Very commonly, children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) develop social issues or social anxiety. These children struggle every day not only trying to understand why they’re bodies react to everything the way it does, but also with making others understand why. They are more aware than an observer realizes of what does and does not cause them discomfort, which is why these children tend to actively avoid any sort of social interaction. It isn’t because they don’t want the interaction, it stems from fear of how the interaction will make their bodies feel.
Children with SPD become overwhelmed easily and may react by running away from other children or adults who try talking to them, breaking down when others get too close or even react physically to the other person to keep the other individual out of their safe, comfortable space. For these children whose sensory issues are so severe, especially in the tactile sense, we can understand how social interactions can be terrifying. But that shouldn’t give license for them to continue avoiding the world and everyone in it.
The biggest point for parents to remember is to create opportunities for their children to be social without forcing it to happen.
Here are a few suggestions to try:
- Take him to age and ability appropriate play places. Just because a child is eight-years-old, for example, doesn’t mean she is socially equal with her peers. Enrolling a child with SPD in a play group where children are developmentally much older than they are may only end up adding fuel to the fire. Although it’s important that the child has the chance to practice the new skills they’re learning, the key is to put them in an age-group they are most comfortable in and work up from there. Therefore, parents should be sure to keep both age and social ability in mind.
- Use social stories. This is a way to ‘talk’ a child through a social scene to prepare them for what’s going to happen, how it might make them feel and the strategies they can use to cope. Of course, parents can’t prepare their SPD child for every minute detail as surprises can always come up. But parents can give the child the basics and prepare them as best as possible for those situations.
- Teach the child how to use his words. Teaching children with SPD how to use their words is one of the best tools parents can give them. Sometimes it’s difficult for a child not only to express what’s going on inside of their bodies, but also to understand what’s going on. A good example would be when a parent notices their child is frustrated, using words such as, “Mia, your hands are in fists, you’re hugging yourself and you are trying not to cry. You seem frustrated. Let’s talk about it!” When feelings are connected to words that describe them, a parent is giving the child the stepping stones to helping himself.
- Find a ‘buddy’. This may be something that may not work with all children with SPD initially, but it can be well worth the try. Parents should work with their child’s teacher or therapist in finding another child who is on equal grounds with their child then see if they can ‘buddy up’. It simply means the child will have a person to share social situations with such as recess, ‘pairing up’ projects in school and other areas. Finding the right buddy can give a child with SPD courage to try new things, stick situations out that they’d normally be terrified of and remind them what’s great about them.
- Read stories about friendship. Books such as Winnie the Pooh, Horton Hears A Who, or The Friendship Tree are books that teach about friendship and celebrate it. A great tip is for parents to read their child books about making friends, keeping friends, what it takes to make friends, and even stories about mistakes made in friendship. These are very important tools for children with SPD who are trying to figure out the whole social scene. Parents should encourage questions and answer them as honestly as possible, depending on their understanding level.
Of course, parents are also encouraged to discover their own strategies based on their own personal insight into their child’s abilities, experience and level of understanding. For a child with SPD, being social can be a scary thing at first. But taking baby steps, giving them the tools to practice and being there when things get tough can all make a huge difference.