Little Bear’s sensory needs can pretty much be summed up by the title of this post. Why walk if you can run instead? Why move things gently if you can slam them? Why say things quietly when you can shout?
Like many children who have experienced early neglect, Little Bear does have some quirks in his sensory system. However, as evidenced by the fact that it has taken me 51 posts to get around to talking about it, his needs are not that severe in the grand scheme of things. I’ve certainly met children who are more sensory seeking; whose whole environment needs to be changed to help them get the sensory input they crave; who cannot engage in everyday tasks in a functional way because they have to incessantly hunt for sensory stimulation.
Little Bear can function well enough in his everyday life, though we do notice that his sensory system is a little different at times.
I think we mainly notice it when we have to overuse the word “gently”. Little Bear finds it hard to grade his movements, always going in too hard. I constantly have to remind him that if he bashes his toys together they will break. Little Bear is what you would probably describe as “heavy handed” and is fairly prone to breaking things. It is no longer purposeful but usually due to accidentally pulling/ pushing/ pressing/ bashing too hard. He has written off many a felt tip pen and I have to buy the kind with an indestructible nib. We always have to consider the robustness of a toy before purchasing anything for him.
Little Bear often comes in with too much force for cuddles too, frequently head first. We must be used to dodging but if someone is caught unawares it tends to really hurt them whereas Little Bear hardly feels it. I guess all the head-banging he used to do may well have contributed to this. On a positive note, we have noticed that Little Bear seems to be getting more sensitive to touch on his head and does frequently cry now if he accidentally bashes himself (his head is currently at door handle height so he seems to bash it quite often) which is a far more ‘normal’ reaction than not really noticing that he’s injured himself.
The surprising thing is that Little Bear can be really gentle when he tries: he will stroke your face or stroke the cats with the right amount of pressure but during play or when he isn’t consciously thinking about it, his default is to crash and bash.
Little Bear seeks movement too and can often be found bouncing/ jumping/ hanging upside down. As soon as we get outside he has a tendency to run. We are quite outside-y as a family so Little Bear gets plenty of exercise as part of day to day life which probably helps to regulate his system. However, as I’ve got to know Little Bear better I have realised that when he starts bouncing and spinning all over the place it is not necessarily a sign that he needs more exercise. Sometimes it seems to be more of a self-stimulating activity that he uses when he’s tired or getting over-excited. It usually means that he needs calming and a rest. Giving him more movement at this point is likely to tip him further into over-stimulated territory.
Little Bear is more easily over-stimulated than your average child and when he gets to that point, he cannot yet bring himself back from it. There will undoubtedly be a period of him being generally out of control followed by a meltdown. As his parent I have to be vigilant of his level of sensory alertness and I have to intervene to stop him from getting to that point. I think it can sometimes seem as though I spoil his fun, especially when it comes to rough and tumble play. However, I can see him getting more and more excited and I know that he isn’t able to regulate this aspect of himself yet. He needs external help to identify when he has had enough and to find ways appropriate ways to calm down.
Little Bear is also pretty loud. I’m not sure I can totally blame his sensory system as Big Bear is one of the loudest children you could meet so he might just be following his brother’s example! However, Little Bear is loud within his own right. In his nativity play this week, he understandably struggled to learn the myriad of words needed to be able to join in with the songs but what he lacked in clarity, he certainly made up for in volume!
Interestingly for me, with my Speech and Language Therapy hat on, Little Bear is also too noisy in his speech. Most sounds in English have a voiced (noisy) and voiceless (quiet) counterpart. For example, ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds are made in exactly the same way in your mouth. The only difference between them is that to make a ‘d’ sound your vocal cords vibrate but for a ‘t’ they do not. Therefore ‘d’ is really just a noisy ‘t’. Little Bear replaces almost all the quiet sounds with their noisy partners e.g. he says “gat” instead of ‘cat’, “bear” instead of ‘pear’, “do” instead of ‘two’. It is one of the reasons his speech has such an unusual quality to it and why he is so difficult to understand.
Little Bear obviously has quite significant speech and language difficulties but I do wonder whether some aspects of those difficulties are due to the way his sensorimotor system has developed.
So yes, Little Bear has his sensory quirks and at the moment he requires external help with staying regulated. However, he is not the only one with a quirky system. A little bug bear of mine (rant alert) is that people often talk about “sensory integration difficulties” while seeming to forget that we all have sensory integration systems that are constantly working to process the different stimuli that come our way. We all need to process and respond to movement, touch, smells, tastes, sounds, visual stimuli and challenges to our balance and position in space. We will all have different preferences when it comes to each sense. Some people like moving fast and being upside down and consequently love rollercoasters. Other people hate them as they make them sick and dizzy. Some people love spicy food, the spicier the better; others prefer more bland cuisine. As a migraine sufferer I am particularly sensitive to light and changes to light and will find things that others wouldn’t even notice very uncomfortable.
Everyone has a sensory integration system and everyone’s functions a little differently. Although I have described Little Bear’s in a fair amount of detail, I don’t view it as a huge problem, just a part of ‘normal’ sensory variation. Little Bear’s is different to mine which is different to Grizzly’s. As long as everyone is getting what their system needs and not too much of the things it doesn’t, we are generally ok.
I think true Sensory Integration Difficulties exist when a child can no longer function at home or in the classroom because of their need to seek or avoid certain stimuli. That is when referrals and further help are needed.
Thankfully we are not at that point. However, if you meet us you’ll hear us before you see us; brace yourself, mind your head and don’t lend Little Bear your felt tips. Oh, and I’ll sit with my back to the window ta, the light is a bit weird.