Local child learns to live with Sensory Processing Disorder
BRECKENRIDGE Imagine eating a piece of watermelon with a mouth full of sand.That’s the feeling Grady Ritchea, 8, faces with most foods.And if that doesn’t sound pleasant, try coping with sensory overload every day to the point where the sound of a public toilet flushing is a frightening experience. Grady has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). It hinders his ability to take in information through senses like touch, smell, taste, vision and hearing, and to organize, interpret and respond to the sensory information he receives. This disorder affects as many as 5 percent of all children, according to the KID Foundation. It has been studied since the 1960s, but often goes undiagnosed. And while Grady copes with over-responsive senses, another form of SPD is to be under-responsive, craving sensory stimulation to an extreme.When Grady’s mom, Caren Humpherys, asked him how he would describe SPD to someone, he replied, “Sensory processing mixes up my life.”He is repulsed by many food textures, is easily distracted, has a hard time with coordination and often doesn’t like to be touched. If everything gets too overwhelming, he freaks out, and it may be a while before anything works to calm him. “People will see him out in public and just think he’s out of control and they think, ‘That kid needs a spanking,'” Humphreys said. “People sit and judge you and tell you what you should do. He’s not being a brat. That’s not it. What he’s trying to do is make his environment feel safe. … It’s hard to see your kid suffer and be so misunderstood. … Once we really began to understand what it’s like to be him, it really broke my heart.”Discovering SPD
As a baby, Grady had chronic ear infections, was afraid of his grandfather’s voice, preferred to play by himself and chunky baby food made him gag.When he got older, he started getting night terrors, had issues with balance and his eating habits became worse. Grady would basically only eat bread products, his mom said.”He was my firstborn and I just thought this is who he was. Now, knowing what the signs are, he had the signs from day one,” Humpherys said. “You can’t tell from the outside what a sensory kid looks like. The only way you know is by how they act.”For three years, pediatricians reassured Humpherys that the eating habits would get better. She wanted to believe everything would improve, but her motherly instinct knew something was wrong, so she continued to search for answers. Finally, a doctor referred her to a dietitian who was able to see the problem.”It was like finally someone listened to me,” Humpherys remembered. “The dietitian said, ‘You don’t need me. You need an occupational therapist.'”Grady was 7 years old when he was referred to someone who could help.Early treatmentIf Grady had been diagnosed with SPD earlier, he would be better off because he wouldn’t have had so much time to build up bad memories and would be more adaptable, his mom said.Grady does music therapy twice a day. He listens to classical CDs through large, soft earphones, which helps him exercise all parts of his eardrum, better deal with sounds and stimulate eating, his mom said. He has a specially made swing in his basement that calms him, and Humpherys uses a soft brush to sweep over parts of his body to help organize his sensory system.
Food is still an intense problem, but sleeping has improved and he has more control, Humpherys said.Grady goes to Upper Blue Elementary School where they know how to work with him and have a swing in case he needs it to calm down. Still, he usually cannot get comfortable enough to eat during the day, which can makes things worse when he gets home.”He wants to eat. Just nothing feels good,” his mom explained.What Grady needs is predictability and structure so he knows what outcomes he will be dealing with. And it’s when he is comfortable and his senses are not overreacting that Humpherys gets to see who her son really is.”People are really judgmental. They don’t see what a great kid I have. He is really funny. He’s really smart. He’s loving. He’s like an old man in a little boy’s body,” she said. “He excels. He’s really great at reading and math.”Symptoms of SPDJudy Herkert-Notaro, occupational therapist, treats Grady and a number of other children with SPD in Summit County.”With the right treatment, stuff can get turned around fast,” she said. “The ones that get picked up in babyhood are just a breeze to treat.”Some of the symptoms in babies include looking colicky, feeding for a short time and then quitting, not liking the feeling of being held or appearing to be the perfect baby by sleeping 20 hours a day to tune out the world, Herkert-Notaro said.
“It’s often hard to comfort these kids because the human voice is not soothing,” she said.When the child gets older they are usually very emotional and controlling and don’t recover easily from being upset.”But there isn’t one way a child looks with sensory processing,” Herkert-Notaro added. “It’s often very different.”What she does is put the children on a “sensory diet” with activities such as skiing, horseback riding and also swinging, listening to certain music and brushing their skin. A “sensory diet” is doing some activity to “change your brain chemistry to calm you,” Herkert-Notaro explained.Some children with SPD will struggle their whole lives, but learn how to manage it through this treatment.”It gets misdiagnosed. It gets left and people don’t understand it. It’s pretty critical that it gets correctly diagnosed,” Herkert-Notaro said. “It really holds you back from getting to live your life.”More informationFor more information about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) visit http://www.kidfoundation.org. Currently, there is a petition of the site for more research to be done on the disorder that is not covered by most insurance companies. The goal is that eventually they will pick it up, said Caren Humpherys, who has spent more than $2,000 to get treatment for her son.Lory Pounder can be reached at (970) 668-4628, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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