As anyone who has dealt with young children know, birthday parties can be overwhelming. Loud sounds, screaming, laughing, crying. Bright lights. Unfamiliar faces. Crowds. It’s a sensory nightmare, and bound to cause a few meltdowns as overstimulated and perhaps overtired children succumb to sensory overload.
Now imagine that same scenario with a child who is hypersensitive to sensory stimulation.
Children with Sensory Integration Processing Disorder have difficulty processing sensory input. Lights which may seem fine to most may hurt their eyes, or sounds that many may simply filter out may sound like nails on a chalkboard. Everyone has their own “sensory threshold,” the amount of sensory stimulation they can deal with before it becomes “annoying” or overwhelming (that’s why some sounds bother some people but not others), but kids with SPD are over or under sensitive to the stimuli. In essence, sound, touch, taste, sights, and smells or any combination of them can overwhelm them, causing a fight or flight reaction.
Kids can be born with these sensitivities, or they can develop them. In the case of my son, he acquired these reactions after nearly a year of sensory deprivation, a loss of hearing. In the beginning, he would scream at sounds and cover his ears, or shield his eyes when he couldn’t deal with the visual overload. Now, his therapy has taught his body ways to integrate the stimuli, and has taught him coping techniques to deal with overstimulation until he can self regulate. We also have several “tools” to help him regulate if needed. (We use these tools less and less frequently as he gains more and more body awareness.)
Birthday parties for kids with SPD are usually nightmares. My son has learned to adjust, but he still has challenges. He will usually seek out a “safe spot” at a party upon first entering. That’s a quiet corner or area where he can run when he feels overwhelmed. He usually finds a place in natural sunlight, or in between furniture. That’s his first coping technique.
House parties become especially difficult for him because of the lack of room and ability for him to move around. SPD kids often feel better with movement, so parties with lots of physical activities or room to play (like backyard parties or ones at indoor play areas) suit him best. But even then there are major obstacles to look out for. One inflatable park we have attended is a nightmare for him because of the acoustics. It was in a warehouse, and the sounds of laughing and screaming patrons echoed off the tin walls. He screamed each time we tried to take him into the play area. Another indoor place we visited had dimmed lighting which caused a visual fear for him. Added to the loud music blasting over the speakers, it felt like a dark haunted house to him.
Of course, we cannot control where someone plans a party for their child, and part of his recovery is teaching him to deal with the overstimulation so he can enjoy “regular life” activities. And so, for each party we attend, I pack my arsenal of sensory tools, including muffling headphones, oral chewies, pressure vests, and weighted vests. I help him find a safe spot, take him into a quiet room (usually a bathroom) when even his safe space is getting crowded, interpret his sign language and nonverbal communication attempts to others, answer questions from curious children who want to know “why does he do that?” or “what is he wearing?” and deal with the meltdowns if or when they occur. He doesn’t eat cake or ice cream (sensory issues), so I also try to find an alternative.
When scouting locations for my own kids’ parties, I try to be sensory sensitive so both my kids can enjoy the experience. I need to consider space and crowding, amplification of sound, brightness or dimness of light, and wait time between activities. I search for potential safe spots and always take him there first to check it out. The best parties have allowed opportunities for him to play, climb, jump, and explore, but are not dependent on his participation. Swim parties are best because the water provides him movement, a calming sound, and the soothing feel reminiscent of being in the womb. In the water, he is most calm and regulated. He is free.
So imagine your toddler, overwhelmed, tired, full of sugar and ice cream, as you attempt to calm him down …..multiple by 10…..now you might begin to see what my son has learned to deal with, and what he continues to deal with…..