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Mental Health Tips for Special Needs Parents

Finding Inner Peace for Special Needs Parents

Special needs parenting can be difficult. With every big step forward your child makes is a path shaped by a lot of trials. For every milestone, there is a parent, teacher, educator, and/or therapist who has worked incredibly hard to help a special needs individual reach their potential. Taking care of your mental health in the midst of helping your child or loved one reach their goals is not often discussed in the special needs community, but it is nevertheless incredibly important.

Special needs parents are amazing. You meet the physical, mental, and education needs of your child on a regular basis. If they can’t speak for themselves, you are their voice. You are an advocate and a warrior. You are someone whose heart is filled with empathy in a way that not many people’s hearts are. While taking care of your child, there are moments of frustration, times when you need to breathe, and times when you need to take care of yourself.

Before you do anything, do this:

If you are having a tough time, make sure that you are well fed, rested, and are getting enough of your physical energy spent. One of the first things that many therapists suggest in an introductory therapy session is to check those boxes. Sometimes, people get hangry (angry while hungry), cranky while tired, or just a little bit restless if they haven’t walked around enough. You’re human, so make sure the needs of your body are met before you start addressing your mental health.

If you are having underlying thoughts that seem to be inhibiting your daily function, it may be a good idea to immediately consult a psychiatrist. It’s okay to not be okay. While the tips in this article can be useful for most, they are not effective for all. Asking for extra help is not a thing to ever be ashamed of, and it can almost always benefit you as a parent.

Hide in your closet. Yes, we mean it.

Parents, in general, sometimes need a break. That’s okay, you are not a horrible person for wanting just a few moments to yourself. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and generally like you may explode, take a moment to find a hiding spot in your house. Of course, make sure your child is in a situation or place that they can’t hurt themselves. We recommend taking a moment after you have put the kids to bed to hide in your closet before you go downstairs to watch late night television. It can be tempting to try to just watch shows after the kiddos are asleep, but it might be a good idea to seclude out some time for yourself.

It sounds weird, right? It kind of is, but it seriously helps. Sometimes you just have to have a moment to collect yourself and address all the things in your life that may be stressing you out. It helps to focus your mind if the place that you’re meditating is dark, and closets are a pretty good place to find peace.

Of course, we’re not suggesting you hide from your child or your problems. We want you to know that it is okay to take a breather, even if it’s just for a little while ever night after the kids go to bed.

Keep a journal.

Sometimes it helps to write down your fears, worries, and happenings in a journal. For a lot of people, they’re a healthy way of processing emotions. They can help you understand how your reactions and responses to situational stimuli, if those reactions and responses are healthy or hindering, or if you can be benefitted. Journals can help you be mindful of yourself and your situation. Plus, down the road, you can look back and see your growth. Breathe. Meditate. Reset yourself.

Treat yo-self.

It’s okay, no one saw you order yourself an extra pumpkin muffie from Panera to eat later. Sometimes you might just need an extra pick-me-up to feel a little bit better about the day. Whether it’s a new scarf, an extra pastry, or a new pen to write with, sometimes little, inexpensive treat yo-self presents are a great way to add a little pep to your step.

Cry sometimes.

Life can get tough. You have to allow yourself to experience the emotions that we often hold inside and don’t let our children see. It’s alright to cry sometimes, it’s a healthy way of expressing the way we feel about something.

Know when to seek outside help.

As we said, it’s okay to not be okay. Your mental health is an integral part of raising your child. If you have persisting negative thoughts that aren’t helped by taking time to breathe, meditate, and re-center yourself, it might be time to find a psychiatrist or psychologist that will be able to help you.

 


Sensory Seekers, Explained

Sensory seekers, explained.

In the autism community, there is a lot of talk about sensory seeking. And we mean a LOT. Scroll through Pinterest, Instagram, or any websites that offer products for kids with special needs, and you’ll find something that says the word “sensory.” This buzzword is kind of loaded, but there’s not a lot of explanation for it. So let’s talk about it, what it means for children with special needs, and how you can help a loved one that experiences sensory processing issues.

What is it?

Sensory Processing Disorder, SPD, is a continuum spectrum disorder, ranging from mild to severe, in which individuals experience sensitivities or aversions to what they can experience with their senses. If you remember from grade school, the five senses are taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. However, more recently, the STAR Institute has identified seven senses.

  1. Visual

  2. Auditory

  3. Olfactory (smell) System

  4. Gustatory (taste) System

  5. Vestibular (sense of head movement in space) System

  6. Proprioceptive (sensations from muscles and joints of the body) System

  7. Interoception

An individual with SPD may have trouble processing any of the sensory input in different settings. The senses ultimately manifest as signals in our neurological pathways, and those signals might not be interpreted differently than individuals without SPD.

Behaviorally, SPD can manifest itself in a lot of diverse ways. Some children might express or vocalize their dislike for specific sensory input. Some may scream, others may seem more closed off, and still, others might try to remove them from the situation. Some kids might not be able to tolerate the sensations of certain smells, textures, sights, and sounds and may have thrown a tantrum as a behavioral response. These episodes are often referred to as “sensory overload.”

Their behaviors and responses to sensory stimulation can affect their relationships with peers, adults, the community, themselves, their productivity levels, leisure time, and health or hygiene.

What is going on in the brain?

Using an MRI scan, in a study from the University of San Francisco California, researchers studied the brains of children with SPD and typically developing children without SPD. Although the study and research are still in its early stages, it was concluded that the brains of children with SPD had a few differences. If you want to know exactly what that is, read these very confusing statements from UC San Francisco.

The researchers found a strong correlation between the microstructural abnormalities in the white matter of the posterior cerebral tracts focused on sensory processing and the auditory, multisensory and inattention scores reported by parents in the Sensory Profile. The strongest correlation was for auditory processing, with other correlations observed for multi-sensory integration, vision, tactile and inattention.

If you had trouble understanding that, no worries, so did we. Long story short, kids with SPD’s brains have different ways of interpreting information from their environment than their typically developing peers. They especially noticed that the back of the brain in the parts that are known to process stimuli varied between the two groups, proving that there is a cognitive difference in the SPD group’s brain’s interpretation of external stimuli.

Do all kids who have Sensory Processing Disorder also have Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The two are not mutually exclusive, so the short answer is no. However, children on the Autism Spectrum can also have Sensory Processing Disorder. SPD and ASD are frequently mistaken for one another, which is where the confusion sometimes comes in.

What helps?

A lot of people will tell you a lot of different ways to help a child with SPD. The first and foremost thing that needs to be done is to consult a professional. Your child’s pediatrician should be able to give you a referral to an occupational therapist that specializes in helping with sensory processing disorder in kiddos. If not, a quick Google search and a few phone calls should do the trick to help find a good OT for your kiddo.

Second, try desensitizing. A lot of the adverse reactions and behaviors a child might be having are caused by their lack of integration or interaction with a new sight, sound, feeling, smell, or taste. Take it little by little. It is kind of a frustrating process at times, but it is wholly worthwhile when it’s over. We have written a few articles about helping desensitize children to various new environments, and the basic rules of desensitization are as follows:

  1. Identify the problem. Which of the senses does your child not process well?
  2. Figure out an activity that subtly introduces and incorporates the thing that your child has an aversion to. For example, if bath time is a problem for your kiddo, try using shaving cream to distract them from the things that they are sensitive with during bath time.
  3. Continue trying to incorporate the things that they have an aversion to, increasing the amount and frequency. Fundamentally, this practice is desensitizing your child to the senses that are causing their overload.
  4. Keep at it. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back. Other times, milestones can become huge celebrations.
  5. Consult an Occupational Therapist. They might be able to help fill in the gaps of where your child might need a little extra help.

What do “sensory toys” actually do?

You might have seen all those DIY calm down bottles, fidgets, squishes, and other sensory toys the internet seems to be obsessed with. These toys can help kids focus, calm themselves, and provide good sensory input. Sensory toys provide children with additional feedback and input that they are not receiving from their environment.

Going Forward

Sensory Processing Disorder is a unique and complicated disorder. Just how everyone is different, every case of SPD is different. What might work for some might not work for others. The best thing you can do for a child with SPD is to try to get outside help from an Occupational Therapist.


10 Cool and Unusual Sensory Toys for the Classroom

Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, there is almost no way that you have evaded the fidget craze. It started with fidget spinners and has evolved quickly to things like squishies, putties, slimes, PlayFoams and fidget cubes.

For children with Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, ADD, or individuals who just have trouble focusing, fidgets can be a saving grace. Fidgets and sensory toys work well in the classroom because they give additional sensory input to children who are not getting enough from their environment in a quiet, often discreet way.

Classrooms, homes, and clinics can benefit from having a few fidgets and small sensory toys. They’re fun, relatively inexpensive, and helpful, so why not?

  1. Chew-A-Roo Robot Pencil Toppers

Bite marks on pencils aren’t just unsightly, they’re also kind of unhealthy. By biting pencils, they may be putting germs in their mouths, ingesting pieces of wood, graphite, metal, and eraser bits. Some kids chew on pencils or pens in schools because of a need for stimulation, others because of stress or anxiety. Why not just pop a safe, washable chewie on the end of their pencil?

  1. Ez-Squeeze DNA Ball

Squish your way to focusing. It’s a ball filled with smaller, squishy balls. What can be better? If you want to see how it works, click here.

  1. Mini Gamer Fidget

Gaming is really all the rage, and has been since PacMan first hit the market. The Mini Gamer Fidget brings the repetitive motion of gaming to a small, handheld device.

  1. Pencil Finger Fidgets

Can be better than a fidget spinner, especially while a kiddo is testing.

  1. Hairy Tangle Jr.

Provides tactile feedback while being a kind of fun, unsolvable puzzle.

  1. Rubbabu Standard Ball Assortment

     

    They’re squishy, tactile, velvety, and fun. Kids can play their way to some sensory feedback.

  1. CanDo® Standard Circular Gel Squeeze Ball

These are great tools for building hand strength, focusing, and providing tactile feedback. These toys offer high resistance and gentle tactile feedback,

  1. Bug-Out Bob Squeeze Toy

Bob is classic, hilarious, and quite charming. He’s like the perfect first date, only in fidget form.

  1. Bouncy Bands For Elementary School Chairs

Yes, you read that right. Those kiddos with a little extra wiggles can get some of their tapping energy out by bouncing their feet on this band.

  1. Goop Ball

This is easily one of the weirdest things you’ll ever play with. Essentially, the Goop Ball is contained slime. Cleaner than slime and easier to take away, that’s for sure.