Why Kids Can't Just Adjust
You accept your own sensory preferences. When, from time to time, you have to do things that unsettle you, you're able to draw on past experiences and social expectations to force yourself to tolerate unpleasantness for limited amounts of time. Why, you may wonder, can't your child also find a way to handle this? Why does he have to make such a big deal over everything or fall apart over such little, unimportant things?
Unlike adults, children with sensory integration disorder don't have much control over or understanding of their strong preferences and phobias. They are ill-equipped to tolerate them for the following reasons.
It's important to realize that while many individuals have a certain amount of trouble with sensory integration and sensory sensitivities some of the time, children with sensory integration disorder have brains that may work less efficiently in this area than those of other people.
No specific cause for this has been pinpointed, but one or more of the following may be true:
There is mild brain damage from birth
There is some form of sensory deprivation in early life, such as that experienced by children in Eastern European orphanages
The child was born premature
There is a co-occurring problem, such as an autism spectrum disorder
There is an environmental factor, such as alcohol consumed during pregnancy
There may be other environmental triggers, as is suspected with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Whatever the reason, your child with sensory integration disorder has a neurological impairment that makes him less able to deal with sensory integration and less able to find acceptable solutions to his distress.
Inefficient Neural Pathways
Sensations make their way to the brain by way of electrical impulses passed over synapses, or gaps, between neurons (nerve cells). Impulses follow a neural pathway of neurons and synapses from your eyes or fingertips to various outposts in the brain. The more each pathway is used, the stronger the chemical connection becomes, while pathways that are not used as much are not as strong or as fast.
Children are building those neural pathways when they play, investigate, figure things out, and seek new sensations. The more they try and see and hear, the stronger those pathways get, until activities that were once challenging are done smoothly, efficiently, competently, and with a great deal of satisfaction.
Don't assume that since weak or inefficient neural pathways are one reason for your child's inability to handle certain experiences, the best remedy is to force him to have those experiences over and over again. The fear and stress this would cause would wipe out any benefit and make those experiences even more difficult.
If your child has sensory integration disorder, however, all that playing and investigating and figuring things out can be a trial. Sensations that feel threatening or overwhelming will not be repeated, making the pathways weaker and the sensations more threatening or overwhelming. Experiences as basic as a tap on the shoulder or a swoop on a swing may always seem new and frightening.
Pathways may form improperly and emphasize the wrong things; cause information to be lost along the way; or deliver information to the wrong place, magnify its importance, or undersell it. Your child's nervous system may not gain the sort of experience needed to problem-solve, adjust, and compensate that you probably take for granted.
Lack of Understanding
You know from observation, discussion, reading, and research when your own personal likes and dislikes differ sharply from the norm. But your child doesn't have that kind of awareness. He knows only what he feels, and he assumes that everybody else must feel the same. This can leave him confused and hurt when you don't seem to understand what he's doing and feeling. It's the way you might feel if someone came up to you and ordered you to fly, or else. You'd be baffled that the person didn't understand how impossible that was, and being bribed or threatened or yelled at would only make you more frustrated.
Things get worse when your child lacks the language needed to even try to explain herself. Depending on your child's age and developmental level, she may not have the words to express the discomfort and distress she's feeling. But more than that, she may not have the body language to do it. If your child has a poor internal picture of her body, it may be impossible for her to explain what feels right and what feels wrong. Tenacious defense of a tenuous comfort zone may be the only action she can conceive of.
When adults interpret sensory integration problems as deliberate behavioral choices, things can spiral out of control quickly. If a child legitimately cannot find a way within his neurological capabilities to do something a parent or teacher is insisting on — and lacks any sort of useful vocabulary for explaining why he can't — there is very little option but to explode in fear and frustration. Understanding that a child is trying his best and needs help to overcome challenges is an important first step in helping kids with sensory integration disorder.
Behavior is the best way some kids have to communicate. If your child's behavior puzzles you — if she seems eager to please and generally compliant, but stubbornly insists on her way from time to time with desperate passion — ask yourself what that behavior might be telling you about her sensory preferences and fears.
Lack of Choice
Adults routinely adjust for their sensory processing irregularities by carefully making choices that allow them to honor their nervous systems without intruding on others'. But children are rarely given that kind of choice.
An adult who needs to move to feel comfortable and alert can most likely find a job that doesn't involve sitting behind a desk; kids are expected to sit in a schoolroom and be still, no matter what. An adult who finds certain foods unappetizing can choose not to eat them; kids are expected to eat what's put in front of them without whining or excuses. You expect your child to wear what you say, have her hair washed or cut in whatever way is convenient to you, sit still when you say, and move when given instructions. Refusal is seen as a conscious behavioral choice. For kids with sensory integration disorder, it's anything but.