- What is sensory processing disorder and how can I help my child?
- Causes, symptoms, and treatment of SPD
- Sensory processing disorder (SPD) kids: How they are different
- You know sensory processing disorder exists, so why don’t they?
- What to do when your sensory sensitive child has a meltdown
- Challenges your sensory sensitive child will face at school
- Occupational therapy for a child with SPD
- Can a child outgrow SPD?
- Does a weighted blanket help with sensory issues?
When children with SPD become overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, they may be triggered to have a meltdown. These common events might look surprisingly like a tantrum in a young child, with resulting behaviors such as kicking, screaming, crying, and lying on the floor. However, the cause of a meltdown in a child with SPD is very different and so is the approach needed to deal with sensory meltdowns.
Strategies depend on whether your child is hypersensitive or hyposensitive
Strategies for dealing with meltdowns in children with SPD depends on which type of SPD they have. There are two general types of sensory processing disorders: hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.
Hypersensitive children are sensory-defensive, meaning they avoid certain, if not all, types of sensory stimuli. These children often do not like to be touched, hugged, kissed or cuddled; and, they often do not like to get their hands and/or clothes dirty so the simplest requests such as asking them to clean up after themselves when they spill things or take the trash out can trigger a “meltdown” response. It is often recommended to work with an occupational therapist to develop some strategies that often involve desensitizing children like this for them to tolerate their clothing they put on in the morning or the rubber gloves you offer them when they help with the house cleaning, etc.
Hyposensitive children are sensory-seeking, which is easier to cope with from a relational and parental standpoint because these children often crave hugs and cuddles, do not mind getting their hands dirty, and love soft music. On the downside of hyposensitivity, their meltdowns can be particularly volatile in that sensory-seeking tendencies coupled with anger and delayed expressive language can result in such things as self-harming behaviors or harming others.
For these children, redirecting their “coping” behaviors from biting themselves to biting a pillow or petting a sensory dog, or squeezing a stress toy can be far more productive choices. For sensory-seeking children, analog metronomes, compression vests, weighted blankets or vests, or chewy toys can be calming for a sensory-seeking child engaged in a melt-down.
Calm yourself first
My first thought here is to grab your favorite drink, run down the hallway, and lock the door, as let’s face it, that is actually what we want to do. So let’s be practical here. Assess the situation. If your child is in imminent danger, then deal with it as the situation calls for. However, if it is your normal run of the mill meltdown (I am being flippant because I live them each and every week), I suggest you first get your head in a good place. It is going to take a few seconds, but you know with a meltdown you could be in for the long haul.
Use your breathing and positive self-talk and reassure yourself calmly that this too will pass. Once you are in a calm space, it will allow you to deal with your child in a calm and reasonable manner. There is nothing worse than a sensory meltdown mixed in with a mommy one too. And once it is done, have that drink.
Sensory sensitive meltdowns are not a behavioral issue
It is always important to remember that a meltdown due to sensory overload is not a behavioral issue. Your child can simply not deal with the situation in which they find themselves. Where possible, determine what may be triggering the meltdown and ideally try to remove your child from the overwhelming stimulus. A child with SPD may be perceiving their environment as dangerous or painful and so being able to provide a calm space for your child to recover in their own time is important.
Identify the trigger and remove it
As a mom of a child with SPD, I learned firsthand how hard it can be to decipher the difference between a toddler’s temper tantrum that results as a means of asserting independence and a full blown, sensory induced meltdown.
I found it helpful to consider each situation and the factors that may have induced the meltdown. Look for problems with tags on clothing or other things that cause itchy skin. Sock wrinkles, bright lights, the feel of a fan, crowds, toy store aisles with too many things to look at, strong smells, and even food texture and taste are all examples of things that can be overwhelming to a child with SPD.
When the meltdown occurs, gather up your patience and remember that this is not an act of defiance or bad attitude. Your child’s body cannot handle the sensory stimuli that is occurring. Try to remove your child from the trigger. Take a walk, give a bear hug, offer a warm bath, or try to distract them with some other preferred activity. A weighted blanket or pressure vest may help, as well. In extreme cases, you may need to pull your child into your lap for safety and just wait it out.