Tag Archives: sensory integration

Words of Truth

“Raw thoughts are like savory understandings of yummy foods.” ~ Emma 03/02/14

Sometimes when Emma and I are working she will write something that I simply cannot follow in real-time.  It is only after multiple readings and many hours of pondering have passed that I can begin to make sense of certain sentences.  As Emma constructs a sentence to reflect her thoughts by pointing to the letters she wants on the letter board, my mind is working on another level.  I am transcribing as she points, so I’m concentrating hard on remembering the letters and figuring out when I can pause to write those letters down.

Will the pause create a disconnect?   Will it break her concentration?   How much will I be able to remember before I have to stop her to write the letters she’s chosen down?  Sometimes she’ll point to “I” then “a” and then “y” and I’ll have to stop and show her the letters and say, do you need to change any of these letters?  Sometimes she will erase all the letters, insert a letter between two others, but other times she’ll erase just the last letter and continue.  Sometimes she will say aloud, “No, keep letters” and we will proceed.  Often she will then write something so astonishing I cannot contain the surge of emotions that rush forward.

During all of this, Emma may twirl her string, laugh, say unrelated words, or look at the timer and comment about how much time is left.  Sometimes writing one sentence might take 45 minutes.  Sometimes that one sentence will remain unfinished and when we come back to it, she will simply say, “no” and we will move on to something else.  Sometimes the words are so seemingly unrelated I have to resist the urge to ask for clarification mid sentence.  Sometimes she will write something I cannot understand, but the next day will re-read it and think –  my gosh, that’s brilliant!

“Raw thoughts are like savory understandings of yummy foods.”

Seemingly disparate senses woven together to create a canvas of rich and varied depth and colors has me in awe.  We talk about autism and autistic people as having sensory integration issues, but I look at a sentence like this one and I question whether the sensory integration issues are mine rather than hers.  Emma has a wonderful command of the English language, she is able to express her senses in complex, creative and layered ways.  I am compelled to read and reread her words.  I savor them, exactly as the sentence states so matter-of-factly.   Her words…  painstaking…  one letter at a time, convey truth.



Sensory Overload and Sensory Cravings

My friend Ibby posted this video on her Facebook timeline (for those triggered by loud noise, flashing lights and/or prone to seizures, do NOT watch or at least turn the volume way down and stand back)  

A twitter friend, after I reposted this video, wrote that this was why he wears headphones and I tweeted back that while Emma is sensitive to some noises, for the most part she craves noise and typically turns the volume up as loud as it can physically go on both music and favorite movies, much to the horror of our various neighbors.  Even though we live in New York City (a place that is, for many, a sensory overload), people get cranky when woken at 6:30AM on Saturday morning to the strains of Michael Jackson’s Beat it.  Even hard-core MJ fans protest at the volume Emma prefers and at that time of day.

My twitter friend tweeted back, “I like certain noises, Avenge Sevenfold. ;D  It’s noises other than the one I’m trying to focus on that are the problem.”  And this is exactly the important distinction that I often forget or have trouble understanding.  Unless you have sensory issues, like the ones depicted in this video, I think it’s really hard to fully understand how debilitating sensory overload can be.

A couple of months ago I went to do our weekly grocery shopping run at Whole Foods.  Typically I go every Saturday in the early afternoon.  This is a time that isn’t too crazy, the lines aren’t insanely long and often it’s even comparatively quiet.  As I stood in front of the check-out person, the cashier next to her began loudly unfolding a paper bag.  The noise was deafening, a kind of snapping sound followed by crackling.   I actually felt physical pain from the noise.  My cashier looked over and laughed and then another cashier did the same thing with one of her bags.  In response the first guy did it back and suddenly I was in the midst of a cacophony of bags being banged opened, like a series of gun shots going off.  It was horrible. I stood there stunned.  I became so disoriented I could barely think and then I felt a surge of rage. How dare they make this kind of noise with those paper bags! How dare they behave this way!  I looked around trying to figure out who I should direct my anger to and noticed that not only were they smiling, some were even laughing and so were the other customers.

They were having fun!  I was astonished.  What was so incredibly painful to me, was amusing to others.  As I left the grocery store I reflected on sensory issues and how overwhelming they can be. I thought about Emma and wondered what it must be like for her.  Does she feel this way when she needs sensory input and cannot get it or is told she must turn the volume down?  I know there are certain noises she cannot tolerate, like the cuisinart.  She hates the sound it makes and will only tolerate it if I allow her to control it and put it on “pulse”, the same goes for the electric mixer.  If one of us sings along to music she’s listening to she can’t stand it and puts her hands over her ears.  (I completely understand her doing this when I sing, I’m pretty much tone-deaf and it IS painful to listen to for even those with no sensory issues, but she does this to anyone who sings along.)

After watching the video I posted above, I was grateful for the ending.  Not because it changed anything or showed some obvious solution, but because it was one human being taking the time to notice another human being in obvious pain without judgment or condemnation.

As an aside – I would love to hear from those who need and crave sensory input.  What is that like?  What does it feel like?  Is there anything you’ve done that has helped you.  Any advice or ways we can make your life more tolerable during those times?

Emma – 2007 – Auditory Integration Therapy


In the Playground – Autism

Yesterday while at the playground, Emma pushed a little boy off of a roundabout.  It wasn’t clear why she did this, though it reminded me of a game they played at camp where the little girls stood in line by the pool and then pushed the girl in front into the water.  (I can hear the defensiveness in this sentence, I know. But let me continue.)  The boy was seated on the edge of the spinning circle, like a giant saucer, filled with a dozen other children.  A few children were on the ground pushing, while running to make it go faster.  The children seated within the saucer were shrieking with laughter and then the little boy went flying off.  The child’s mother, understandably upset, was furious with Emma and yelled at her that this was unacceptable behavior.

I was seated with a friend of ours whose son was playing with Nic.  I noticed Nic staring at me with a horrified expression and making gestures with his hands for me to come.  When I reached him he told me what had happened.  “She just pushed that kid off, Mom.”

“Which kid?” I asked Nic.

“That one,” he pointed to a young child being led away by his mother.  “We were all just playing and this one kid was spinning the thing around really fast.  Emma was laughing and that boy was sitting pretty close to the edge and then Emma just pushed him and he went flying.  The mom got really mad and started yelling at Emma.”

“Okay.  Thanks Nic.”

I made Emma get off and had her sit on a bench next to her father.  I told her she was to sit still until I returned.  I then ran after the mother and her son, apologizing and explaining to her that Emma has autism.  I told her how very sorry I was and inquired after her son, who seemed frightened and confused.  I told him Emma hadn’t meant to hurt him.  The mother told me, with an apologetic look that Emma’s behavior wasn’t okay.  I nodded my head and agreed with her.  She then said, “Oh dear, I didn’t know.  I hope I didn’t scare her when I yelled at her, but I was so upset.”

I assured her that Emma was fine and again apologized for Emma’s behavior.  When I returned to where Emma was seated I said, “Emma.  You cannot push other children.  It is not okay to do that.  You could have hurt him.  Do you understand that, Emma?”

“You cannot push,” Emma said, nodding her head.

“That’s right.  You cannot push.”

“Go back?”  Emma asked, pointing to the spinning saucer.

“No.  You can sit here next to me.”

“One minute,” Emma said.

“Ten minutes.  You will sit next to me for ten minutes Emma.  And you may not play on that again.  You can run around and do other things.  And Em, if you push again, you will go home.  It’s not okay.  You could have hurt that little boy.”  Emma looked down at her hands.  “Do you understand, Em?  It’s not okay to push.”  I watched her for any sign of understanding.  She continued to stare down at her hands, which were in her lap.  “Em.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, mommy.  You cannot push.  It’s not okay.”

It is times like these that I feel at a loss.  We so rely on communicating through speech that these sorts of situations feel impossible with Emma.  She showed no sign of understanding, she wasn’t angry, she didn’t seem particularly upset, if anything she seemed completely baffled by the whole situation.  “Emma.  Why did you push him?”  I finally asked.

“You pushed.  It’s not okay to push,” was her response.

One hears about aggression in children with autism all the time.  Emma, when upset, frustrated or angry, usually hurts herself.  Biting her arm or hand is her most common reaction, but a few times she’s thrown something or punched herself in the face.  It is difficult to witness these acts of violence against herself.  It is even more difficult to make her understand why it’s not okay to hurt herself.

But this episode in the playground was different.  Emma wasn’t acting out in anger, evidently she’d had no interaction at all with the little boy she pushed.  What was going through her head?  Why did she push him?  It’s impossible to know.  But I do have a few ideas, none of which dismiss her behavior, but they do explain what may have happened.  Emma craves sensory input.  Often children who crave vestibular movement can be calmed by having ten minutes or so of it.  Emma appears to never be satisfied no matter how much she gets.  Richard and I have had countless conversations with her various therapists about this.  In our neuro-typical world we call people like this “thrill-seekers”.  In the world of autism it’s called sensory integration disorder –

Someone once explained to me that it’s a bit like having a body part fall asleep and the desire to stomp, pinch or hit that body part in the hope of “waking” it. Roller coasters, swings, trampolines, carousels, anything that moves quickly and erratically are Emma’s way of “waking”.  Pushing the boy was not an act or display of aggression as much as it was an unconscious response to her craving more movement.  It may be that he brushed against her by mistake or perhaps he was too close to her or she may not have been aware of him at all.  Unfortunately none of this helps the child who was pushed or his mother.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Vestibular & Proprioceptive Movement

From the moment Emma could walk (14 months – she went from crawling to running) she would do what we used to call, Emma’s circuit training.  This was before we knew she was autistic and didn’t realize that this was Emma’s very specific way of trying to get the kind of vestibular and proprioceptive movement she so craved.  In fact, it all looked so “normal” or “not autistic” that it took me a long time to understand this was a kind of stimming.  For more on stimming from previous posts, go to:  Compulsions & The Velcro Strip.

I was always trying to find something that might engage Emma.  When we were at the toy store, I found a mermaid finger puppet with long black hair and a blue sequined tail.  I brought it home and to my delight and surprise Emma grabbed hold of it and ran from the living room down the hallway to the front door.  When she reached the front door she swiveled around and raced back to the living room.  This went on for quite sometime and I was so excited I’d found a toy that she liked, I didn’t spend too much time wondering at the peculiarity of her “play”.  A few weeks later I found another mermaid finger puppet and a doll’s stroller and brought both home, only to have Emma completely ignore the new blonde mermaid finger puppet, but she loved the baby stroller.

Emma’s favorite circuit training, which was also how we came to call it that, was the obstacle course she would do in our living room, over and over and over and over again.  She ran from the living room couch into the TV area, jumped up on the couch there, crawled through a tunnel we had set up, ran into the kitchen, around the butcher block island, down the hall to the front door and back again.  Even better was to do all of this with the baby stroller, which she pushed along her route, knocking things over as she sped along.  I wasn’t alarmed by her circuit training, after all, Emma’s older neuro-typical brother, Nic used to spin around until he became so dizzy he’d fall down.  Kids do these things, right?  Right?!

When I took the children to the playground, Emma wanted to go on the swings for as long as she could before the lines became so long she had to get off to give another child the chance to swing, at which point she would get off only to get back in line. She wasn’t much interested in playing with other children.  She wanted, needed to swing.  At her special education school she is allowed to go to the sensory gym periodically, the idea being that children who crave vestibular and proprioceptive movement become more regulated when given the opportunity to swing, have their bodies pressed in the squeeze machine, etc.  Only Emma never seems to get more regulated.

The principal at her school laughed and said, “I’ve never seen a kid who didn’t get tired… ever!”

And she doesn’t.  When we are in Aspen during the winter, Emma will ski for five hours, go to the Aspen Recreational Center where she’ll swim for another two to three hours, then climb on the climbing wall before going grocery shopping, where she’ll push the “customer in training” shopping carts, then stop up at the barn where she will do a weight lifting workout before coming home and demanding that we play a couple dozen games of hide and seek.  Even then she’ll get up bright and early the next morning at 6:00AM sharp if we’re lucky, 5:00AM, if we’re not.

Emma – age 5

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism and our exhausted attempts to keep up, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com


When Emma was a toddler, about a year old, maybe two years old, she had a little scratch from the tag on the back of her shirt.  It seemed so insignificant, hardly worth noticing, except that Emma screamed as though her entire body had been scalded.  I remember at the time thinking it strange, that her response seemed too extreme for such a tiny scratch.

There were other incidences which also caught my attention for the very opposite reason.  She would stub her toe or get scratched by a cat or have a huge knot in her hair, none of which would cause her to even gasp.  When she grew older I was terrified of the day when she would start to lose her baby teeth, convinced this would set off such cries of pain, with no remedy other than to wait until the tooth came out of it’s own accord.  However this was not to be the case.  In fact, Emma grabbed hold of the loose tooth and simply yanked it out of her mouth, dropping it to the ground, as though it were nothing more than an irritant, like a pebble in ones shoe.  Evidently her school bus is littered with her baby teeth as she would board the bus in the morning with a loose tooth only to come home and announce, “Threw it away,” when asked what happened to her tooth.

“Where?  Where did your tooth go?” we would ask.

“On the bus,” Emma replied matter-of-factly more than once.

About six months ago Emma was reported to have said to Joe, “Joe!  Pull it out!” and then opened her mouth so that he could remove the offending tooth, which he didn’t, so she did.  Joe was able to intercept the tooth before she was able to toss it in the gutter.

I don’t think we have more than two or maybe three of Emma’s baby teeth, despite the fact she’s lost at least eight or more by this point.  We tried to tell her about the tooth fairy, but she was utterly uninterested and wandered away before we had finished.  The idea a “fairy” would come to gather up her loose teeth, leaving behind money, was not a concept Emma had any use for.

Last Friday Joe called to tell me Emma was whimpering and saying her ear hurt.  I immediately called the pediatrician then looked at Emma’s throat for signs of strep.  Sure enough there was the tell tale white spot on one side of her throat.

“No say AHHH!” Emma said, pointing at her throat.

“Well, let’s wait and see what the doctor says, Em.  Does your throat hurt?”

“Yes.  Ears.”  Emma replied.

“Your throat and your ears hurt?” I asked.


I remembered the last time I’d taken her to the pediatrician because her ears were bothering her, only to be informed that in fact she had strep, again.

Upon our arrival I proudly stated that I was sure it was strep and went on at length about how I couldn’t believe Emma had somehow contracted strep making this the third time since the school year began.  The pediatrician smiled and nodded her head as she examined Emma who kept insisting “No AHHHH!”  Meaning she didn’t want to have the doctor swab the back of her throat.

“Just ears,” Emma said repeatedly.

The instant the pediatrician looked in Emma’s left ear she looked up and said, “Raging ear infection.”

“What?” I asked, thinking I’d misheard, so convinced was I that Emma had strep.  “But what about that white dot on her throat?”

The pediatrician shrugged.  “Could be food, not sure, but her ear is bright red.  An ear this red should be extremely painful.”  She said looking at Emma.  “I’m surprised she isn’t complaining more.  It’s a really bad infection.”

I watched as Emma played cheerfully with the doctor’s stethoscope.  Observing her, one would never know her little body was host to a horrific ear infection.

“So that’s it?” I asked, still unable to believe she didn’t have strep.

“Yup.  Antibiotics will clear it up, but give her children’s advil in the meantime, that ear has got to hurt,” the pediatrician said.

By the time I had procured the prescription and the children’s advil and returned home, Emma was running around, playing happily.

“Hey Em.  How do you feel?  Does you ear hurt?”

“Yes.” Emma said before racing off down the hall with Joe in hot pursuit.  Shrieks of laughter could be heard.

One of autisms defining features is what specialist call sensory integration issues.  They can range from hypo to hyper and are often a mixture of the two.  In Emma’s case she has both and we still cannot anticipate which one we are witnessing.