Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sensory Stuff and Brain Balance...

Okay, I've finally got a few minutes to piece together the information I started to explain a few weeks ago, about Baby Boy and his quirkiness and Little Girl and her medication problems.

Let me start with sensory integration. It's quite an interesting animal, and there is so much information -- and misinformation -- out there that it can be quite overwhelming to a parent who is told their child has sensory integration dysfunction. It's being used by a lot of people as a catch-all phrase, and there are a few familiar symptoms that will make these people say, "Oh, he's a sensory kid... so let's do some sensory stuff and hope it works." And sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't... depending on if they got lucky enough to have actually applied the correct treatment for that particular child.

What is lacking in so many cases is an understanding of what is really going on in the child's neurological system that causes the symptoms we're seeing. What is also lacking is an understanding that sensory integration dysfunction can result in very different symptoms in different children, and that treatment options vary widely. It's not a one-size-fits-all therapy approach by any means. It's one of the most complicated disorders there is, in my opinion.

Let me try to put the very basics in laymen's terms. Sensory input is the information that comes into the brain from our senses -- we see with our eyes, we hear with our eyes, we taste with our tongues, we smell with our noses, we touch with our skin. Right? But the brain has to do something with that information... the input first has to get to the brain and then the brain has to react to the input that it gets in some way. And if the input doesn't make it to the brain in-tact, the brain isn't going to respond correctly, and that doesn't mean you have a bad brain, though it may look that way, as it usually results in developmental delays. A child isn't learning properly, the brain must not be working right, is the thinking -- but that's not always true. With sensory kids, the brain is fine! The only reason it isn't reacting properly is because the input it was sent didn't make it there in one piece! It maybe didn't make it there at all, and if it did, it made it there in scrambled fashion.

There are many different places along the neurological pathway for the information to become garbled, and this is why sensory kids can look so different. A child who has a breakdown at the level of the brainstem is going to look very different from a child who has a breakdown at the midbrain or the cerebellum.

Picture an interstate highway with several exits. If there is a traffic jam at ANY of those exits, your car isn't going to make it to its destination on time. Same with sensory input. If there is a glitch at any point along the neurological pathway (and some children have glitches at every "exit"!), your information is getting held up and is not going to make it to the cortex "on time", if at all.

There's not a visible cause for these problems. It's largely due to imbalances in the neurochemicals. And a good occupational therapist can look at a child's symptoms and tell where the glitch is occurring, and then know how to address it to start clearing up the traffic jam.

Many medications for ADHD, anxiety and depression, and other mental illnesses are trying to accomplish the same result that occupational therapy for sensory integration is trying to accomplish -- to balance the neurochemicals. You've heard the words tossed about. Serotonin. Dopamine. Histamine. These are the neurochemicals that regulate brain function. Your serotonin levels are too low, you're depressed. You're given meds to increase the serotonin. But did you know that proprioceptive input, when given in large amounts, will also increase the serotonin levels in your brain? Proprioceptive tasks activate the muscles and joints of your body and stimulate your brain to produce more serotonin -- so heavy work activities, pushing and pulling, jumping, etc. are all activities you can engage in to stimulate serotonin production.

Kids' brains know what they need and will seek it. You have a "wild child" who crashes into things, throws themselves on the ground, jumps constantly, gives huge bear hugs? You may have a sensory child whose brain recognizes the need for more serotonin and it's trying its best to get it.

This is just one example. Touch will stimulate dopamine production. You're looking here at a child that seems to crave touch, especially from people. They're affectionate and are always cuddling up against you. Vestibular activities will stimulate histamine production. Movement. These are your kids that are always moving, they're running, they're rolling, they're spinning, they're hanging upside down to watch tv, they're doing somersaults round and round the room and never seem to get dizzy.

I could go on and on with examples of symptoms and treatment, but I won't. I advise you, if your child is "hyper", "wild", "out of control" and not due to lack of discipline or to some kind of trauma they've experienced, "ADD or ADHD", autistic, or just "weird" (these are the kids you say, "There's just something DIFFERENT about that kid but I can't put my finger on what it is...) -- find a good occupational therapist as soon as possible. The younger treatment begins, the better the prognosis.

Now, for Little Girl and Baby Boy, the book I mentioned that I was referred to by an occupational therapist is called Disconnected Kids, by Dr. Robert Melillo. It's a fabulous book and I was quite ready to recommend it to any parent of a kid diagnosed with ADHD, autism, OCD, or any other neurological disorder, but now I have to take it back. It looks at the balance between the left brain and the right brain, and how they must communicate with each other to function the way the brain is intended to function, and if one side is much stronger than the other, there is a breakdown in the communication between the two halves of the brain. It ties in neatly with sensory integration dysfunction -- remember I mentioned all the different places there could be a "traffic jam" along the interstate? Here's another...

I've conducted the assessment on Little Girl and discovered she has a mild right brain weakness. But while the program looks to be quite excellent and I'm very hopeful that it will be the answer for Little Girl's issues, I'm afraid I can't recommend it for most parents. What I do recommend is that parents read the first half of the book at least, see if it sounds like their child, and if so, tell the child's therapists to read the book, if they aren't already familiar with it.

I say this because the evaluation and the treatment are very complicated and I honestly don't know that the average parent could take this book and evaluate and treat their child by following it. A very well educated parent with a background in education or therapies, yes; otherwise, probably not.

Then again, maybe I underestimate people and their capabilities. After all, while checking for Little Girl's PRN (post-rotational nystagmus), I gave her the instructions that I was going to spin her around in the chair and when I stopped, she was to look at the wall, not at me. I spun her, I stopped her, and I watched her eyes and counted the seconds until the nystagmus stopped while she stared at the wall.

And then she said, "Did you know that when you spin around and around like that, your eyes keep moving even after you stop because your brain thinks you're still moving?"

Floored me. I said, "Uhhhhh... that's exactly what I was looking at -- how did you KNOW that?"

"I learned it on PBS Kids," she replied matter-of-factly.

Yep. She's a left-brained kid all right. ;) But we're going to fix that and make her well-rounded. :)


Lauri said...

"I learned it on PBS Kids" - I love that comment.
One of my friends, her four year old daughter was diagnosed with these problems. The funny thing? They have had to change the spelling of her name from Katy to Katie, because the therapist says it would be to difficult to teach her the other way.

Prairie Rose said...

Okay, you've really got me furrowing my brow with that comment. Why on earth would it be more difficult to teach her Katy than Katie? If anything, Katy is easier... it only has four letters...


Lauri said...

It sounded to me like the therapist had something set in her mind and didn't want to change. To me the parents chose one way and she's going to have to learn to spell a lot of words with odd spellings so why not learn now?

Prairie Rose said...

What makes a word have an odd spelling? To a four year old, spelling is so arbitrary that Katy vs. Katie makes no difference. If I were those parents, I'd tell that therapist it's not her business to be tampering with the child's name. If they named her Katy, her name is Katy!! Craziness!

Lauri said...

People much older than 4 find Enlish to have arbitrary rules! Katy is short for Katlyn so I'm not sure what was going through the therapist mind when she said that they needed to change the spelling of the name. If it was me as the mother, I don't think I would have reacted well.