by Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L
Susan Schriber Orloff is CEO and executive director of Children’s Special Services, LLC, an Atlanta-based occupational therapy service for children with developmental and learning delays. Her book, Learning Re-enabled, is a practical guide for parents, teachers and therapists.
Five-year old Johnny’s a mess. His teachers float between anger and frustration about him. He has few friends and those he makes he cannot keep. His parents walk around on eggshells never knowing how he’ll react. He insists on wearing the same clothes. He talks about not liking himself and how he hates “everyone.”
In school he can be great, but if the fire alarm goes off, he’s a unable to “reset” himself and stays “on guard” and anxious. He doesn’t like to stand in line, because other kids “hit him.” Lunchroom smells “make him sick.” On the playground he’s a “wild-man” running and bumping into people and barely noticing.
Six-year old Brent is academically bright, though very forgetful. Turning in homework is a problem. The kids at school are friendly to Brent, but he rarely gets invited for play dates. During recess he seems to be a loner or randomly hangs with the same 1-2 classmates. While he is not the “star” athlete, he’s not the worst either, though he’s at the lower end of physical performances.
At home Brent is interactive and plays well with his 8 year old brother Max and Max’s friends. He insists on wearing long sleeves even in the summer and will not go in the water without a full body suit or at minimum a long sleeve t-shirt. Although congenial and generally obedient, Brent always seems to be in a “fog” needing guidance and redirection.
Brent and Johnny are displaying developmental “red flags.” Both have sensory processing issues but at opposite extremes. Breaking observed behaviors into auditory, visual, tactile, movement, body awareness (muscle/bone/joint), olfactory/taste, and emotional categories it is easy to see the patterns of a skewed sensory processing impacting all of the above areas.
Johnny needs sensory “calming” while Brent needs sensory stimulation. Johnny needs to learn how to slow it down and Brent needs to learn how to be more fluid. Johnny needs to learn how to be more discriminating and make better activity and behavioral choices. Brent needs to learn to be more assertive and to try new things. Clearly they both need help developing skill sets more in line with their life demands.
When to seek outside help and when to not? There are many online developmental checklists. I caution you to use them sparingly and in conjunction with input from an occupational therapist or other related professional. One concern does not make an “issue.”
Here are some questions you can ask as a guide to whether you should look deeper. Does my child_____________
- Seem to need more “protection” than other children
- Fidget excessively or appear “on the go” most of the time
- Seem to be unusually forgetful
- Struggle at school
- Refuse certain foods
- Reject certain textures in clothing and/or habituate wearing the same clothes
- Appear intimidated by learning new motor skills
- Resist combing his hair/getting it cut
- Seem to have “weak” muscles; tire easily
- Have a difficult time calming down when upset
- Have difficulty accepting criticisms
- Experience social issues as a top school concern
- Resist going to school
- Act depressed* (*angry, does (s)he “show off”, act bossy, have hypochondria to name a few)
If your “quirky” kid has a reasonable number of friends, gets good grades, is generally an easy member of the family, has age-appropriate interests, is able to transition and go with flow, etc., no worries. Just accept and love his quirks.
If, however, any of the above concern you, I suggest you consult a developmental pediatrician rather than a general pediatrician. The developmental pediatrician looks at neurological, emotional, physical and motor/cognitive development. S(he) can discern if there are ambiguities that need to be addressed. Developmental pediatricians are one-stop shopping in the discovery process of how and why your child is performing the way he/she is.
Do not wait for your child to “grow out of it” or to “mature.” Specific issues evolve but they do not go away and research clearly supports the benefits of early intervention.