3 Ways to Help your Twice-Exceptional (2e) Child Cope with Sensory Processing Sensitivities
Our nervous system receives messages from our environment through our senses and then interprets and processes these messages. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to input from one or several of the seven senses.
Sensory processing exists on a spectrum and many typically developing children experience sensory sensitivities and difficulty processing everyday sensory information.
Sensory sensitivities are more common in children with:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Developmental delays
Gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) children tend to pick up more subtle environmental cues and sometimes exhibit unique sensory needs.
These are a few strategies I have found helpful when working with families of gifted and 2e children who experience sensory sensitivities or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
Study your Child’s Sensory Triggers
Children with sensory processing challenges can be over-sensitive, under-sensitive, or both. A child may have over-sensitivities to some things and under-sensitivities to other things.
Understanding Sensory Preferences and Triggers
The most common sensory need is sensory overload. However, many children experience the opposite and have a sensory system that tends to be under-stimulated, so they constantly crave stimulation in different ways.
Those with hypersensitivity may be easily overwhelmed by certain sounds, sights, tastes, smells, balance, and body awareness. Children with hyposensitivity may have a continuous need to move more, touch others, bite things, or seek more sensations from the world around them. These children may thrive in more noisy and busy environments.
Recognizing your child’s unique sensory triggers will help you guide the decisions about what strategies to use and what things to avoid. Observe and pay close attention to the kind of environments and situations your child seeks or escapes. Does she dislike certain sounds or places? Does he crave certain textures? Does he get irritated in crowded spaces? Does your child have an unusual aversion to a pair of shoes? Does she complain about feeling too hot when others feel cold?
Keep a small journal near you and make any notes on what happens before, during, and after a sensory dysregulation episode. Look for patterns of behavior and document what strategies help and during which specific situations. What works one day during a particular setting might not work the next day at a different time of the day.
In general, it’s good to observe behavior for about 2 to 3 weeks and across different situations to be able to start noticing trends and patterns. Form a hypothesis and test it out. Be the scientist of your child’s behaviors. Investigating and identifying your child’s main sensory triggers will help you understand and recognize the best practices for your child and design a plan that allows your child to thrive. Creating and sticking to routines that support your child’s specific sensory needs can make a big difference.
Create Time and Space for Restorative Practices
We all need time to process, digest, and integrate sensory information and those with special sensory needs can benefit deeply from some restorative time. Sensory input can have a cumulative effect. Receiving too much sensory information can affect our ability to tune out and filter input that we are typically able to process normally. You may have noticed this in your child. There may be some days when it may seem like they are more able to handle a lot of input and some days, the slightest things set them off. It’s because their nervous systems have had enough. It’s important to give your child’s system a break.
Here are some ways to provide your child’s nervous system a break:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Focused breathing
- Body scan meditation
- Guided imagery
- Tai chi and qigong
- Mindful movement
All of these activities can be extremely beneficial for this purpose. These practices also have powerful calming and therapeutic effects on the nervous system because they increase the relaxation response.
The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system work in tandem. The sympathetic system is responsible for activating the fight or flight response, which is an evolutionary adaptation to keep us safe from harm. When we feel threatened, our brain activates the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect and is activated when we are in a calm and relaxed state.
These restorative practices can trigger a switch in the body’s nervous system from a sympathetic stage to a parasympathetic stage. In addition, physical activities like yoga, tai chi, qigong, and mindful movement can increase body and somatic awareness, which can be very powerful for children who struggle with emotional self-regulation and regulating their responses to sensory input appropriately.
To learn more about other strategies that can help your child settle his nervous system before and during a stressful situation, check out this Calm Down Tools Cheat Sheet.
Likewise, creating a dedicated space for your child to process excess sensory information can be very helpful. If your child is on the sensory-avoiding end of the spectrum, your child can have a small corner at home where you can intentionally block some sensory input or at least those sources your child tends to have more trouble regulating.
You don’t need to turn a whole room into an expensive sensory corner, but just a quiet area that your child finds comforting and soothing can provide significant relief. You could make it as elaborate or simple as your space and budget allow.
After you locate an appropriate area in your home, you could put some soft cushions and a lamp with low, subtle lighting. The point is to purposefully designate a space where your child can take the time to practice things that are calming for her nervous system. If your child is on the sensory-seeking end of the spectrum, you could include a lava lamp or a small fish tank and a variety of textures that can provide some tactile and visual input without being overwhelming.
Work with an Occupational Therapist
An occupational therapist can provide individualized recommendations based on the unique sensory needs of your child. An occupational therapist can also design a specifically tailored sensory diet.
A sensory diet is a set of personalized physical activities that can help children get the sensory input their nervous system needs. These activities can calm an over-aroused or over-active nervous system and prevent ineffective responses to sensory input. A sensory diet is carefully designed and scheduled into a child’s day to assist with arousal, attention, sensory reaction, and self-regulation.
If your child has significant sensory challenges that affect his participation in everyday activities, your child’s doctor may be able to refer you to an occupational therapist. You may also be able to obtain school-based occupational therapy (OT) if your child’s sensory needs are significantly affecting her learning or behavior within the school setting.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that requires schools to serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities. The law stipulates that students with disabilities must have access to school-based occupational therapy services if they need them to benefit from special education; however, this can be tricky because many children with sensory processing needs are not eligible for special education services and do not have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Even if a child has an IEP, they may not be eligible for school-based OT.
Occupational therapy services covered under IDEA are considered related services and they are not stand-alone services. What this means is that a child cannot receive OT services within the school setting if they do not qualify for other primary services on an IEP.
In order for a child to receive school-based OT, an IEP team must demonstrate :
- The need for an IEP because the child has one or more of the 13 disabilities covered under IDEA and
- The need for OT services within the school setting.
In addition, only public schools are required to provide Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for children with disabilities, so private schools are not required to provide special education services. That said, private and nonpublic schools are expected to collaborate with public school districts to meet the needs of children who are eligible for special education services.
“FAPE refers specifically to special education and related services that are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge to the parent, and that meet the standards of the state education department.”
-US Department of Education
In some cases, families of children enrolled in private schools may be able to obtain services through the school district where their child resides, though this is beyond the scope of this post.
Do you feel like you need support communicating with your child’s school regarding these services? If you have questions about this confusing process, I can help you navigate the murky waters of IEP eligibility and development and provide guidance on accessing special education supports if your child appears to be eligible. You can schedule a complimentary consultation to determine if I can help.
If your child is homeschooled or attends private school, I can also offer recommendations on effective private occupational therapists and share resources on how to work with your private school.
Do you have other practices or strategies that have helped your child cope with sensory processing needs? Comment below!
Day Sanchez is a bilingual school psychologist, education specialist, and social and emotional intelligence coach. She has over eight years of experience working with gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) children in public, charter, and private schools in California, Florida, and New Jersey. Her approach draws on social and emotional learning, positive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive behavioral techniques. In 2017, Day left the public education system to help 2e families advocate for their children’s rights. Shortly after that, she founded 2e Minds to provide guidance, support, and resources for 2e children and their families.