Sensory stories for sensory processing disorder by Joanna Grace
6th July 2017
In my previous blog post Sensory stories for sensory difficulties I wrote about how repeated exposure to a challenging sensory experience within a motivating sensory story can help a child to retune their internal sensory volume control to match the world they live in. It may be that a child with sensory processing disorder can do this too; it depends on the nature of the disorder. In this blog post I am going to assume that they cannot. This assumption is purely down to the word limit I am working to, it’s not necessarily true. I recommend that if you are looking to support a child with Sensory Processing Disorder through using sensory stories that you read both blog posts and use your knowledge and intuition about that child to do what is best for them. You may also be interested to read the Slipping Sensory? post which offers speculation about the current rise in sensory issues.
Our ability to get information from the world around us is completely reliant on our senses. How our brain processes the information that it receives from our sensory systems is critical to our successful interaction with the world around us. People with sensory processing disorder will be experiencing difficulty with the brain part of sensing. Their eyes, ears, and other sensory systems can be working perfectly, but when the information gets to the brain it is altered in a way that is not useful. For example a sound may be turned up by the brain to a point where it hurts the ears, a touch experience may be so heightened as to feel like electrocution, or it can go the other way and the visual world can dull into insignificance making the experiencer appear bored or disinterested. We rely on our senses. Having a sensory processing disorder can be very disabling and disheartening, especially if your experience of the world is not understood by those you share that world with.
Fortunately for the children you support they are being cared for by someone who appreciates that their experience may be different to their own and is research how to better support them.
For many people with Sensory Processing Disorder their sensory experiences will remain distorted in spite of repeated practice. (For those for whom practice is supportive please see previous post Sensory stories for sensory difficulties). These individuals need help learning how to cope with experiences that will always be difficult for them. Being taught coping strategies early can help them to lead less distressing lives.
We have all encountered sensory experiences that are distressing and that which, through our lives, we have developed coping strategies. For example the sound of fingernails scraping down a chalk board sets most people on edge. If I had created that sound near you when you were a baby you would have responded by crying. If I had done it when you were a toddler maybe you would have shoved me. If I had done it to you when you were a child perhaps you would have blocked out the noise by putting your fingers in your ears. And perhaps now if I went to do it you would pre-empt me by asking me kindly not to do that. The sound experience remains the same but your response differs.
Because of the distressing nature of unpleasant sensory experiences it is common for individuals to respond like the toddler, with violent retaliation. Their violence looks unprovoked, but it is not. If you have someone responding with extreme violence it is likely that their sensory systems have been so offended by an experience that they have tricked the body into believing they are in danger, and the violence of the response is proportionate to the fight for survival that follows in the body following such a signal.
Telling a child off for a violent response to sensory distress will not cure Sensory Processing Disorder, it will just add low self esteem to the list of things they suffer from.
You need to identify what sensory experiences are difficult for the child and how they can be responded to, e.g. what is the equivalent to the fingers in the ears or the polite request to desist in the example above, and then teach them these skills.
Teaching sensory coping skills is best done in an environment where the child feels safe and secure. The predictable nature of a story is ideal, creating a sensory story* full of positive experiences that will motivate the child to take part and including one challenging experience is an ideal environment for teaching coping strategies. You can share the story with that child or with a group repeatedly. Support the child in using the coping strategy relevant to their needs and support the group in the difference in experience between themselves and others. In this way you will support the child with Sensory Processing Difficulties whilst developing the empathy of the other children and creating a community spirit of inclusion within your setting.
*A sensory story is a concise text, typically less than ten sentences, where each sentence of the story is partnered with a rich and relevant sensory experience. My post What makes a sensory story different to a story sack explains more.
If you would like to find out more about sensory stories a free basic guide to sharing the stories can be downloaded from http://jo.element42.org/sensory-stories where you can also find the stories old by The Sensory Projects and a variety of free summary leaflets which can be useful if you want to introduce the idea to other people. You may also be interested to read my book Sensory Stories for children and teens which is available on Amazon.
If you would like to attend or book a training day focused on sensory stories and how to get the most out of them for the people you support please visit http://jo.element42.org/training