Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sensory Integration Therapy

Along with Alex’s language delays, we also needed to address his sensory issues when he was little. Many children with autism display characteristics of sensory integration dysfunction. While some children are overly sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as loud sounds, others need sensations to calm them, such as spinning. Alex was an interesting mix of both: his hearing and sight were overly sensitive, but his sense of touch needed stimulation. After reading about sensory issues on the Internet, I found an excellent book by Carol Stock Kranowitz, The Out-of-Sync Child, which not only explains sensory integration issues clearly, but it also provides simple suggestions and ways for parents to help children cope with the problem. Once we understood that some of Alex’s behaviors resulted from his nervous system’s inability to process properly the messages his senses were sending him, we worked at desensitizing him to overwhelming stimuli and teaching him appropriate strategies to fulfill his need for calming himself.

Like many children with autism, Alex’s eye contact when he was younger was poor. He had trouble looking and listening at the same time. I’ve since read that people with autism often cannot process both the sights and sounds when people talk to them, so they must look away to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Over time, Alex’s eye contact has improved; I suspect that visual stimuli bother him less as he’s matured. He has always been light sensitive; from the time he was very young, he has nearly always worn sunglasses when he’s outside. If he didn’t have his sunglasses, he would cover his eyes with his hands to block the light. In addition, fluorescent lights with their almost imperceptive blinking bother him sometimes, and he has worn sunglasses in stores at times to help him cope with this annoyance. Along with his sight sensitivities, he has always had overly acute hearing. When he was a baby, he’d pick up his head when the furnace came on, even though the sound was barely noticeable. As a toddler, he was terrified of the vacuum cleaner and hair dryers, and he would cover his ears and sometimes cry if he heard loud noises. After reading about auditory integration therapy, which is used to help children with autism who are bothered by sounds, I looked for a similar program we could do with Alex at home. AIT requires intensive therapy sessions and wearing headphones, which I knew Alex couldn’t handle. Fortunately, I found the EASe disc, a CD consisting of instrumental music with various modulated sound frequencies, and we purchased it for him to listen to on our home stereo. This strange music had an instantly calming effect on him, and he gradually became less sensitive to noises. He stopped being upset by loud sounds, and he quit covering his ears. The $60 we spent on the EASe disc was worth every penny for the rapid improvements we saw in him.

While Alex needed sights and sounds toned down, his sense of touch craved stimulation. As a toddler, he was most content sucking his thumb while rubbing the tags on his clothing. Also, he often chewed on his shirt collars. To save his shirt collars from getting wet as well as holes chewed in them, his occupational therapist gave him rubber tubing to chew on instead. In addition, we had a baby gum brush with rubber tips (also known as a NUK brush) that he liked me to rub on the roof of his mouth. His occupational therapist also taught me how to do deep joint pressure, where I would gently push on his wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, and ankles as part of sensory integration therapy. For another sensory activity, she gave me a scrub brush like those surgeons use to wash their arms and hands prior to operating. I used this brush with its soft plastic bristles to brush his arms and legs in a specific way she had shown me to stimulate his sense of touch. By doing these sensory exercises with Alex, he became much calmer. Recently I read that some people with autism have trouble feeling their bodies unless they are in water. Knowing how much a bath relaxes Alex, I suspect that being in warm water allows him to have a sense of himself in space that he doesn’t always have. Thankfully, Alex has made significant progress in coping with his sensory issues; sensory integration has helped make his world less stressful by enabling him to deal with stimuli that used to overwhelm him.

“For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!” Isaiah 64:4


Fred Haeberle said...

Hi Pam, You and Ed are an extraordinary example of great parents. I look for new entries every day and am looking for the release of your book when it is available. Today, (7/22) you were talking about Alex's sensory capabilities. Has he ever played with any instruments, even simple ones like an ocarina or harmonica? My near deaf client likes to play the banjo and saxophone. He claims he can "feel" the music/sounds. Some sounds could be more soothing than others, also some softer than others. Music theory might appeal to his memory.
Just curious.
Fred Haeberle

Pam Byrne said...

Hi Fred,
Thanks so much for your nice comments; I really appreciate your kindness. :) It's interesting that you ask about Alex and music because I am planning to write about music therapy next week. We have a piano and an electronic keyboard; Alex "improvises" on both and calls it jazz. ;) His music therapist, who is teaching him to play keyboards and percussion instruments, thinks his memory and math skills will complement music nicely--as you mentioned. More details to follow in next week's blog posts...
Take care,