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Cruel Misunderstanding - Sensory Integration Dysfunction

by Reba Griggs
November 14, 2000

Cindy was frightened. Before Tommy's birth, Cindy entertained idyllic fantasies about her future child. She imagined reading bedtime stories, and laughing and snuggling with him until he fell asleep. After showering Tommy with love, respect and discipline, she'd be rewarded with a brilliant, athletic, and affectionate son.

But something went wrong. Tommy developed slowly. He walked and talked later than his peers did. He was clumsy. He raged and screamed and thrashed around on the floor for no apparent reason. He was terrified of new situations. He was aggressive with other children. He did not want to cuddle up to Cindy; instead he shrank from her touch.

Cindy's friend Amy, comparing Tommy to her own child, Martin, was appalled. Martin, even on his worst behavior would never behave like this. Cindy must not be giving Tommy enough of the right kind of attention. Cindy was a bad mother.

Parenting advice flowed freely from Cindy's friends and relatives, but Tommy's behavior did not improve. Obviously Cindy didn't follow the advice, or was doing something terribly wrong.

Cindy tried hard to compensate for her mistakes, but invisible battle lines were drawn on a field that she couldn't see. Dressing Tommy in the mornings was a nightmare. He refused to wear certain clothes. He wouldn't eat most foods. Trips to the store or post office always resulted in screaming tantrums. Worst of all, once a tantrum started, he couldn't be consoled. People stared, shook their heads and clucked their tongues. Bad mother.

Fortunately for Cindy, a nursery school teacher directed her to a therapist who had an explanation for Tommy's strange behavior:  It was called Sensory Integration Dysfunction.

Most children categorize, analyze and interpret sights, sounds and smells in their minds until the world begins to make sense. Their brains process information from their body position and sense of balance. While all this is going on, few are even aware that learning is taking place. Sensory integration occurs naturally as a child develops.

But for some, perhaps ten percent of the population, this process does not go smoothly.

People with SID (sometimes also abbreviated DSI) are unable to process sensory information correctly.

A child may have a threshold of pain that is set too high or too low. He can suffer from too little or too much sensory stimulation. The lightest skin contact may be unbearably painful. A dripping faucet can create constant earsplitting explosions. The child can't screen out unimportant stimuli, and focus. He becomes over stimulated and frustrated, leading to MELTDOWN!

Sensory Integration Dysfunction is not yet well known in the medical community, and many physicians do not recognize it as a disorder, or know that therapy is available. Coverage by insurance companies is rare.

Dr. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and PhD, first noticed and conducted research on the condition in the 1960s.  Since the discovery did not come from within the medical community, doctors largely ignored the research.

Despite the general skepticism of the medical community, physical and occupational therapists have been treating Sensory Integration Dysfunction for years. Some parents are witnessing marked improvement in the puzzling and exasperating behavior of their children.

Sensory integration difficulties, which may affect the senses of sight, smell, balance, touch, taste and hearing, can interact to manifest themselves in diverse and opposite ways in different individuals.

If the child is unable to screen out unwanted stimuli, he will be overly distractible and appear hyperactive. Such a child may stay awake at night, may refuse to eat most foods, and may overreact to "nothing" with severe tantrums, much to the bewilderment of his parents. Alternatively, he may not respond to loud sounds, to pain, or to other stimuli that should not be easily ignored.

Another manifestation of Sensory Integration Dysfunction can be unreasonable fear of situations that do not warrant it. The child may be terrified of certain clothing, or of water, or certain sounds or textures. Whatever it is, it usually seems silly and "much ado about nothing".

Unfortunately, without therapy, children like Tommy often develop a poor sense of self-esteem.  They are frequently unable to make friends due to their extreme behavior. Parents like Cindy suffer from the double-edged sword of society's disapproval and the stress of coping with the inexplicable behavior of their child. 

Inroads to understanding this condition have been made, but society and medical science have a long way to go to understand, diagnose and treat this condition.

If you have a child who exhibits these or similar behaviors, here are some websites that can offer you more information and assistance.

Learn more about Sensory Integration Dysfunction:

Sensory Integrative Dysfunction in Young Children
by Linda C. Stephens, MS, OTR/L. FAOTA

Sensory Integration Resource Center (From Parents' perspectives)
 
Submitted by:  © Reba Griggs 
A wildly unfocused writer of wrongs who gazes at the world, wide-eyed and odd.


 
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