What is Sensory Sensitivity?

autism sensory issuesI was having lunch with a couple of friends of mine the other day and the discussion of “Sensory Friendly” came up and how important this is for parents who have kids with special needs.

What does “Sensory Friendly” mean and why is it necessary?

I don’t want to do these children a disservice by just skimming over the surface of this topic. So, before I jump into this post, let me warn you, this may be long, but hopefully it will be helpful. For this reason, I will break this subject down into several small posts giving you my perspective and a glimpse into what our experience with sensory sensitivity has been with Taylor.

Okay. Let’s start with the “what”.

The sensory friendly initiative also known as the sensory movement allows individuals with autism and other sensory needs the ability to see and experience all the things the world has to offer, without being overwhelmed by everything. (You can learn more about what our friends at KultureCity are doing with this here.)

There are many ways business owners can create a sensory friendly environment to their businesses. One way is by offering head phones if their environment is very loud. Having quiet areas or picture signs are also ways to create a sensory friendly environment.

However, the most important thing a business owner can do is educate the staff about sensory sensitivity and the best tools they can use to help if a situation were to occur.

Why is this necessary?

The short answer? Acceptance.

 If you have a child on the spectrum, I am sure you already know what it means to be sensory sensitive, but let me give you some examples that I have experienced with Taylor over the years.
When Taylor was 18 months old, my dad became an ordained minister. I was so proud of my dad and I wouldn’t have missed the service for anything. My husband and I took Taylor with us to this large church where the ceremony was taking place.  After the service, I picked up Taylor from the baby room and then met my husband and my dad outside of the fellowship hall where they were waiting for us so we could all go in together.

Taylor was so happy to see his Pop and wanted to go to him. My dad took Taylor from me and then opened the door to the fellowship hall to go inside. My dad didn’t make it a foot in the door before Taylor was suddenly screaming. I don’t mean crying, I mean, we thought he was hurt! My dad thought he had accidentally pinched Taylor or something and quickly stepped back into the hallway and handed Taylor back to me.

As soon as the doors were shut again, Taylor’s cries ceased.

“Okay,” we thought, “Let’s try this again.” My dad opens the door and Taylor starts screaming immediately but this time, I was holding Taylor. I knew I didn’t pinch that baby!

We finally figured out it was the noise of the people inside the fellowship hall. Since we were the last ones in, all the other attendees were already inside the fellowship hall, eating, talking and laughing. It was very loud in that room and Taylor was having none of it. Going from the quiet hallway into a room with several hundred people talking at once was a complete sensory overload for Taylor.

He WAS hurting. The sound was literally hurting his ears and maybe his head. Remember, Taylor wasn’t talking at this age so this was like a mystery we were trying to solve. It’s only hind sight that we knew what was going on then. This was before he was diagnosed, so on this night we just chalked it up to Taylor being a very tired baby.

During those toddler years, we seemed to always have a very tired baby when it came to going out in a public place. We could no longer go to restaurants. I mean, we certainly tried to, but it was such a miserable experience…for all of us! We would put Taylor in the high chair and he would scream the entire time. We tried bringing Taylor’s favorite foods with us for him to eat. It didn’t matter. What I did know was that Taylor wanted out of that highchair. We couldn’t do that, of course. If we took him out of the high chair, he would have headed straight for the door, and fast! We didn’t understand at that time what was going on. Taylor wanted to escape that atmosphere. It was just too much for him. My family and I just thought we were experiencing the “terrible twos”. The thought of a sensory sensitivity issue hadn’t even entered into our vocabulary yet. So, we just didn’t go out to dinner much for about 2 years.

Take-out it was.

moose head

One time, I remember in particular, was also when was Taylor was around 18 months old. We wanted to visit a new restaurant that we thought would work for Taylor. This restaurant sat right on a creek next to a railroad track in our home town. Taylor LOVED trains, so my husband and I thought this would be perfect! Taylor would be able to sit and watch the trains while we adults had a great dinner.

We didn’t last 15 minutes! When we walked in the door, the first thing Taylor saw was an enormous moose head mounted on the wall above the hostess desk. It was HUGE!Taylor balked! To his defense, it was ginormous, so we took Taylor out to the front porch of the restaurant to wait. When our name was called, I had to go the long way around the hostess desk with Taylor so that he wouldn’t be traumatized again by the giant moose. Once we got to our table, I sat Taylor down in his chair and prayed for a train to come by. I sat down and looked over at Taylor and saw that  his eyes were huge, looking up at the walls all around him with his little lip was quivering. He was terrified! All around us were mounted animal heads! Deer, bears, wildcats, fish, you name it and my child was about to go into a full blown melt down.

We left before the waitress could even bring us our water.

So, okay, this may not have been as much of a “sensory thing” per say, but many years later we would revisit this restaurant when Taylor was four years old. When we pulled in the parking lot, Taylor kept repeating one word and pointing at the front door. “Moose, moose, moose.”

We were stunned! We had been to this place for literally 15 minutes when he was 18 months old and he REMEMBERED the giant moose! The difference is that THIS time, he was prepared . Taylor expected to see the animals on the wall and he was not scared this time. This is an example of how pic syms can help children on the spectrum in a place of business.

Maybe if there had been something right outside the door with photos of the animals on the wall, Taylor would have looked forward to seeing them. Who knows?Maybe not. Honestly, they bothered me, too.

It took us another two years for Mike and I to finally figure out that Taylor did not like loud crowd noises at all. As I mentioned in the post before this one, if there were more than a few people in the room talking at once, that was it. Meltdown.

The night it finally clicked with me was Christmas Eve when Taylor was four. We had just bought our new home and wanted to share it with our entire family, so I volunteered to host my mother-in-law’s family for Christmas. There were about 15-20 people in our house that evening. As the night went on, we began to relax, catch up and laugh at family stories and the volume got louder and louder.

I heard it first. Crying. No, it was more like a yell-cry. My cousin looked at me and asked “is that Taylor?!”

I ran upstairs and laying on the bridge that overlooked our living room was Taylor. He was laying on the floor, curled up in a fetal position with his hands over his ears. This was very out of character for my quiet Taylor.

It was the saddest thing ever. I felt awful. Taylor couldn’t deal. We had never had that many people in our new house before and he wasn’t ready. Between the loud talking, unwrapping Christmas presents and other children running around the house, Taylor was in a total sensory overload.

I finally was able to calm him down and the evening turned out wonderful, but I had learned something very important about my son and it went a long way in helping him in future.

People with Autism are very sensory sensitive. It’s like all five of their senses are on high volume all the time.  My family learned along with me that night what that looked like and what we could do to make Taylor’s evening more enjoyable. We brought our voices down some. We sent the other kids to the playroom to play. We made sure Taylor knew he could leave the room if he needed to “get away” and most importantly, we paid closer attention to how he was handling the situation.

We became aware, accepted it and then we worked with him.

That is what sensory friendly is about it. I want to help educate people and encourage business owners to become more inclusive for those that have sensory issues. Hopefully, through this blog, I can do just that.

It’s just not enough to be aware. Awareness is acknowledging there is a need. Acceptance is knowing there is a need and then moving to do something about it.

My next post will elaborate more on this subject for those that would like to learn more. Stay tuned…

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