Hope for Handling Sensory Processing Differences During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Rebecca Duvall Scott

Ron Sandison chats with Rebeca Duvall Scott, author of Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences

By Ron Sandison

One of the challenges I had to overcome with autism for employment was sensory processing issues. The smell of nail polish or load noises as a child caused me to experience severe meltdowns and loss of control.

When I was in third grade during a Cub Scouts Halloween party with a clown and two hundred people in attendance I experienced my worst sensory processing moment. A red-nosed clown with a lamb sock puppet thought it might be comical to take my baseball cap, place it on another kid’s head, and then place it back on my head. When the clown attempted to place the cap back on my head due to my sensory issues with touch, I grabbed the lamb puppet and proceeded to beat the clown with it.

Needless to say, The Club Scout leaders informed my parents I was not welcome back.

Over 80% of the nervous system is involved in processing or organizing sensory input, and thus the brain is primarily a sensory processing machine. When our brain efficiently processes sensations, we respond automatically with adaptive responses that help us master our environment. Adaptive responses are actions or thoughts that help us meet new challenges and learn new lessons.

It took me years to learn to control my emotions and handle sensory processing issues. I have a spinning ring that enables me stay calm under sensory issues and feel comfortable at work and speaking to large audiences. During COVID-19 and the change in my routine I have again experienced sensory issues to sight and sound. I have adapt to change in my routine by listening to calm music, reading books during my breaks, and using my memory flash cards.

A great new book I read is titled Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences by Rebecca Duvall Scott.

Sensational Kids

I interviewed Rebecca and gained practical insight into handling sensory issues and adapting to changes in our environment during a pandemic. This wisdom has empowered me to experience peace and control my anxiety while developing new routines in my work schedule.

Tell us about yourself and your new book Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences.

Before staying home to raise my children, I worked as a behavioral intervention specialist with children with autism. Then, my son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD) at age 3 and I became a mother, therapist and teacher all rolled into one! We did 7 years of intense biomedical intervention and occupational therapy, where I learned everything I could about sensory integration and dysfunction, and now at age 10 my son is thriving mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially.

Rebecca and her son

Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences is my “boots on the ground” self-help style memoir that was born out of our family’s struggles and triumphs in order to pay our research, intervention strategies and positive mindset shifts forward to the next family or professional working with sensory processing disorder. The book also has professional commentary sections by my son’s occupational therapist, so you not only get the raw experiences of a parent – but the professional opinion as well.

What is sensory processing disorder?

Sensory processing or integration refers to how a person’s body takes in information from the environment, organizes it in the brain, and outputs behavior responses. We all process our experiences through the senses every day, all day long. When the sensory system (nervous system) is disordered, the body is mixing up the signals from the senses, not organizing the information correctly in the brain, or it is outputting the wrong behavioral responses for a given situation.

here are two sides to SPD: seekers and avoiders. Seekers have hyposensitive nervous systems and seek ways to “feed” their sensory systems because they are near empty all the time. Avoiders have hypersensitive nervous systems and tend to avoid stimulation because their systems are too full already. Both sides react in extreme ways to regulate their nervous systems and achieve the feeling of calm/contentedness that all humans crave.

How is sensory processing disorder akin to autism?

Sensory processing disorder does not have its own diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); it is lumped in under the autism and pervasive developmental disorders umbrella. Almost all people with autism have sensory challenges in some form or fashion, but all people with SPD do not have autism! My son had the sensory processing component, but not the communication and social challenges that often accompany autism. It all comes down to understanding that nervous system dysfunction is like a sliding scale with learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, SPD and Asperger’s on the low end and severe autism on the high end. People get lots of “labels,” but we are all on that sliding scale somewhere!

How can understanding sensory differences help adults with autism and disabilities?

When a person understands their body and pays attention to internal cues of stress (whether the sensory system is too high or too low at any given time), they can then take proper steps to regulate themselves and get back to “just right.”

Seekers may need to exercise (light walking or yoga to strenuous weight lifting or running depending on their body’s needs), engage in manual labor that involves heavy lifting, or create opportunities for deep pressure (massage, tight clothes, or sleep under a weighted blanket) to target the proprioception and vestibular senses. They could also work with their hands (baking, cooking, sculpting, etc.) while listening to music, which would stimulate the auditory, smell and taste senses as well!

Avoiders may need to carve out more time to be by themselves, doing calming, quiet activities to give their systems a much-needed rest. Reading books, listening to soft, soothing music, and wearing comfortable clothes can help them regulate – and deep pressure like a weighted blanket can also be calming.

Are there any sensory-smart strategies that can help us cope with the COVID-19 pandemic?

In addition to listening to your own body and discovering purposeful movement and activities to get your mind and body back in sync with one another, I strongly recommend creating a new, flexible routine for yourself and family. Routines and being able to predict what is going to happen next are important to seekers and avoiders alike – when chaos ensues around us, the fear of the unknown and continual “coping with surprise” efforts makes us feel chaotic inside as well.

When you can create a new, basic routine of when you eat your meals, run your errands, do your work, down to when you have family walks, game or movie nights – you will be restoring a sense of calm and purpose to your life.

A positive mindset is also helpful in creating peace and calm in yourself and home. Don’t judge yourself by others’ standards – we are all in the same storm, but not the same boat. Do what feels right for yourself and your family to stay afloat. Also use this time of uncertainty for self-reflection and decide what is important in your life… chances are when things get back to normal, you’ll be even better and stronger coming out of this quarantine than going in!

Any Additional tips for handling sensory overload during COVID-19?

It is easy to feel overwhelmed in times like these, and where children have kicking, screaming, sensory meltdowns, adults may feel helpless to the point of not functioning in daily life or get angry, abuse food, alcohol or drugs, and more. When you get to the point of sensory overload, stop and realize that all it means is you missed your body’s cues to self-regulate.

hen take the appropriate measures to regulate your sensory system (exercise, deep pressure, a healthy diet and sleep help greatly), and proactively work at bringing yourself back to center in the future before you go too far off the tracks and reach overload again. People who become cognizant of their sensory differences and learn to manage them can live full, happy and calm lives.

Amazon Link to Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences:

Rebecca Duvall Scott is an accomplished writer and the proud recipient of numerous awards throughout her educational career at local, county and state levels. She was awarded the Horrigan’s Scholarship at Bellarmine University, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s in English. Rebecca lives with her husband, Eric, and their two children, Annabelle and Jacob, in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to writing, Rebecca enjoys family, church, educating her children at home, painting and directing a local homeschool cooperative organization in which she works hard to accommodate all special needs.

Ron Sandison

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.

He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com.

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