Whether your child has Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, or is Gifted/2e with mild to extreme OEs, dealing with sensory issues is going to be a part of life. But as a parent of a child with a different sensory profile, it can be difficult to understand why they are having problems, and it is also equally difficult to figure out what is causing the problems.
My own journey to becoming a sensory detective has taken time, observation and patience. It’s not easy understanding where the problem is when I can’t see, smell, touch, taste, or hear the same way as my children. One thing that helped me get my head around this idea was flowers. Yes, flowers.
|Flower under normal and UV light – the UV light
showing completely different flower markings 
Flowers come in so many varieties and colours it’s easy to believe that we can understand everything about flowers from using our senses. But put a flower under UV light, and a different flower emerges. One that has markers and signs humans can’t see, because unlike the insects flowers are designed to attract, we can’t see UV light.
Kids with sensory sensitivities are like that – they have super powers we can’t see, smell, touch, taste, or hear. When I’m walking down a normal street I can’t hear the sound of my foot-falls echoing off the buildings. When I enter a room, I can’t tell if someone else has been there by the smell, unless they have an incredibly strong perfume, and I don’t have eyes that can see everything in extremely low light levels.
Being a Sensory Detective is Hard
I am at a distinct disadvantage when trying to figure out what’s going wrong when my kids are melting down. But there are a few things I have learned – the hard way!
- It’s worth check for sensory triggers before assuming that my kids are just being difficult, or that it’s a behaviour problem. Nine times out of ten there is a physical reason why they are reacting, and it’s entirely reasonable for their sensory sensitivities.
- I’m not necessarily going to automatically be able to figure out what is triggering my child. Human brains are really good at pre-filtering out information, and chances are I am either unable to detect what’s triggering my child, or my brain is filtering out the problem sensation.
- It is a slow process to figure out what locations and situations trigger my children. And only once I have figure that out am I able to figure out what might be in those locations that sets off a melt down.
- My children may or may not be able to tell me what’s wrong. If this is something that happens in your family, it could be due to communication difficulties if they are autistic, but it can also be simply because for them, the wrong thing is super-obvious and hard to describe. Imagine trying to explain UV vision without photographs. Even if they are able to articulate what is wrong, you might not be able to understand, because you can’t detect what they are talking about.
But These Things Can Help
- I pay attention to things that niggle me when I enter an environment – the slight flicker of a light, the weird buzz when I enter a train, or the funny smell when I first enter a room. My brain is probably going to filter them out pretty quickly, so I try to pay attention whenever I’m first in a new environment.
- When dealing with lights and electronics, if my kids are reacting, I will either turn them off or remove the kids from that environment. My kids will tend to react to fluorescent lights that are nearing the end of their life long before anyone else, similarly with electronic buzzes that can’t be heard by others. With my sight and hearing, I’m simply not going to be able to tell if the lights are flickering at frequencies beyond my ability to see, or buzzing at frequencies I can’t hear. I have to assume that if my kids are reacting, those things could be the problem.
- Sometimes it helps to stop and mindfully pay attention to my own senses in an environment – this is to reset my own pre-filtering and see if I can detect what might be wrong. It won’t always work, but it’s always worth a try.
- I try to pre-empt situations that might trigger a melt-down, and over time, I have built up a list of situations that are probably going to create a sensory overload. On sunny days, or days where we have to go to indoor shopping centres, I make sure the kids have broad-brimmed hats; I check train carriages to see if they have badly maintained fluorescents and instead go to a different carriage; and I sometimes carry headphones if I know we’ll be going through loud, unfamiliar environments.
- I make sure that after any experience where the kids have had a sensory overload, that they have a chance to decompress and relax in a place they feel safe. Preferably it will also have less sensory triggers, and have normal non-fluorescent lighting, be quiet, have no big obnoxious smells and have something that can engage them and keep them entertained as they burn off their sensory overload with often boisterous play. For us, parks with trees are good, as are large baby-change rooms at shopping centres with feeding rooms separate from the nappy change area (if they aren’t too smelly).
- All our excursions are time limited – I know my kids can cope with a high-stress sensory-overloading environment for about 2 hours, and I make our plans around that limit.
Detecting sensory triggers takes a lot of time and a lot of observation and deduction. But it was certainly worth it for our family – less stress is always a good thing in my book!
If you would like to learn more about different strategies that can help your children with what I like to think of as sensory super-powers, these resources might help:
Autism / ASD
I Can Network (Australia)
Most countries and states also have a number of organisations – in Australia check with the Department of Human Services as they keep a list of services available and will be able to give you information on organisations you can contact to find out about groups in your state.