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When Sensory Integration Disorder Interferes with Your Child's Social Skills

Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske, authors of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, describe how sensory integration disorder can affect your child's social skills and ways to help, in this exclusive interview.

Can sensory integration disorder adversely impact my child's socialization and social skills?

Yes. For example, while the other children are enjoying socializing in the halls, playground, and cafeteria, the child with sensory integration dysfunction may feel she has to plug her ears to be able to handle the noise, and stay away from the other kids because she's afraid of getting bumped into. Social activities other children find enjoyable can be extremely uncomfortable for kids with sensory integration issues. As a 'tween or teen, a child with sensory integration issues may have difficulty tolerating the clothes that all the kids are wearing, and feel ostracized because he constantly wears ratty old tennis shoes and sweatpants. Eating with other kids can cause social anxiety, as a child's inability to tolerate different food textures, or notice if he's got crumbs on his face, can make him feel embarrassed. Then, too, a child who has a high need for sensory seeking can have social problems because she can't stop touching or banging into the other kids when she's playing, or she has difficulty observing the rules of social space, getting right into someone's face to ask him a question.

How might sensory integration issues interfere with my child's social interactions?

You may see social behaviors like anxiety and withdrawal. The child's social behavior may look "odd," "geeky," "immature," or "goofy." Trouble with transitions, from one activity to the next or one state to the next (such as alert to calm, sleeping to fully awake) are another sign that a child is struggling with sensory integration issues. Some kids will become angry, defiant, and defensive about their sensory integration behaviors and are seen as "problem" kids with "an attitude." On the other hand, a child who is a 'sensory seeker' be too physical with other children. A child who craves tactile input may constantly touch other children to the point of irritation. A child who has difficulty with body awareness, may lean against other children at circle time, or frequently bump into other children.

How can parents (or others) modify social situations so my child can be a success?

The most crucial thing a parent can do is to acquire sensory smarts. Recognize that life is a sensory event, and there will often be times when the sensory input most of us take for granted and don't even notice will greatly affect their child. Respect your child's sensory integration needs and teach him how he can meet his needs in a socially acceptable, safe manner. Throwing stones into a creek is okay, but throwing objects at your little brother is not!

The second most important thing a parent can do is teach the child sensory smarts. Kids need to know that yes, their bodies are wired differently and that's okay?it just means they have to be a little creative and find ways to meet their sensory integration needs without breaking the important rules of social interaction.

Of course, everyone has a different level of comfort with "breaking the rules." It's an important subject to discuss with your child, who will face many sensory integration challenges. If he needs to stimulate his mouth before eating, is it okay for him to stuff paper napkins in it? Is it okay when he's four, but not when he's eight? Is it okay at home, but not at someone else's house, or in a restaurant? What are the social consequences of his behaviors? If his friends are going to ridicule him, are they friends he wants to be around? Are there other, more socially acceptable ways to get his needs met?

What can parents teach their children with sensory integration issues so they can mix in, and even enjoy, social settings?

Teach children to respect their needs, but also the needs of others. Encourage them to be creative in finding ways to make social settings more comfortable for themselves without making them less comfortable for others. Encourage them to talk to you, and to other important people, about their choices. Maybe your child can explain to grandma why he chose to wear black sweatpants and a nice shirt to a holiday gathering instead of scratchy khakis with seams. Help your child feel good about herself by pointing out her wonderful qualities, and explaining that sensory integration issues are simply a physiological challenge she has to deal with. A child with a strong sense of self can much better navigate social settings when others don't understand her sensory needs.

How can parents help their children with sensory integration issues in these social situations?

Planning is important. Let's say you're going to a family gathering. Talk to your child about what she finds most unpleasant about these social gatherings. Does she have more difficulty inside, where the sound of many voices is excruciating? Can she tolerate it better if she wears earplugs and takes frequent breaks to go to a quiet space -- an unoccupied room, outside, or even the car (if she's mature enough to sit in a car alone)? Or, if she has more difficulty outside, can accommodations such as sunglasses, a windbreaker, and mosquito repellent help her handle the outdoors better? Then, when you arrive, take notice of any sensory integration challenges she might have difficulty tolerating and get creative about how you can accommodate her. If you forgot to ask about what foods will be served, and there are no foods she can tolerate, perhaps you can take a quick run to get her an apple and some crackers from the convenience store.

Use your sensory smarts to encourage your child to engage in sensory diet activities he finds calming and focusing. Doing shuffle races, marching in place, doing chair pushups or pushups against the wall, and carrying heavy objects are all activities that stimulate the joints, providing proprioceptive input that many kids find calming. Let your child wear comfortable clothing, and use earplugs, fidgets, and other devices to help them get calm and focused.

Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske's book, Raising a Sensory Smart Child has huge sections on practical solutions for everyday social problems as well as sensory diet activities that will help your child with sensory issues.

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