Self-regulation is more than sensory regulation. Our sensory kids have several other things that fill them up with challenges all day – emotions, academic and cognitive tasks, physical activities, social interactions, language demands and the ebb and flow of hunger, thirst and tired and alert cycles. There are so many things filling our kids’ cups. So what happens when we add challenges in sensory processing to the mix?
Sometimes it’s obvious – my son is sensitive to smell, sound and touch. If we walk into a busy restaurant full of new aromas, sounds and touch experiences and he has a meltdown this is an expected meltdown as his “cup” is overflowing with sensory demands. However, sometimes it’s not this obvious. We can be at home resting at the end of the day with no noise, smells or unexpected touch and he can have a meltdown. Is this then behavior? It must be, right? There is “no sensory” around. BUT, what is in his cup?
Let’s call it sensory residue. You know, that leftover coffee at the bottom of your coffee cup that you didn’t quite get to finish this morning? What happens if you add more coffee to that cup? It overflows, right?
Our sensory kids’ cups are typically occupied by some level of sensory challenge throughout the day. They experience uncomfortable or challenging sensorimotor experiences that they often have learned to cope with them. These sensory experiences then become the residue on their cup. When they cope with the sensations they aren’t making them disappear, they are pushing them aside for the time being so that they can meet the other demands of the situation.
Sensations then take up space in their cup that would otherwise be available for other demands – unless their cups are emptied (we’ll get to that in a bit). For my son, he also struggles with anxiety, as many of our sensory kids do. In the example above, upon further investigation of his “cup” he coped with all of the sensations throughout the day and now he arrives home to find out that we are having houseguests. His “cup” starts to fill with social demands as well as anticipated sensory experiences (what if our guest wears perfume or tries to touch him) just to find out that there is no room left in his “cup” due to the sensory residue leftover from the day. With the sensory ‘residue’ taking up space, and adding the social and anticipated sensory demands of the moment, he has a meltdown.
So was it a sensory meltdown? I would argue it was. We have to understand that our sensory kids start with a cup that is somewhat full already as compared to children who do not have difficulties processing sensory information. They will be less able to cope with the daily social, academic, emotional, and physical demands as they arise if support is not given to empty their cup of the sensory residue.
However, if our kids have the opportunity to empty their “cup” throughout the day these meltdowns can be avoided. So we need to find a balance for our sensational kids.
When we look at the average day – what is trying to fill his “cup”? Identify things throughout the day that are challenging – certain sensory experiences, social interactions, academic subjects, demands of physical skill, times of emotional tension, times of hunger or tiredness.
Look again for things that help to empty his “cup”. Identify things throughout the day that are joyful and calming – listening to music, getting big bear hugs, hearing the schedule of the day, playing with his favorite friend, eating his favorite snack, playing in the fidget bin, drinking from a straw cup, running an errand for the teacher, jumping on the trampoline, choosing 2 of 4 center activities, resting on the couch with a show.
Now how do we keep the “cup” at the just right level? Determine how full each challenging activity makes the “cup” and how much each joyful/calming activity empties the “cup”. Play the fill and empty game by interspersing these activities in the best way possible to keep the “cup” from overflowing.
Teach your sensational kid about their cup and let them play the fill and empty game with you! Use this example to bring light and play to self-regulation. You can even get a cup and fill and empty it as you have this discussion with them. Most importantly, try to make this a fun activity!
What is in your child’s cup?
I recently taught the Sensory Treatment and Research (STAR) Institute’s mentorship in sensory evaluation and treatment with a colleague of mine – Renee Allen – and she gifted this concept to us to allow me to develop this blog post. Thank you Renee.