the same time, bear in mind that boys, by nature, tend to use less eye contact when verbally interacting. In some cases, expecting a boy to look you in the eye during a conversation might cause stress, resulting in increased cortisol levels in the brain and thus an inability to stay on task with learning.

Whether helping boys or girls with sensory issues, teachers need to look at their classrooms to determine which areas are creating useful sensory stimulation and which areas are distracting to learning, suggests Gurian. Try this assessment: Sit on a children's chair in the entrance to your classroom. Take notice of the following:

* What catches your attention first?

* What might distract you from learning?

* Is there a predominant color that jumps out at you? What about a secondary color?

* How busy is the room? Measure it with all of your senses.

* Identify each of the noises you hear in your classroom. Notice how many sounds you hear. Your children generally are even more auditory than you are.

* How are the areas of the room seen from the entrance? Are there tables and spaces a small child can reach?

Check out your list. What changes do you need to make to your classroom?

If you're unsure whether your child or student has sensory processing issues, check out this list from the Sensory Processing Disorder Blogger Network of "red flag" behaviors or symptoms. Consult an occupational therapist if you have concerns.

* Infants and toddlers: Problems eating or sleeping; refuses to go to anyone but the parent; irritable when being dressed; uncomfortable in clothes; rarely plays with toys; resists cuddling, arches away when held; cannot calm self; floppy or stiff body; or motor delays.

* Preschoolers: Oversensitive to touch, noises, smells and other people; difficulty making friends; difficulty dressing, eating, sleeping and/or toilet training; clumsy; poor motor skills; weak; in constant motion; in everyone else's face and space; frequent or long temper tantrums.

* Grade-schoolers: Over-sensitive to touch, noises, smells and other people; easily distracted, fidgety, craves movement; aggressive; easily overwhelmed; difficulty with handwriting or motor activities; difficulty making friends; unaware of pain and/or other people.

Parenting Tip

The website for nonprofit group offers more than 25 free videos in multiple languages to help parents and health care professionals see the subtle differences between typical and atypical development in infants and toddlers. The website also provides resources to help recognize early warning signs of sensory disorders.

Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and preschool teacher. If you have tips or questions, email her at or call 704-236-9510.



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