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Lights Go On for 3rd Graders About Sensory Processing Disorder

By Marla Roth-Fisch
Author, Illustrator

Marla Roth-Fisch Author, Illustrator

I opened my mailbox one day to find a special piece of fan mail from a local return address. The white, oversized postcard written in pencil read:

Dear Mrs. Fisch,

I read your book "Sensitive Sam," and I really liked your book. I really enjoyed when Sam says, "It's not the end it is a fresh new start," and when he figured out to not be stubborn, mean and complain. Question: I would like to know was your book a "TRUE STORY?"

Sincerely, Jenifer (age 8)

Jenifer's third grade class assignment: write a postcard and send it to your favorite author anywhere in the country, asking one question, and hopefully getting a response from that author to share with classmates.

I would like to share this story with you about how much that hand written postcard with an elaborate colorful drawing of my book's cover meant to me. Not only did I send Jenifer a letter back answering her question, but I also sent a signed copy of my book for her to present to her teacher to keep as a resource in their classroom.

Jenifer’s rendition of Sensitive Sam's front cover

I contacted Jenifer's mom and teacher and arranged to come into her classroom to talk about Sensitive Sam, and the premise of the book, Sensory Processing Disorder. Initially I was to speak to a classroom of 25 children, but I later found out that the entire 3rd grade, close to 300 students, would be in attendance. My toughest audience ever, but a great opportunity to help them understand Sensory Processing Disorder and that it can be helped with early diagnosis and proper treatment.

The questions in my head stirred. How could I ever explain the complicated sensory world and the challenges it creates for those with Sensory Processing Disorder and those around them? It was going to be difficult to explain how brains can become overloaded and unable to process all the information properly. Not to mention the on-going frustration it causes by the sensory stimuli that surrounds us daily, resulting in misunderstood behaviors, developmental delays and social out-casting. How do you describe in a visual sense the processing of information coming in from our seven senses to eight year olds in a way that they can grasp? Sensory Processing Disorder often puzzles many adults.

"One study (Ahn, Miller, Milberger, McIntosh, 2004) shows that at least 1 in 20 children's daily lives is affected by SPD. Another research study by the Sensory Processing Disorder Scientific Work Group (Ben-Sasson, Carter, Briggs-Gowen, 2009) suggests that 1 in every 6 children experiences sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions. Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder, like those of most disorders, occur within a broad spectrum of severity. While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic, and they disrupt everyday life."

After consulting with my own two children, ages 9 and 11, (one of which has Sensory Processing Disorder), we came up with a way to present to these students. It needed to be interactive, of course, and contain neat visuals for these eight year olds' eyes. It certainly couldn't be an extensive and elaborate power point presentation accompanied by a thick informative packet. So instead we used a good old-fashioned flashlight with 2 "D" batteries and a small giveaway of bookmarks for Jenifer to distribute to her classmates afterwards.

Sensitive Sam book

Since Jason (aka Sensitive Sam) didn't have school that day, he joined me on this particular speaking engagement. It's always a treat to have either one or both of my children with me, but for the student's sake, a way to meet a special and main character in the book, Sensitive Sam.

As the classes piled into the cafeteria and found their places on the cold linoleum floor, (a welcome relief to the 90 degree weather outside), they stared with anticipation. Jenifer proceeded to make her way to the front where we stood for introductions, gently pushing through the crowd of eight and nine year olds, with the Sensitive Sam book in hand. Jenifer's introduction far outweighed any of my previous ones. Jason and I were flattered!

After a little discussion and some fun listening games, I took out the flashlight and batteries, and had Jason assist. The majority of the students raised and waved their hands with excitement when asked if they have a flashlight at home and knew how they worked. Jason put the two "D" batteries in the flashlight. When he turned the switch to the on position, to the children's surprise, the flashlight did not light up.

"Oh no, what do you notice?" we asked the students. "Why do you think that the flash light isn't turning on when switched to the on position?" The kids all shouted in unison, "the batteries aren't in right!" "Okay", I announce, "so let's put the batteries in their proper position. Ahhh... now we have light."

I explained that as a flashlight relies on properly connected batteries to work, our brains need to properly process information and connect in order for us to react to our sensory surroundings. People that have Sensory Processing Disorder have brains that have a difficult time organizing information from the senses. Their connections don't always work or process stimuli correctly when it comes in from the environment, therefore they have a lot of frustration and challenges.

"Now we know that we need to have proper connections to make things work," I said. "People that have SPD can get help, and that help is actually pretty fun therapy called occupational therapy. This may include some of the things mentioned in the Sensitive Sam book for Sam's sensory diet, like brushing, jumping, playing, cutting, pasting, drawing, swinging and much more. For those that have sensory processing disorder, there are ways to help, especially if you find out early enough."

This group of children walked away with an understanding of Sensory Processing Disorder, and Jason and I walked away feeling gratitude in helping them understand.

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