Sensory Processing Disorder: It’s a Thing

teacher tuesday

Sensory Processing Disorder.

You may not find it in the DSM, but it’s a thing. But, because it’s not in the DSM, it’s a ‘disorder’ that’s under-researched and not really recognized as a diagnosis on it’s own. People argue that “sensory-seeking” behaviors or “sensory-responsiveness” are just symptoms of a larger piece (ADHD, autism, etc.).

And, I’m no expert. But I do know that sensory processing disorder is a thing. Not because my behavior classes in grad school mentioned it as a FUNCTION of a behavior. Not because my kids are ‘flapping,’ spinning in circles, or biting as a means to self-stimulate. (I only mention these behaviors because they seem to be some of the more common sensory-seeking behaviors that people are aware of). I know it’s a THING because I see it. On the daily.

I watch one of my students as he interacts with his world. Every single day. I watch him as he tries to keep his body still in his chair, but fails miserably because his body craves constant movement. I watch him as he seeks out bumping, crashing, falling to the ground. I watch him as he excessively touches things and others. I watch him as he takes his hand and drags it along the wall just so he can FEEL.

And then I watch the world try to classify him as being ADHD. A behavior problem. Impulsive. Or my personal favorite: “a brat.”

Sensory processing disorder is a thing.

I know that. Most special educators know that. Because we have the privilege of working with students who may, in fact, exhibit impulsive behavior. But most people don’t understand it. There’s a lack of knowledge around it.

I can’t even count the number of times that this particular student knocked books off our shelves or grabbed pencils to throw them up in the air and at his classmates. The same student who, when he was able to regain control over his body again, felt an extreme amount of guilt for hurting anyone or anything in the process. This student is the furthest thing from a brat.

He literally loses control over his body.

Typically, he will expel some energy, stimulate his muscles, and be able to self-regulate after a while (although in the process, things may get a little disheveled). Yesterday, for the first time, I was able to see just how difficult it is for him to regain control when he is in the midst of it all. And it was, unfortunately, amplified because he was angry and upset.

During math class, he had a hard time transitioning from his break back to independent work. As a natural and logical consequence, his math teacher requested that he make up this time by completing the work before the end of the day. This student slid out of the chair, crawled under the table, knocked over the chairs, and then crawled into our office to throw the books on the ground. I followed him in there and calmly said, “I’m going to have to hold your hands so you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else.” As I held his hands, he tried to free himself and I could see that, by holding his hand, I was only making him even more agitated. I told him, “I want to let your hands go, but I also want to make sure nothing gets knocked over if I do.” I let go of his hands and, naturally, he swiped at my laptop and books which fell over onto the floor. I gently took his hands and said, “I know you want to go outside, but I also want to make sure you are safe and make sure all your friends are safe. Let’s just stay in here to calm down for a bit.” 

As I held his hands for a few more minutes, I felt his body shaking. I looked down and I watched as this child used every ounce of energy in him to make sure his hands stayed down. He was pushing them down into his lap so hard to keep them from flying away from him and knocking things down. I realized quickly that he needed something – to let out his anger, to keep his hands and muscles busy, yet something that would prove to be therapeutic and soothing.

With my one free hand, I grabbed a stack of papers from my desk and told him to start ripping them up, 5-6 papers at a time. The more muscles used, the better.

I watched as he ripped up nearly 50 pieces of paper, shreds all around the both of us. I watched him as his body eventually stopped shaking and he slowly de-escalated. I watched my student as he was finally able to regain control over his body.

Sensory processing disorder is a thing.

I just wish there were more awareness around it.

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