Meeting Sensory Challenges Head On

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This op-ed appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on August 25, 2019

After the early morning rain ended, the promise of sunshine lured us outdoors. Traffic and parking notwithstanding, it was a good morning to visit the St. Paul Farmers’ Market.

The air at the market was dense with humidity. Musicians serenaded shoppers. An array of odors wafted through the air. Senses were on full alert.

My son Jack maneuvered past parents with produce and children in strollers to sample the artisan cheeses. His purchase complete, his tolerance for the environment waned.

“This is why I’d rather spend my time on the Internet,” he muttered, surveying the crowd.

In the 26 years since we learned of Jack’s autism diagnosis, I’ve studied the condition, as foreign to me as lutefisk was. I’ve learned individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are as different as the colorful flowers at the market and they, too, mature over time.

Jack is my best teacher, for as he becomes more self-aware and conversant, he offers valuable insight.

For as long as I can remember, Jack has recoiled from sounds, textures, and smells. As a child he sought input through swinging, head banging, and heavy pressure.

He’s helped me to understand what professionals and individuals with ASD are reporting – that sensory dysfunction is common among people with ASD, as well those who live with Down Syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, traumatic brain injury, and Alzheimer’s.

Sensory processing refers to the way the brain processes and responds to information received from the senses. When the brain doesn’t process input properly, one can become hyper- or hypo-sensitive. Too much or inadequate input can cause temper tantrums, outbursts, hand flapping, rocking or other eyebrow-raising behaviors.

Sensory dysfunction can be misconstrued. It could be that a child having a meltdown in the hair salon needs a dose of discipline. But he could also need empathy and support because the sound of a razor, the feel of the scissors or a stranger’s touch is creating havoc in his brain.

We all have moments when sensory input disturbs us. Clothing tags irritate my skin. Loud music stresses me out. I recognize this, so I remove the tags and avoid rock concerts.

But recognizing an irritant like tags in clothing, identifying the way it makes them feel, and developing coping mechanisms is difficult for people with sensory processing challenges.

It’s a phenomenon that can change from day to day. Some situations can be tolerated. Others may be too stressful. Take sports bars: TVs broadcasting images and sounds; stereo speakers blasting music from multiple locations; dishes and silverware clattering amid a symphony of voices.

More than once, Jack has bolted from a sports bar with his hands flapping because it’s been too stimulating for him. But a quiet restaurant may be just fine.

Going to a restaurant may be optional but going to the dentist is not. Yet, consider what a dental visit entails: cold, metal instruments; drilling sounds; bright lights; and strangers poking into a mouth that has been pried open.

To help people with sensory dysfunction participate as fully in life as possible, occupational therapists can recommend coping mechanisms that balance out the sensory experience as much as possible.

An adaptable “sensory diet” can be created. It might include headphones, a weighted blanket, movement activities, or chewing gum before, during or after an experience.

Social narratives can help to set expectations and prevent unpleasant surprises. Stories can describe the people, place, and things the individual will encounter and how long the experience will last.

With a goal of increasing community involvement for people who would otherwise be socially isolated, professional organizations are making an impact through education. With greater understanding of the condition and how it affects employees, clients or visitors, organizations can make environments more tolerable.

The Fraser organization works with clients and offers training to educate businesses, schools, and other organizations about sensory dysfunction.

Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) offers training and a sensory-friendly resource guide identifying sensory activities and events and offering sample social narratives.

With support from these experts, increasingly more venues catering to children and families are offering “sensory friendly” events. With staff and many volunteers on hand, theater and orchestra performances are modified to minimize stress for attendees while preserving artistic integrity. A theater might keep the lighting up so patrons can enter and exit as needed. It could lower the volume or eliminate aspects of the performance that might startle audience members, such as strobe lights or shouting.

Large venues across the country are installing sensory rooms. The Minnesota Vikings unveiled one this past weekend at U.S. Bank Stadium. In partnership with Minnesota Sports Facility Association, 3M, and KultureCity, an Alabama-based nonprofit, the organization created a sensory room on the stadium’s upper concourse. The small space includes low lighting, bean bag chairs, and sensory toys. It’s intended to offer those who need it a quiet place for a short break when overstimulated.

Staffed with Fraser specialists, the room had a steady flow of visitors at last Sunday’s preseason game. Many visitors took 3M headphones or earbuds to filter the noise in a stadium that features an over-the-top sensory experience.

The intrigue of football eludes him so Jack won’t be visiting U.S. Bank Stadium. However, he will be heading back to the Farmers’ Market. He’s discovered that sheep milk cheese, paired with farm grown tomato on freshly baked bread, delights his taste buds. On his next visit, he’ll be wearing his noise-cancelling ear buds.

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