Our son was just 6 months old when we were told he had sensory processing issues. We were worried about his constant crying, feeding issues, and difficulty sleeping. But it was his gross motor delays that led us to a pediatric physical and occupational therapist.
When the therapist used the term sensory processing disorder, I had no idea what she was talking about. I was already feeling out of sorts due to my son’s developmental delays, and this unfamiliar term unleashed my inner Mama Bear. I spent the next months (and years) trying anything and everything to meet his sensory needs. That includes a few things people might call over-the-top.
Of all the possibilities I tried, here are the five most over-the-top things I did to help my son with sensory processing.
1. Buying every... single… toy used during his weekly therapy.
Each week during therapy, the second the therapist brought out a sensory toy, I whipped out my smartphone, went online, and purchased it. If there was even a slight chance it would help my son, I was buying it. Period. End of discussion.
Soon our house began to resemble a cross between a sensory gym and Toys R Us. That’s when my husband banned me from bringing my phone to our son’s therapy sessions.
2. Turning every playground outing into a sensory workout.
What better place for climbing, jumping, swinging, and doing heavy work than the playground? While other moms were chatting and letting their kids run around aimlessly, I was laser-focused on directing my son’s play.
“Honey, let’s climb up the slide!” (Great way to get proprioceptive input.)
“One more time on the spinny thing, this time in the other direction!” (Good for his vestibular sense.)
“Here, let’s practice climbing down the ladder...again!” (Helpful for motor planning.)
No relaxing trips to the park for this kid!
3. Placing a giant plastic sandbox filled with pinto beans in our living room.
As an infant and toddler, my son struggled with tactile defensiveness. While other kids in his art class were happy finger painting, drawing with shaving cream, or making papier-mâché, he would cling to me and cry uncontrollably. Unfamiliar textures caused his nervous system to go into high alert.
One week during a session, his therapist brought out a plastic sandbox filled with dried beans and rice. At first, my son wouldn’t go near it with a 10-foot pole. Slowly but surely, she worked with him to reduce his reluctance to play in the sandbox. I didn’t have my smartphone on me (thanks, hubby!), but as soon as I got home, I ordered a sandbox online.
Cut to a few days later. My husband came home from work to find a massive pinto bean–filled sandbox sitting in the middle of our living room — and our son staying as far away from it as humanly possible.
4. Turning “snack time” into “tactile time” (with yogurt).
Another suggestion from our son’s therapist was to encourage “messy food play.”
My interpretation? Dumping yogurt on my son’s place mat and encouraging him to eat it with his hands. When he looked at me like I was crazy, I improvised and began driving his Matchbox cars through the yogurt. (The car trick worked — he joined in.)
5. Taking my son’s need for structure and routine to the extreme.
When the therapist explained to me that kids with sensory processing issues do better with “structure and routine,” I took it to heart. Wondering if I’d had a secret career as a drill sergeant, my husband struggled to understand why our lives were scripted down to each minute.
“No, I don’t care if your best friend, who you haven’t seen in three years, is in town. We can’t meet him because our son is NOT SKIPPING HIS NAP!”
At the time, I thought all these things made complete sense. However, looking back, I understand why my husband thought I was nuts. We all want the best for our kids. And when their development is off, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to help them.
But sometimes “whatever it takes” is more about us than them. Now, I see that many of the over-the-top things I did to help my son were driven by my own fears. Being over-the-top was my attempt to control something that was utterly out of my control — my son’s experience.
If I could talk to my younger mom self, I would tell her to slow down and take a deep breath. I would tell her to let go of her anxiety and to trust that, no matter what, everything is going to be OK. It really is. And maybe buy a smaller bin of pinto beans next time...
Download a one-page fact sheet on sensory processing issues. Check out strategies to try at home for sensory issues. And read what one dad wants you to know about sensory processing issues.
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About the author
About the author
Cameron Kleimo, MA is a mom of two incredible, “differently wired” boys who have challenges with sensory processing.