Connecting with people – opening the shell of sensory defensiveness

“There was a potentially beautiful person who had a shell. I wanted to break it. So I grabbed the handle and shook as hard as I could. But nothing ever came out of it.”

Packing for the move to our new condo, I pick up the marble patterned maraca and wrap tissue paper around it. It protests with a “ch ch ch” sound. I flash back to my junior year in college. I’m living in Copenhagen, Denmark on an exchange program. I expect romantic overtures from Jason while we sit at the deli counter of the Scala shopping complex.

He instead gives me a scrap of paper with the words written above. A love poem? “Ch ch ch.” He hands me a maraca, saying that it’s a symbol for my personality.  “You’re closed off from people, stubborn, and have trust issues. I can’t reach you. I give up.”

“Ch ch ch.” Back to the present. I’m shattered by memories of failed relationships with friends, family, lovers, co-workers and supervisors. Tears spill over. Why can’t I get along with people? Why don’t I fit in? How come people pick on me or make me the brunt of their jokes?

My heart breaks. I have a shell. Am I really like the maraca?

In a sense, a person with sensory integration issues is like a maraca.  No matter how hard you shake, nothing will ever come out of it. The beads, or internal workings of a person, remain closed off, and the internal mechanism that creates the sound is inaccessible. A parent, friend, or lover can  “shake” as hard as they like, but the ability to fully communicate, get close, or understand motivation remains out of reach. The shell remains.

While frustrating for those trying to interact with a sensory challenged child, it may help to remember that the shell is a protective mechanism and therefore necessary. It is best to acknowledge it, work with it, and not try to break it down.

Without the shell, the child is frightened, terrified and feels as though the world is beating her up. She cannot make sense of information or process noise. In extreme sensory overload, the child will hold her hands over her ears, screaming and rocking, and try to rebuild her shell.

What can you do? Hug her. If personal touch is a problem, then gently and slowly lead her to a quiet, dark place and layer her with blankets. Apply a gentle pressure to the skin between thumb and index finger. Once you see signs of relaxation, start to hum and encourage her to join you. The humming creates a soothing internal vibration.

The good news is that the shell is malleable and can be opened. There are sensory integration therapies such as neurofeedback, the Tomatis Method, vision therapy and occupational therapy that all have the potential to lessen the effects of an over-stimulating environment. In some cases, these therapies can even heal sensory overload. In most cases, they can at least soften the shell and allow an occasional opening.

Once sensory integration therapy is over, here are some additional ways to achieve aperture.

1. Help your child recognize her response to the environment. Many people with sensory integration issues are mistakenly labeled as “anxious.” The outside environment can be a sensory nightmare, causing a child to feel anxious. As sensory issues are primarily physiological, not psychological, a child is not generating thoughts that in turn make her anxious. Something in the environment, like fluorescent lights, causes her pulse to race. This is an important distinction and it helps to not only explain the difference to the child, but to acknowledge that her “fight or flight” mechanism is easily activated.

2. Teach your child to name her fear and talk back to it. Recognizing the difficulty and talking back to fear instills a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation. The easiest way to do this is to make a game of it.

I sometimes say “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” Then I pretend to be the robot from “Lost in Space” and gently move my arms up and down. This accomplishes a few things: I’m orienting my body in space with movement, I’ve verbalized the fear for myself and others around me, and I have lessened its effect by making a joke. All three things calm me down.

3. Work with the shell, not against it. Remembering “time and space” will help. Scientific research shows that the human brain works best in hour and a half increments, so it can be beneficial to have a two-hour limit for social gatherings. It’s also important to be “proactive” and not “reactive” by taking ten or fifteen minute breaks during this time. If the shell is reinforced, parts of it can occasionally be opened. That’s when real human connections are made.

4. Organize social events as tasks. I don’t do very well just “hanging out for fun.” Like other individuals on the autism spectrum, I’m very goal oriented, so a social activity has to have a purpose, a reason, or result in accomplishment for me.

By teaching your child how to desensitize herself to the over-stimulation now, she will find additional techniques on her own as she matures. If she likes hugs, then hug her.  Teach her how to hug herself with words, music, or movement. Tell her you’re sorry she feels like the world is beating her up. Embrace her peculiarities. Talk to her about what is happening, so she won’t grow up feeling like a failure at relationships. Teach her how to advocate for herself so she can learn how to make the environment work for her.

With your help, your child will realize that her sensory sensitivities make her very special, unique, and that the way she sees the world is a gift. Once she understands this, she is empowered. The shell can remain open.

Resource information:

The Tomatis Method

Spectrum Communications Center

Vision Therapy

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