Sensory trial and error

One of the biggest priorities at our house these days is helping Little Bear with his regulation. It has always been an issue but I think because other things have settled down, it has come more to the fore. I have been experimenting with various sensory hacks to see what works and which ones we can use routinely to improve things in our daily lives. Here are some things we have recently tried and how we have got on:

Regulation at the table

Little Bear has always struggled with sitting still. He’s fine on a sofa and can sit for quite a while but finds sitting at the kitchen table for mealtimes particularly tricky. He is better on our wooden bench than on any of the chairs but still tends to kneel up and change position a lot and get down a lot. I have been trying to engage Little Bear in his own regulation more so I recently asked him why he moves about so much. I had no idea if he’d have enough insight to be able to tell me but it seemed worth a try. He said he didn’t like being too low down. We then experimented with putting various items on the bench to make him higher and a bit more comfortable. Several were no good or too unstable but in the end we settled on a beanbag. We can tuck it through the gap in the back of the bench so it stays in place and Little Bear has given it his seal of approval.

I have to say it has been pretty miraculous in its efficacy. Little Bear is certainly able to sit still for much longer with it and doesn’t change his position half as much. Crucially Little Bear prefers it and goes looking for it if I have taken it off the bench for any reason. My feeling is that children will show us when we are getting the sensory input right for them and this hack is ticking all the boxes. I have been considering a wiggle and sit cushion for a while but I don’t think we need one, the beanbag is perfect.

Regulation when out and about

This is the biggest challenge for us and one I would really like to come up with a solution for. We generally notice Little Bear’s difficulties with regulation when we go on a day trip somewhere or go somewhere new. I guess there might be an element of anxiety underlying the behaviour and we certainly feel Interoception has an impact. We are continuing to work on that but it is not a quick fix and I don’t think we are ready to feedback about how it’s all going just yet (but I will when we’ve made more headway). In the meantime, we have been experimenting with things that help in the instant of dysregulation, while we are waiting for longer term solutions to work.

If we are having a dysregulated day out, Little Bear continually seeks movement, which can be unsafe depending where we are. Often we let him run where we can or swing or climb to his heart’s content. I realised on a recent day out though that all the movement doesn’t actually seem to help, if anything, it gets Little Bear more and more dysregulated. Therefore I hypothesised; we needed to add in more calming elements, rather than encouraging the seeking elements.

I remembered that we used to use a rucksack for that purpose so we have re-introduced it. On the first attempt it didn’t go particularly well as the straps were a bit loose and kept coming down Little Bear’s shoulders which annoyed him. The next time we tried a different bag which has a little chest clip to keep it in place. It was a mixed outcome. We could certainly tell the difference in Little Bear’s behaviour – the weighted bag did calm him and stopped the running and swinging almost completely. I would say this was a fabulous outcome apart from one crucial factor: Little Bear doesn’t like wearing it. I don’t want him to think it’s a punishment of some sort and the fact he doesn’t like it makes me think we haven’t quite got it right sensory-wise. I suppose we need to experiment with the weight of the bag; how long he wears it for etc. I know that when I was taught about weighted blankets, the rule of thumb was always to remove them after 20 minutes as otherwise the body modulates to the weight being there and the effects cease. However I have played around a bit with just letting Little Bear wear the bag for a bit then taking it off but I feel as though the effect goes with the bag and as soon as it goes, he’s back to seeking movement again.

I also wonder if there is another way to give him ongoing proprioceptive input that doesn’t involve wearing a bag? I know you can get pressure jackets but I feel as though he would be too hot. Please make suggestions if you have any as we are certainly in the market for trying something else.

Regulation at bedtime

Little Bear has one of those heavy cuddly toys that is filled with sand, I think it’s a large newt and I have been experimenting with that lying on him to help him calm at bedtime. Again I would say it works a little but then he chucks it on the floor!

In the winter if Little Bear can’t get to sleep, we have a heavy knitted blanket that he sometimes likes me to put over the duvet on top of him which works well. It is generally the sensory approaches that Little Bear is collaborative in that work the best. He will tell me when he does or doesn’t want the blanket and I assume that relates to when he does or doesn’t need it.

I have noticed recently that he has a big fluffy blanket on his bed at the moment and he likes to get all cosy inside that, especially if he hasn’t got his top on. I feel as though it would be quite an unpleasant sensation but it obviously works for him. Looking at how children self-soothe can be a key way of discovering sensory hacks that work. Little Bear still has comfort blankets in bed. They are muslin squares and it is the label that he likes – he strokes his lips with it which seems to soothe and calm him. I can’t think of anything worse and he often tests it out on me knowing full-well that it will make me squeal in discomfort. I suppose it’s a good way into talking about how everyone’s sensory needs are different!

I am now wondering whether proprioception is the best avenue for calming for Little Bear or whether the right kind of tactile stimulation would work better for him. How would we go about providing that whilst walking around a zoo or museum I wonder?

This has definitely been a post with more questions than answers (apart from beanbags, they are an answer) so I apologise for that but if anyone has any clever solutions I’d love to hear them.

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Sensory trial and error

Our Gym Bar Invention

You know your child has some sensory needs when you have one of these in your house:

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 It is not exactly an off-the-shelf product; it is several products that we have combined to create a gym for Little Bear. The basic product is a Pull Up Mate pull-up bar. We got that first because Little Bear was spending quite a lot of time hanging from things. There are not many things in your average household that are safe to hang from though and he tended to resort to the side of his cabin bed which we weren’t too keen on. We decided a free-standing pull-up bar would be safer and we chose this one because it seemed the sturdiest available.

The bar is height-adjustable and we started off with it being half the size it is in the pictures. Little Bear loved it and soon came up with several different moves: hanging, swinging, doing roly-polys in the air, hanging vertically upside down, hanging from the bar like a sloth and moving hand over hand along it, from one side of it to the other. I guess all the moves were giving him both proprioceptive and vestibular feedback, which he seeks.

The only thing I had to be careful of was that Little Bear couldn’t identify when he was getting tired or had satisfied his sensory needs and would just keeping swinging and hanging for ages and ages, tipping himself into over-stimulated territory (see Interoception for more on why this might have been happening). To begin with he would get more and more excited and he would need one of us to tell him to stop and do something else. I do think that has improved with time though and although we do still need to step-in, Little Bear is getting better at identifying when he needs to stop. He is also calmer when he is on the gym and is now using it more functionally to regulate himself. We’ve noticed that when he is generally dysregulated, there are fewer times when he prowls about the house looking for trouble. Now, he tends to go to his gym instead which is certainly preferable.

When it was Little Bear’s birthday we didn’t really know what to get him so we ended up getting some additional bits and bobs to make his gym more exciting. In order for that to work we had to make it full height. We have added a rope ladder, which could be tied onto the bottom bar but Little Bear likes it loose; two hoops and a swing.

 It is fair to say it made his day and was a better present for him than a traditional toy. He quickly invented some new moves including climbing up the frame itself in a star fish shape and then jumping to hold onto the top bar. I frequently have to close my eyes because he does things you would never think possible and even Grizzly gets a bit of a fright sometimes. However he is very lithe and strong and these things seem to come naturally. He is very good at having enough points of contact and at landing safely.

Little Bear also likes to climb up and through the ladder; to do roly-polys on the hoops; turn himself upside down from the hoops and create sequences of moves from one piece of apparatus to another. He often challenges the rest of us to copy his moves but none of us are capable!

When other children visit they are very attracted to the gym too but it is definitely quite over-stimulating for Little Bear if there is more than just him on it (its fine if Big Bear plays).

Another crucial addition with the birthday package was the crash mat, for obvious reasons! It’s one of the fold up gym ones – there is a lot of choice on Amazon. Little Bear also likes this as a place to have a little lie down, I found him there watching TV the other day.

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The only other safety factor to consider is the weight of the child using the gym. The pull-up bar itself is suitable for adults up to 110kg but obviously it isn’t really designed for people swinging around on it. Little Bear doesn’t weigh much so it copes with him fine but it does tip a little if Big Bear goes on the swing or ladder. We are going to add some tent weights to the bottom bars for a bit of extra stability but in general I do think the whole thing is more suited to someone on the lighter end of the scale.

Although it looks like a thing of torture and is not what you would expect to find in someone’s conservatory, we are very pleased with it as a purchase. It wouldn’t be for everyone and it does take up quite a bit of space but I wanted to share what can be done. We had been looking at these types of thing (see below) but they are huge and I don’t really know who could accommodate one in their house whereas our smaller DIY attempt works well for Little Bear and would be equally as good outside during the summer.

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The whole process has made us realise how talented Little Bear is in the gymnastic department. He doesn’t currently attend lessons as he would struggle with waiting to take his turn and with listening. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has tried 1:1 gym lessons or anything similar that we should consider.

 

 

Our Gym Bar Invention

Aphantasia

I know I promised a few posts based around product reviews while I get some book writing done but this week an opportunity for a guest post cropped up which I was excited to take, so you can have that instead. The post is all about Aphantasia, a condition I had never heard of before and that has only been discovered by Scientists fairly recently. A friend of mine recently happened upon some information about it and realised that she has it. I’ll let her tell you, in her own words, all about it.

 

It started with a tweet …

So, on Saturday 31 March I read a tweet by Toksvig. I don’t follow her, I didn’t know who she was, but it was retweeted by Rufus Hound, who I do follow.

The tweet read:

“I have aphantasia. It means I don’t see any pictures in my head.  No visual imagination at all.  This affects my ability to retain memories, or perhaps, my ability to recall them.  I also don’t have an easy way to recognise the faces of people I don’t know well or see often”

I was gobsmacked.

It was the first time ever, just over a month shy of my 50th birthday, that I realised people did see things visually in their heads.  I was sat with my family at the time; husband, daughter and her partner, and asked them if they could do it, and was amazed that they said they could!

Further probing at my Mother-in-Law’s later revealed that she can do it too. When she counts sheep, she can see them in her mind.  She can add detail, like a grassy field and a sheep dog running around.  She just could not believe I couldn’t do it, and suggested I must be doing something wrong – concentrating too hard, over thinking it maybe!

I thought seeing things in your mind’s eye was a figure of speech. I thought people did what I did, and internally described situations, rather than actually seeing them.  In that respect, all I have is blackness – internally I am blind!

It made a few things make sense. I do have trouble with faces, especially if I see someone out of context.  I fail to recognise people I know, but I also do the opposite and think I have seen someone I know, but it turns out not to be them!  My husband has always said he hopes I never witness a crime, because I would be absolutely terrible at giving information to the police!  I’d have the wrong person locked up in a jiffy!

Only the morning of my discovery I had been to a local park to take part in Parkrun. I parked the car a 5 minute walk away and walked into the park.  I’ve done it before, but over a year ago and not alone.  After the run, I really wasn’t sure of the way back to the car!  I could see a path, a wide gate across it, with an opening to the side, and a huge puddle in front, so very visually distinctive, but  I could not remember if I had passed it or not!  I spent a couple of minutes eliminating other possibilities.  I was a straggler, one of the last to finish the run, there was no one to follow, so I just had to try it and see.  I was right and it was the correct way to go, but it required thought and effort on my part to reach that conclusion.

Googling the subject led me to an article on the BBC website, and a link to a quiz ( BBC quiz). It required me to try to picture faces of the people I know well, or a scene, like a beach . I literally answered every question with “no image at all” putting me in the lowest scoring bracket.

My first thought on this discovery was to feel quite sad. I’m already night blind, have no 3D vision and am self-diagnosed with dyspraxia – nothing official but I tick a lot of boxes, so I really felt that I was missing out – that my experience of the world was clearly a lot less rich than that of other  people.

I felt most sad that I could not picture up my Mum’s face; she died 22 years ago. If there was an image that I would conjure up if I could, that would be the one.

It’s very early days but at this moment in time, if I could change, and be able to perceive the world like other people do, I would, but I realise I do have a few things going for me!

I like language. I have a strong internal dialogue.  The reason I can now remember what the path at the park looks like, is because, when I was a little lost, I made a conscious decision to verbally describe it to myself, and doing so has made it firmer in my mind.

Also, I love to read. I devour books, and clearly my pleasure in them is not diminished by my inability to create pictures in my mind.  In fact,  Jenifer Toksvig commented on a tweet of mine that she speed reads,  because she does not need to wait for her brain to create images, and I read quickly too and take on verbal information well.  (Don’t expect me to forget that offhand comment you made 20 years ago!)

I’m going to take more photographs, and fill my life with pictures of people and places I love so that I can revisit them that way.

I am going to offer to take part in research by the University of Exeter on the subject, and thanks to Jenifer Toksvig I have joined a support group on Facebook.

And in the future, if I ignore you, or seem a little bit confused when I see you, remind me who you are and how I know you. I won’t have forgotten you, it just takes my brain a little bit longer to trigger the memory in some other way; the pieces will come together eventually!

 

 

Thanks to my friend, who wants to remain anonymous, for writing this when the discovery is so new and raw to her.

I’m fascinated by the concept and it’s got me thinking how my visual imagination works. I took the quiz and scored within the average range but when I try to ‘see’ something in my imagination I don’t know whether there actually is a picture there or not. I know that sounds daft. I know my visual imagination isn’t bad as I can recall a colour well and can go to a shop and find an almost exact match for something without having the thing with me. I don’t know if I can actually ‘see’ the colour if I shut my eyes but I have a perception of it on some level.

The points about facial recall are interesting too. I feel as though I have got worse at this with age and will often know that I recognise someone but can’t place who they are. It only really happens with people I don’t know well whereas I’m guessing for the author of this piece that it happens to her fairly frequently and with people she does know well.

It’s also interesting to think how this works for our children, especially if they have trauma in their background and may have blocked out some of their visual memories. I wonder if Aphantasia can be acquired. I read something that suggested that visual recall of memories can be intrusive and can be a symptom of PTSD which I guess is the polar opposite of Aphantasia.

The difficulty with it all is that it is a very subjective concept and it is almost impossible to know what is happening in someone else’s brain. I think I take whatever my brain does for granted, so much so that I don’t really know what it does. I mentioned Aphantasia and what that is to Grizzly and he was horrified because he said his whole way of thinking is based on visualisation and he didn’t know how his brain would work without it.

I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts and how other people’s mind’s eye works.

 

 

Aphantasia

Dinner Winner

I have decided while I Am Writing to post some shorter blog posts for a few weeks about some products we have bought recently.

This week’s product is the Dinner Winner plate made by Fred.

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 Meal times have always been a bit tricky here, ever since we first met Little Bear. I suspect his development was disrupted around the weaning stage and when he first arrived I probably should have gone back to basics with introducing solids and different textures. He was over three at that point though and I was pretty distracted by many a pressing behaviour challenge. I did do purees for him and I have fed him on and off since.

Little Bear is six now and at mealtimes, especially tea time when he’s tired, he tends to mess with anything and everything but doesn’t focus his energy on eating. He will clamber over the bench, fiddle with his cutlery etc. but not touch his food. It has always driven us a bit mad but we have tried to be patient and to feed him if that’s what he needs.

I wasn’t looking for another solution but a few weeks ago I was flicking through a therapy magazine and came across these Dinner Winner plates. I immediately felt it would be worth a try because it is essentially a visual support for eating your meal. It evidently struck a chord with the speech therapist in me: it’s such a clever and practical idea and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen one before. We found you could buy them on Amazon and one was with us the next day.

There are lots of designs but I chose the superhero one as I felt Little Bear would like that one and it was a bit more grown up.

On the first day, the plate worked like a miracle. Little Bear LOVED it, especially the fact that there is a compartment with a lid for you to open at the end of your meal and hopefully find a treat. I explained to him that you start at the beginning and eat one compartment at a time. There was a risk Little Bear wouldn’t care about the order but he took that aspect very seriously and finished his dinner in record time. I don’t want him to rush but tea it is usually a very lengthy affair so this was a clear improvement.

The second day was similarly wonderful. After that, the novelty wore off a bit. However, I can honestly say that though the plate hasn’t delivered a miracle it has certainly improved things significantly. I think Little Bear is much less prompt-dependent now. Previously I had to prompt every mouthful or load his fork for him but now he does often feed himself the whole meal, without prompts, just with a bit of dithering between compartments. I now wonder whether seeing a whole plate of food was overwhelming for Little Bear and he was having difficulty breaking the task of eating into parts. The plate has done that for him and one compartment at a time is not overwhelming. Also, when one has gone, counting the remaining compartments gives a natural countdown to being finished which seems to help Little Bear with seeing an end to the task. Sometimes we are winning at dinner.

I don’t think the treat at the end would be appropriate for all children, depending on their issues with eating but it does work for Little Bear. One chocolate button seems to be motivation enough.

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On a practical level the plate requires a bit more preparation from me. I tend to serve his food onto a normal plate to check I’m giving him the right quantity and then I need to chop it up and divide it between the compartments. It is a bit more faffy but I feel as though it is worth it. The first meal he had on it was baked potato which obviously had to be modified a bit more than usual!

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Overall I think it’s a fabulous piece of design and a really clever use of visual support. I would definitely recommend it and this is not one of those blog posts someone has paid me to write!

As an added bonus, Little Bear practises his reading on the words written in the compartments. It’s a big thumbs up from me and my little dude.

 

Dinner Winner

Am Writing

So, here is a thing. I am writing a book. I apologise to any of my Twitter followers because they already know this, seeing as though I have become somewhat obsessed with tweeting about it.

I have been writing it for some time now, in the region of a year, maybe more depending on what you think constitutes writing a book. To start with, the book was a carefully chosen selection of my blog posts. Then it became part book, part diary, part blog posts. It has had various different iterations.

Up until recently I was writing it on the side, when I had time, after all the other things I was doing. I was also writing it kind of secretly. It wasn’t a secret, secret, but I wasn’t exactly telling everyone I was doing it either. Everyone is writing a book aren’t they? My book probably wasn’t going to get published anyway, seeing as though it is ridiculously difficult to get published, so why tell people about it? It would just be embarrassing when it didn’t come off.

However, the book is not really just a hobby, it is something I’m actually serious about and the more I’ve got into blogging, the more I’ve come to realise that writing is a big part of who I am. I need writing to be in my life and when I sit at the computer it just sort of flows out of me. I want to be an author. There, I’ve said it. I don’t want to stop being a speech and language therapist but I do also want to be an author.

Being an author is a much trickier career choice than I originally thought. The writing might well flow out but someone, somewhere, needs to think it’s good and worthy of printing. The whole success of this career choice relies on someone else’s judgement, which, it turns out, is pretty hard to get used to. I also really felt that I couldn’t call myself an author until I had finally got published and until that point I would just be a wannabe, which feels kind of uncool.

I made submissions to literary agents. I got rejection letters and quickly began to lose whatever belief I once had. Trying to become an author requires A LOT of self-belief. An agency sent me a nice letter saying that one author submitted her work over 80 times before she became published so although my book wasn’t for them, I shouldn’t give up. Bloody Nora I thought, who has enough unwavering belief to keep submitting when they have already been rejected 70 times? Or 75 times? I had been rejected 4 or 5 times and was already getting fed up.

A few weeks ago it came to a bit of a head. Grizzly sat me down and made me talk to him. I just wasn’t feeling successful in any area of my life, that was the problem. “Which bit needs to change?” he asked me. The speech therapy bit? The parenting bit? The blogging bit? You’re working hard in all of them he reassured (and some other things about promising to appreciate me more). It’s the book, I mumbled. “Make the book happen then,” he told me. “But I’m trying and no one likes it and I keep getting rejected and waahhhh!” I had a proper moan then quickly became fed up with the sound of my own voice. “It might need re-writing and that’ll be a really big job….” I trailed off. “You’ll never have as much time as this”, he said, “Just do it. If you don’t believe in it, no one will”.

I guess I needed some tough love. I wasn’t sure I felt much better at the time but I did seem to feel differently about everything when I woke up in the morning. If I was really serious about this, I needed to do it, as in seriously do it, not just a bit of secret tinkering. I decided to come out as a wannabe author. Maybe talking to people and asking their advice would make it all feel more official and proper? Maybe publically talking about it would take me one step closer to actually fulfilling it? I started to wonder whether it is the publishing that allows you to call yourself an author or if it could possibly be the act of writing itself.

Grizzly also asked me his usual questions: ‘what is the worst that could happen?’ and ‘what do you have to lose?’ “Nothing, apart from my dignity,” I replied petulantly. “Dignity is a subjective concept anyway”, he said, “You’ve got nothing to lose”. I don’t normally like to give him the satisfaction of thinking he’s right but I’m inclined to agree with him on this one occasion.

At the end of the day, even if I never, ever, get published, I will still have written a book. I need to consider that an achievement in itself and the act of having sat there, hour after hour, week after week, pouring my thoughts onto the page, will not be negated by a lack of publishing. I will still have put my feelings into carefully chosen words and crafted those words into carefully constructed sentences. That will still have happened even if the book never makes its way to the shelves of Waterstones.

I have been lucky enough to get some constructive feedback on the most recent draft. It has helped me to realise that blog posts are easy to hide behind and a lazy way to tell a whole story. I am no longer messing about or taking short cuts. The book will not write itself. This time I am truly writing the book; not the abridged version or the easy-reader but the actual story of how we got our son. I don’t mean ‘first we did stage one, then stage two then we met him’. I mean the honest, no holds barred truth of how the placement was 24 hours from disruption in the first week.

In order to really tell that story, I need to make my mind go back to memories it has purposefully forgotten. I didn’t start blogging until 5 months after we met Little Bear so I have never written properly about the first days and weeks. I am genuinely struggling to recall some of it in detail, as is Grizzly, as I think we’ve blocked it out. Snippets of situations keep coming back to me, now that I have gone looking for them. It has been surprisingly emotional to make myself stop and reflect like this especially as us Bears usually tend to live life constantly on fast forward.

All adoptions have their challenges and rocky times but I think people usually have a bit of a honeymoon period first, with issues gradually appearing or worsening over time. I’m not quite sure how we managed to have our very worst time immediately as we met Little Bear, but we did, and it makes the progress and change we have experienced since that point all the more stark in comparison.

Another bit of feedback was that the Bear pseudonyms don’t work in book form so I’ve had to come up with human ones. I now feel like some sort of triple agent, as I try to remember who I’m talking to and whether I should refer to us by our actual names or whether it’s a blog/social media situation so should use Bear names or whether I’m in book mode and should use our human pseudonyms. It’s pretty blooming confusing and I’m bound to trip myself up somewhere.

I wanted to share what I am up to on here because I don’t know whether I will manage to give the blog the same level of attention as usual, while I focus on the book. If I don’t manage to post as often I’m sorry, but I will be back and you never know, one day you might even be able to read my book (but don’t get too excited because I’m still writing it and the chances of it getting published are teeny tiny but thankfully God loves a trier).

Am Writing

Pets, Children & Why We’re Not Getting a Dog

We keep thinking about getting a dog. We have favourite dog breeds and have even thought about dog names. We are not getting one though, unless I actually want to have a nervous breakdown, which I don’t, so we are not getting one. Not in the foreseeable future anyhow.

It is not as though we haven’t got any pets. We have two cats, outside fish, inside fish and up until fairly recently we had three hens (they got old, don’t worry, it isn’t a grizzly fox story).

The cats are good pets for Little Bear. The cats are quite straightforward with clear boundaries; if they are happy they show you with purring, if they’re not they show you with a scratch. They literally never get over-excited, I don’t think cats can be bothered, and if Little Bear is too rough or over-exuberant with them, they either walk away or give him a nip. Obviously I don’t want him to be nipped or scratched but it is a natural consequence of not treating the cat properly and has led to him being very gentle with them. He has learned that if he is nice to the cats, they will reward him with cuddles and sleep on his bed. Whenever that happens I always tell Little Bear how much they love him, otherwise they wouldn’t want to be in his bedroom or on his bed and that makes him feel good.

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Little Bear has started to get involved with feeding them and knows when they’re hungry. He is also good at keeping them company on the way to the vets. He is less pleased when the little cat goes on a killing spree and brings all sorts of half-maimed creatures into the house but he has helped to catch a live mouse on more than one occasion and has also tidied up dead birds (I don’t make him do that, obviously, but he likes to help). The cats have taught both boys a lot about life, nature and responsibility.

The fish are quite entertaining to look at but I have to admit they are the least exciting of all our pets for children. Little Bear enjoyed building the pond though and enjoyed keeping it ice-free over the cold spell we just had. He likes to feed the inside and outside fish and helps to clean out the tank. Pets definitely provide opportunities for helping and feeling successful.

Our hens have been our most fear-inducing pets, though only ever in other people’s children, not in our own. It has always been a bit of a surprise to folk when they have come across them in our back garden as we live in a typical cul-de-sac, with a not-very-big garden and you don’t really expect to find them there. We have fenced off part of the garden at the side and the hens are generally free range in that bit. Children have to go in there to get to the trampoline though which is what causes the consternation.

We already had the hens when Little Bear came home and he was pretty interested in them from the beginning. I have some lovely photos of him holding one of them and also him inside the hen house with them all outside! I was pretty impressed with him that at the age of three he was brave enough to get hold off one (they were friendly but you did risk a whip from a wing if you didn’t hold them firmly enough). The look on his little face of pride and happiness is just lovely.

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Little Bear has learned quite a lot from the hens. When he first arrived I don’t think he’d ever seen an egg before and he certainly didn’t know that hens lay them. The first time he was left alone with the freshly laid eggs, he threw them all on the ground and trampled them. I often talk about the incident in my workshops and I genuinely think it was because he didn’t understand the context. He didn’t understand that the hens had laid the eggs, that we could take them inside and cook them or that we could eat them. I think he just thought “they look interesting” and explored them on a sensory level.

Funnily enough Little Bear is a good little helper in the kitchen these days and whenever we are baking or making pancakes, he is always in charge of the egg part.

Little Bear has always enjoyed a practical task and would often help Grizzly to hose out the hen house or to re-fill the feed or water or just give the hens some treats. Our last hen, Yoko, recently became poorly and it was obvious she was going to die. It was during the Beast From The East so we brought her inside and she sat in a washing up bowl by the back door for several days while we gave her ‘end of life care’ (the poor thing had lost her ability to move about). Both boys were good at sitting with her and stroking her. Big Bear even suggested she might want to watch You-Tube on his I Pad!

I think that having her inside and letting her go naturally was helpful for the boys who could get a bit used to what was happening and were not shocked when she did die (though the three of us did stand there for quite some time staring at her, trying to decide whether she was breathing or not. It’s harder to tell than you’d think!).

Having pets has certainly brought another dimension to our lives and I do think the boys have gained from it. They have developed empathy, caring and the practical ability to look after something.

I could see us with a dog: I could see the boys would get a lot from one too. Only we just can’t get one. It’s a bad idea.

Little Bear LOVES dogs. I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who loves dogs quite as much as him. When he was smaller he would just run at them, whether he knew them or not and would be desperate to get his hands on them. We have had A LOT of chats about not knowing whether dogs are friendly or not and that you must ask their owner first before you can touch them. Little Bear has learned the rule well but it has not stopped him from gate-crashing stranger’s picnics to make a furry friend or trying to wrestle a lead from someone so he can walk their dog. Once, we were in the country park near to home and I happened to turn around just at the instant Little Bear had over exuberantly scooped up a Dachshund and was dangling it face first above the ground, the poor thing no doubt scared out of its wits. Another time we met a Chow Chow on the high street and within three seconds of being acquainted with it, Little Bear popped his hand in its mouth, probably as he was intrigued by its dark tongue. Dark tongue or no, you can’t go round sticking your hand into random dog’s mouths.

My brother has a dog. She is only about a year old, massive and EXTREMELY bouncy. She is a Tigger of a dog. She is very friendly and has no malice in her whatsoever. She never growls and loves the children. However, and it’s a big however, she has some issues with regulation. She basically can’t regulate herself and hence can be poor at listening, unruly and very, very excitable.

Before we go to see the dog, Little Bear and I always have a little chat. I remind him that if he runs and jumps at her, she will jump up at him. I remind him that if he wants her to be calm, he needs to be quiet and calm and move about slowly. Little Bear knows all this and can tell me the rules. I believe he has every intention of sticking to them.

When we arrive, the dog will be beside herself because some new people have appeared and not only that but some of them are tiny people and that’s way more exciting. Her tail will be wagging with such vigour that she’s knocking things over and she will be being held by her grown-ups to stop her from jumping at everyone’s faces. As she is considerably bigger than Little Bear on her hind legs there is a very real possibility that she will knock him flying. Little Bear doesn’t mind one jot and is just as keen to get to her. What usually ensues is a tangle of human and dog, lots of licks and possibly an accidental scratch.

Already, Little Bear has forgotten the rules. Then mayhem breaks out. The more times the dog licks him or stands on him or knocks him over, the more excited Little Bear gets. The more excited and loud and fast Little Bear gets, the more excited the dog gets so the more she leaps about like a lamb and the more Little Bear laughs and falls over, the more the dog tries to bury under him and the more it tickles and the more he laughs. The dog and the boy reach fever pitch within the first 5 minutes of meeting each other.

Now, if that lasted for half an hour and then everybody calmed down I could deal with it. But it doesn’t. You wouldn’t think it humanly possibly but Little Bear at least, remains at fever pitch the entire time he is with the dog. We once managed 24 whole hours at my brother’s house before Grizzly and I couldn’t bear the dysregulation any longer. People say, “but they’d get used to each other, they’d calm down after a bit” but they wouldn’t. Little Bear doesn’t get any calmer and Grizzly and I find it really hard because what everyone is seeing is Little Bear at his worst. He is completely out of control. He has lost his ability to listen and he cannot be controlled either by us or by himself. He is as dysregulated as he can get. It means that when we try to get everyone to sit quietly and watch TV or let the dog have a nap, Little Bear is not physically capable at that moment in time of leaving her alone or of being quiet or of sitting still. It means he seems very disobedient and is constantly told off.

Having written about Interoception recently, I do wonder if that is the root cause. I read that part of being under-responsive to interoceptive feedback is that you don’t know when you’re getting over-excited or when you need a break. Little Bear certainly doesn’t when he is with the dog and last time, he was absolutely exhausted when we got him home, having come down from his adrenaline-fuelled high.

Obviously if we did get a dog Little Bear would love it but you can see why it feels risky. We would do our research and get a calm breed but a puppy is a puppy and all will be excitable to some degree. We wouldn’t be able to rely on Little Bear sticking to any sort of rule about leaving the dog alone for five minutes or not playing with it roughly and I do wonder how on earth we’d be able to train it properly in those circumstances. The very worst outcome for Little Bear would be us getting a dog then having to send it back, something we are, for obvious reasons, keen to avoid.

It feels a little mean, saying our child can’t have the thing he would love most in the world but until his regulation is improved, it’s too risky. I know there is a lot written about the benefits of dogs for adopted children but I wondered whether anyone else experiences the issues we do?

I think we’ll stick to cats and hens for now. Easter is just around the corner, the perfect time to welcome some new chicks…

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Pets, Children & Why We’re Not Getting a Dog

Interoception

When I went on Sensory Integration training (admittedly about ten years ago) we were taught that there are seven senses: all the ones you usually think of (taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing) plus proprioception and the vestibular system.

Proprioception is the sense of knowing where your body is in space and is stimulated by things like deep pressure, heavy work and vibration.

The vestibular system is in your inner ear and is the sense that helps you battle gravity. It is stimulated by movement, especially spinning or being upside down, and is the sense that causes travel sickness. If anybody has experienced Labyrinthitis they will have experienced their vestibular system on overdrive! Grizzly had it so badly that he literally didn’t know whether he was the right way up or not and couldn’t get out bed for several weeks or even move his head.

I think about Sensory Integration (SI) quite a lot when it comes to Little Bear and I’ve previously written about it a little in Too fast, too hard, too loud. The basic premise of SI is that everybody has a sensory system and we are integrating sensory stimulation all of the time. Everybody’s system is different and what we can cope with/ what we need in terms of sensory stimulation in order to be comfortable in our bodies will differ too. Little Bear certainly seeks proprioceptive and vestibular input which has led to us having a free standing pull up bar in the playroom so he can climb and hang as he needs, instead of seeking similar input in a more dangerous fashion (like clipping his belt loop to the bed and hanging from there. Full marks for ingenuity but a little too dangerous for my liking).

However, a couple of articles have caught my eye recently which have suggested my SI knowledge is a bit out of date. Current thinking is that there are in fact 8 senses: all the ones I mentioned plus something called Interoception. I have done some digging to figure out what it is and why it might be important for our children and thought it may be useful to share.

Interoception is a bit like proprioception but from the inside. It is the sense of knowing how things are within our bodies. It includes things like being aware of our heart beat and whether it has sped up or slowed down; being aware of our digestive system – are we hungry/are we full/do we feel sick; is our temperature ok – are we too cold or too hot; awareness of blood sugar – are we getting shaky and a bit low on fuel; awareness of our bowel and bladder – are they full/ do they need emptying; do we have pain anywhere.

I’m imagining it like there is a telephone system between our internal organs and our brain. The lines of communication need to be kept open so that if our heart is beating faster, it can “ring” the brain which can then take measures either to ignore that or suggest for you to sit down and rest for a bit. Or you might have a full bladder. The bladder would call and tell the brain to make you aware you needed a wee and you would go to the toilet. It’s all good and very effective when working properly but there are lots of things that can get in the way.

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Studies of infants have suggested that interoception develops very early, perhaps in the first few months of life and might be stimulated by things such as their parent stroking their cheek or rubbing their back – which are pleasant sensations that might ease internal states. One study showed that being stroked on the face led to a decrease in heart rate in 9 month olds. I read something else which stated that infants “associate interoceptive signals of warmth and satiety with their caregiver’s face, which in turn drives attachment behaviour”.

From the limited evidence, you can see that a child who has been neglected (hasn’t received physical comfort) or who has had multiple caregivers (seen many carers faces), might not develop typical interoceptive skills. There is already evidence to say that children who have suffered physical abuse grow up to have altered pain sensations. One article I read suggested that investigating the impact of adverse childhood experiences on interoception is a big area which requires loads more research.

Even if we don’t fully understand all the reasons why a child may end up with a faulty interoception system, we do know that they can and that they may be under-responsive, over-responsive or seeking of interoceptive input. Being over-reactive to bodily signals such as heart rate, butterflies and muscle tension has been associated with anxiety and depression. I suppose that is the equivalent in my analogy of the brain being phoned constantly for every internal twinge or tickle instead of just for the big ones.

Being seeking or under-responsive to feelings of a full tummy has been linked to eating disorders. In this example the brain isn’t getting the call when the tummy is full or the brain starts to panic when there aren’t calls so stimulates the body to continue eating. Something about the feeling of fullness is desirable. I think the converse could also happen – being empty being the more desirable feeling.

If children struggle with interoception, they can find it difficult to know whether it is something inside or outside of them that is causing discomfort, leading to dysregulation or an unusual response. I think hunger is a really good example as Little Bear definitely struggles to identify when he’s hungry (hangry!) and will tend to get irritable and aggressive with anything and everything rather than identifying his tummy is empty and that he needs to eat.

Some researchers think that interoception could underpin many psychopathologies and could be a lot more crucial than we yet realise. One thing they do agree on is that being able to recognise and respond to your internal states (interoceptive feedback) is a crucial skill for recognising your own emotions, learning and good decision-making. Poor interoception tends to be linked to risk-taking behaviours such as drug-taking, promiscuity and alcohol abuse in later life. Could this be because these things tend to heighten sensation, giving the brain the feedback it needs but doesn’t usually get?

As emotions such as anger, nervousness, and excitement have a physical impact on the body, as well a neurological one, we can see how interoception also has an involvement with our emotional development. In fact interoception is crucial in helping us to identify which emotions we are feeling from the signals our bodies are giving us.

It turns out that interoception is a much more complex and wide-ranging sense than you would initially think.

So what about Little Bear? What I have learned that is of use to him?

Well, according to SPD Star “it’s only when all of the other senses are regulated and in check that our body is quiet enough to listen to what those internal signals are telling our brain”. In other words, most children who experience SI challenges are likely to experience some interoceptive differences and they won’t be resolved until their other sensory needs are being met. Let’s hope that hanging bar is doing its job then.

I have identified that when it comes to the interoceptive sense, Little Bear is under-reactive. I have already mentioned that he would neglect to eat without adult support but perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned is that he is probably under-reactive in the bowel/bladder department too. I have talked about his Continence Issues previously but this information shines a new light on them. It seems very likely that the phone line between Little Bear’s bowel/ bladder and brain is a bit faulty. When the bowel/bladder start to fill up, the message does not immediately get passed to his brain. It is only when they are full to capacity and the red warning light should be going off that Little Bear’s brain gets the signal to tell him to go to the loo. By that stage he often needs to run and sometimes he inevitably doesn’t make it. The theory certainly fits with the behaviour we observe.

I like this as a way of explaining why he’s not consistently dry, it makes sense. As with most aspects of SI it also means there is hope and that with the right approach he should be able to make progress.

I have found it more difficult to find specific advice about how exactly to work on interoception, other than to speak to an OT or get a sensory diet written. However, what I have gleaned is that you basically want to get the brain more tuned into the signals from the organs/ muscles and Mindfulness is mentioned quite a bit in the literature. I guess that makes sense – quietening everything down so that you can hear the internal whispers that you would otherwise miss. Once you are more tuned into those signals, your brain should get better at listening out for them.

Some of the things we already do at home seem to be appropriate for improving this sense. Things like when Little Bear is hungry, I will draw his attention to the rumbling sounds from his tummy and explain what they mean. Sometimes he will say he has tummy ache and I’ll know from the coincident hyperactivity that he needs the toilet. Since reading about interoception I am getting more conscious of not just herding him to the loo but trying to encourage him to feel that tummy ache and identifying it as the feeling of needing the toilet and explaining that when you feel that sensation, you know you need the loo. This sort of cause and effect doesn’t always come naturally to our children anyway and sometimes they do need us to state things that seem obvious to us (it isn’t obvious to them otherwise they would be able to act on the sensations).

Apparently regularly prompting a child to go to the loo helps them to get used to the sensation of an empty bladder and to experience the contrast with a full bladder which should help to develop their interoception over time. Using technology such as vibrating watches is a helpful way of keeping on top of their interoceptive challenges a bit more independently, as well as teaching them strategies such as going to the toilet during every break whether they think they need it or not.

As with most things adoption related, this isn’t a quick fix. It takes time and getting other sensory needs under control first.

I can see improvements in Little Bear’s interoception system though. He was certainly under-responsive to pain when we first met him and though he still has a high pain threshold (a few more than average phone calls from the injured area to the brain before a response happens) he does now respond to knocks and bumps in a much more typical way. He will cry and come for a rub where previously he could have banged his head on a solid object and not even broken step or let out a yelp. The toileting and hunger issues have improved too, but in a stepwise fashion, where we still have some steps to go.

Interestingly, while being hyper-aware of your own heart rate can go hand in hand with anxiety, some children enjoy the sensation of a heavily beating heart and actively seek this – driving them to exercise – and consequently they become very fit. I’m not sure if this applies to Little Bear but I’m not sure that it doesn’t either as he certainly likes running about/ bouncing/ hanging etc. and is developing into an impressive sportsman.

As with most differences, a differently developed interoception system brings its challenges but also its unexpected silver linings.

 

 

*If you want to know more about interoception, this is a particularly comprehensive article:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187892931630127X

 

**This blog is based on my own reading. If you think I’ve missed something or not quite explained something properly please let me know.

 

 

 

 

Interoception