Can you imagine riding a roller coaster in endless loops and never getting dizzy? Or participating in the Dizzy Bat Race at a baseball game and not stumbling around like a drunken sailor? Or riding the carousel at the State Fair for hours and never feeling sick? That’s Peter. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true. Peter does not get dizzy.
When Peter was three years old we took him to an Occupational Therapist (OT) in Hartsville, S.C. who was well-known in the area for her expertise in sensory issues. We had known for awhile that Peter had “sensory problems” but we not certain what that meant. The autism stereotype brings to mind those individuals who shy away from sensory input such as lights and sounds and movement. Peter did not seem to fit that stereotype; in fact, he seemed to be just the opposite by seeking out sensory input rather than shying away from it. We were right.
The OT, Irene Ingram (she is OK with me using her name here), set about evaluating Peter. Here is one of the things she did: she put him on a platform swing and spun him around and around. Then she looked in his eyes. She spun him around and around in the other direction. For a long time. Then she looked in his eyes again. Here’s the crazy thing: after all the spinning, Peter’s eyes did not flicker. Typically, after a period of spinning, a person’s eyes will flicker rapidly back and forth for a short time. This did not happen with Peter.
Irene seemed almost astounded. She ran several other tests and then took some time to explain to us what she was doing: she was trying to awaken Peter’s “proprioception.” She had rarely seen a case so unreachable.
Proprioception, often known as the true “sixth sense,” is the sense of position and movement. It is produced by nerves in our connective tissues and muscles. It is a huge sense that enables you to walk, to scratch your nose, to drink from a glass. It involves being aware of where your body parts are in space; knowing where your hands are even when you can’t see them; placing your feet precisely in a complicated dance move. Proprioception affects virtually every activity of daily life, and most people aren’t even aware of its existence.
For many children with autism this vitally important “sixth sense” is impaired. For Peter, it turns out, it’s practically dormant. It’s buried so deep that even the OT specialist had a hard time awakening it. What does this mean for him? It means that some sensory input needs to be greatly exaggerated in order for it to register with him. Touch needs to be firmer, pressure needs to be stronger. It also explains many of his behaviors: the constant movement, the jumping, the arm flapping, the loud noises, crashing into furniture, mouthing everything. He is seeking input because he needs it, but he is not getting it as a typical child would. It’s the reason he can’t ride a tricycle or a bike; he has a hard time knowing where his feet are in space. It’s the reason he has trouble with fine motor skills; it’s why he can’t drink from a cup; it’s why he is such a messy eater; it’s why he is clumsy and walks with a heavy gait. It also explains his high tolerance for pain. He can fall and skin his knee and never make a sound. If he cries from pain, then you know that he is really hurt.
To put it in laymen’s terms, Peter is a Sensory Seeker. He is always seeking ways to arouse his starved nervous system. Since many of the behaviors that result from this “seeking” are inappropriate and sometimes dangerous, there are techniques and tools that have been developed to help satisfy some sensory cravings. I will describe some of these techniques and tools below:
The Brushing Technique
Irene Ingram introduced us to the Brushing Technique, which involves a special brush rubbed on the arms, hands, legs, and feet. This technique delivers a powerful amount of sensory input and should only be used after proper training. You can see Irene demonstrating this technique on Peter in this adorable video.
(NOTE: due to hyposensitivity, Irene brushed Peter for longer than usual and was not following the Wilbarger Protocol.)
Hard chewing seems to settle Peter. We have a number of “chewies” that help him find oral gratification. ARK Therapeutics, located in our home town of Columbia, SC, makes many of these “chewies.” We buy the XXT (extra, extra tough) chewies, but he still manages to chew through them eventually!
Heavy things also seem to help. Virtually every day, Peter will pull the top mattress off of his bed and lay under it. Weighted blankets are made for this purpose: to help people with sensory processing issues feel grounded. Below you’ll see a picture of Peter with his new weighted blanket, which was kindly donated by Red Barn Blankets (thank you, Irlanda!):
Trampolines, Exercise Balls, and Crash Pads
Any piece of equipment that allows Peter to safely jump and throw himself around is a blessing in my book. Peter has worn out about four trampolines in his life (we use the small ones generally meant for exercise). Here is a video of him enjoying a new one. We have several exercise balls he can roll on. We have not purchased a Crash Pad since they are pretty expensive, but we have been known to pile pillows on the floor and allow him to “crash” onto them.
We’ve been told that getting Peter to engage in “heavy work” will help him fulfill sensory needs. Some ideas might be filling a cart with bricks and letting him push it around. Or having him pull a heavy wagon. At the grocery store, one of Peter’s favorite activities is crashing the shopping carts together and pulling them apart again. This can be a problem when someone actually needs a cart for shopping. He’s not so great a sharing yet.
We installed this nest swing in our living room. Peter loves to curl up in it with his iPad. It provides both movement and gentle pressure.
Tunnels and Tents
Peter loves to play in tunnels and tents. We think they lend him a sense of security.
Other Sensory Tools
There are many other tools that are used for children who are “sensory seekers,” including water/sand tables, spinning boards, platform swings, weighted vests, vibrating pillows and mattresses, etc. We’ve learned that some things work with Peter, and some don’t. As with any child, it’s basically a matter of trial and error. When something works, great! When it doesn’t, put it away (or give it away) and move on to the next thing.
Now We Know
It’s reassuring to know the reasons behind some of Peter’s behaviors. It would be even better to know why his proprioception is so critically “off.” But an explanation for this phenomenon is not available yet. Along with all the other issues surrounding autism, this mystery has not yet been solved.
In the meantime, all we can do is accept that his behaviors are not random. There is a reason for them. And we continue to do as much as we can to help him find the sensory input that he needs.