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Homesingapore'Two-hour meltdowns are not normal': Hope and heartache in raising a child...

'Two-hour meltdowns are not normal': Hope and heartache in raising a child with sensory processing disorder

SINGAPORE: A stranger once approached Ms Jasmine Lim in a mall, concerned that her then four-year-old son was the victim of a kidnapping. 

The boy had been struggling and hitting her husband while being carried. 

“(They) came up to me and asked: ‘Is this your child? I just want to make sure that it’s not a kidnapping.’ Like, a complete stranger. It was so bad,” the mother in her 40s recounted in an emotional interview with CNA. 

Her son’s meltdown, at the time, was nothing new. Now in secondary school, the teenager (who declined to be named) had extreme difficulties with sensory processing even before he was a year old. 

One of the first telltale signs that he had sensory processing disorder (SPD) was when he resisted going to a birthday party by “crying, wailing, melting down”, said Ms Lim, referring to the neurodevelopmental condition that affects how the brain processes and responds to sensory information from the environment. 

This includes things we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, as well as our sense of movement (vestibular sense) and body position (proprioception). 

“Subsequently, even going to malls or shopping areas where there are crowds – basically, (places with) stimulus, a lot of noise, a lot of people, large objects like mannequins or mascots – he would melt down or refuse to go to a particular spot,” she said. 

In such situations, she would see “intense fear” in her son’s eyes, and he would display “fight or flight” responses like running away.  

While it is common to associate such behaviour with autism spectrum disorder, Ms Lim’s son didn’t display key characteristics of autism, she said. 

He was, however, later diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – another neurodevelopmental condition that research has shown often occurs with SPD.

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When SPD presents with another condition, this “potentially exacerbates the observed traits” of each condition, noted occupational therapist Evelyn Chan. 

“For example, ADHD individuals usually have emotional dysregulation challenges. Sensory processing challenges can hence negatively impact their emotional regulation and vice versa,” the senior occupational therapist with NTUC First Campus’ child support services department explained. 

It is, however, possible for SPD to occur and be treated on its own, she pointed out. 

SIGNS OF SENSORY PROCESSING DIFFICULTIES 

Children with SPD tend to display “unusual” or “extreme reactions, aversions or fears” to certain sensory input or stimulation, said Ms Chan, who works with children under six years old.

Common signs include “picky eating” and an aversion to “particular textures, tastes or smells of food”, aversion to certain clothes’ textures or tags, and aversion to haircuts or trimming of nails.

It can also include a poor sense of balance and “more than usual” sensory-seeking behaviour, like spinning, excessive jumping around and a fascination with looking at flickering lights and spinning objects.

Different situations, different signs

Ms Chan also outlined how the common signs of SPD might come up in specific environments.

At school

Clumsiness during gross motor or physical activitiesDiscomfort, aversion or fussiness during birthday celebrations, such as due to loud singingDifficulties tolerating new situationsAversion towards craft activities, such as a dislike for glue on handsEasily distracted by external sensory stimuli, such as background noise from fan or air-conditioning, people passing by, toilet flushing, the smell of foodAversion towards accidental light touch from peers

At the playground

Difficulties or aversion towards slides or swingsDifficulties exploring and playing with playground equipmentClumsinessAversion towards noise

At home

Aversion to haircuts or trimming of nailsAversion to certain clothes’ texture or tagsAversion towards noises like the vacuum cleaner and hairdryerEnjoys spinning or looking at spinning objects and flickering lights Collapse Expand

Such signs showed up in Ms Aivonne Chong’s son, Maddox, who turns 12 this year. He was diagnosed with SPD around eight when the frequency and intensity of his tantrums got “really bad”, said the 45-year-old mother. 

Maddox couldn’t tolerate any collared and long-sleeved shirts, as well as “certain textured materials”. Hawker centres were also a minefield – “the minute there is an escalation in the overall ambient noise, he can’t take it”, added Ms Chong. 

And for a good two years, her son would only eat plain white rice with eggs. A single drop of sauce on his white rice would “drive him berserk”, because the different colour would “signal a different taste that he can’t tolerate”. 

She was a first-time parent at the time but Ms Lim said his “intense reactions” didn’t “match” the situation. Having to deal with two-hour meltdowns regularly was also “not normal”. 

“We all know children; growing up, they are difficult, they are fussy. But his (reactions) are really uncalled for and it’s very hard to calm him down.”

Another 43-year-old mother who didn’t want to be identified said her 11-year-old son is hypersensitive to smells. Ms Tan (not her real name) said her family “changed (their) repertoire of cleaning agents” after he was sensitive to certain detergents. 

He is also hypersensitive to sound, and used to scream to block out drilling noise from their neighbours’ home renovations, for example. He even gets triggered by the “high-pitched static buzz” from TVs and fluorescent lights, she added. 

It takes him around 15 minutes to calm down after the TV and lights are switched off.

That said, founder of Sensory Processing Awareness Group Singapore, Dr Eugenia Koh, stressed that it is important to recognise that each child’s developmental timeline can vary significantly – so not all sensory processing difficulties are “immediately indicative” of a “disorder”.

Moreover, everyone has “unique sensory diets and preferences” that do not significantly interfere with daily functioning in social and professional contexts. 

These preferences are classified as a disorder when they “severely disrupt” a person’s ability to function effectively in these settings, or when sensory input is “so overwhelming that it significantly impacts multiple aspects of life at an intense level”, Dr Koh told CNA.

How SPD affects class behaviour

Dr Koh, who is an educational consultant, explained how the neurodevelopmental condition can affect classroom behaviour across its three main subtypes.

Sensory modulation disorder

This impacts a person’s ability to regulate their sensory diet. Individuals can be over- or under-responsive to sensory input beyond their regulated state. 

Classroom challenges may present as: 

A constant need for movement, touch or intense sensory experiences, which can be disruptive and viewed as a “behavioural challenge” Being overly sensitive to sounds, textures, lights or other sensory input, hence resisting activities that trigger discomfort and limiting their educational experiencesMissing important environmental sensory cues, like not noticing social cues or changes in temperature

Sensory discrimination disorder

This impacts a person’s ability to determine the “source, degree or significance” of a sensory input. 

Classroom challenges may present as: 

Struggling to “accurately process and distinguish” sensory stimuli, such as differentiating between similar sounds, letters or textures Easily overwhelmed by environmental sensory input, making it difficult to concentrate on learning tasks in noisy or busy spacesBeing preoccupied or distracted by sensory sensations, or becoming easily fatigued, leading to reduced focus and attention during lessonsDifficulty with fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil or using scissors, which affects engagement in hands-on learning activities

Sensory-based motor disorder 

This impacts a person’s ability to “navigate the world physically”, and can cause clumsiness, poor coordination or posture.

Classroom challenges may affect: 

Tasks that require “precise movement” of the hands and fingers, such as writing, drawing or using small objects like scissors or buttonsRunning, jumping or balancing Coordination of visual input with motor responses, such as copying information from a projector, or reading and interpreting diagrams and chartsUnderstanding spatial relationships, directions and geometric shapes Collapse Expand

“VERY LONELY” PARENTING JOURNEY

Even after sensing something is wrong, it can be difficult for parents to seek help – mainly because many don’t know how or where to begin, said those who spoke to CNA.

Ms Chan, the occupational therapist, acknowledged that SPD is “still unknown and misunderstood”. Most cases referred to occupational therapists at NTUC First Campus relate to a child’s “attention regulation, motor skills and play skills” – but underlying sensory processing challenges show up in “a good portion of them” upon assessment. 

“Thorough assessment is important so that we have objective data to explain this ‘invisible’ condition to caregivers and teachers. Most of the time, with education, caregivers and teachers have a perspective shift and start to better empathise and understand the needs of the child,” she said. 

Before this perspective shift, however, many parents might continue treating their child’s sensory processing struggles as a behavioural issue. 

“It’s quite common for most parents to reprimand the kid based on what they see. So it’s like, don’t be a difficult kid; if you have a wedding to go to, you need to dress properly, you cannot wear your house T-shirt that you typically wear at home because you’re most comfortable in it,” said Ms Chong. 

“But parents do it without realising that it really irritates the hell out of their child, who just cannot tolerate that overstimulation.”

If left unsupported, a child with sensory processing difficulties can develop “secondary social emotional challenges” in later years, such as anxiety, social withdrawal, school refusal and anger management, added Ms Chan, the occupational therapist. 

Ms Tan said her son’s diagnosis at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital changed their life. She learnt the concept of a “sensory diet” – activities that are specifically scheduled into a child’s day to help with attention, arousal and adaptive responses. 

“Once you sort of identify or come up with the right sensory diet, things become more manageable for the parent. You have some order and control over the day.”

Some parents told CNA that picking their battles is crucial, as is accepting that their child needs a “space to meltdown”. Allow them to throw tantrums and kick things around in their room, for example.

Teaching her son the “right emotional vocabulary” from young was the game changer for Ms Chong. “The positive ripple effect is Maddox is able to unpack his feelings to recognise his trigger points early, then regulate himself better,” she said. 

Having a supportive employer also allows parents to focus on finding the right interventions for their child in their younger years, added Ms Tan, who works in research and development. Her boss allowed her to work part-time for three years to spend more time with her son.

“Actually, I wanted to quit (my job) to take care of him. I was very grateful that my boss held me back. He said, ‘Look, if you quit to take care, this will be a 100 per cent problem. You need to feel like you’re living, like you have another life, so that this will become a smaller problem,’” she recalled.

“I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but looking back, it was the right decision. At least this is not my whole world, because it can be very depressing.”

When the right support is in place, a silver lining is possible, according to Ms Lim, who decided to send her son for therapy when he was four. That, and drum lessons. 

“Even before he was one year old, he was hitting pots and pans with an excellent sense of rhythm. There’s this neurological inconsistency whereby loud noises like lion dance would freak him out but the sound of drums doesn’t affect him,” she said.

“So I brought him to a drum school when he was four-and-a-half. The teacher told me that he’s a bit young but he can start because he’s very good. That’s when I realised he has this gift of perfect pitch.”

To ensure he kept up with his practices, Ms Lim also picked up drumming and now occasionally gigs with her own band outside her full-time job. When she struggles to find the right musical key, she turns to her son.

The same hypersensitivity to sound that once triggered multiple meltdowns in both mother and child now saves the day – and their relationship.

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