Making Sense

October 17, 2013
BY Simone Ellin
JCC offers programming for families of children with sensory processing disorder
Daniel Higgs, 4, diagnosed with a sensory  processing disorder, with mother, Liz Simon-Higgs, father, Stephen Higgs, and little brother, Micah. (David Stuck)

Daniel Higgs, 4, diagnosed with a sensory
processing disorder, with mother, Liz Simon-Higgs, father, Stephen Higgs, and little brother, Micah.
(David Stuck)

For most children, a trip to the circus, watching a puppet show or attending a kid-friendly play or concert is a special treat. Typically, these events are also heartwarming and memorable occasions for parents. Yet, for a significant number of children (about 5 to 13 percent and mostly boys) and their parents, experiences such as these can run the gamut from stressful to nightmarish.

Children who suffer from sensory processing disorders (SPD) may find bright flashing lights, loud music, big crowds and dark theaters frightening and overstimulating. Although sensory processing disorders occur in some typically developing children, they are most common to children on the autism spectrum. As Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance Coordinator Jennifer Erez has discovered, SPD makes life extremely challenging for many of the families and children with whom she works.

Liz Simon-Higgs, of Federal Hill, is the mother of Micah, 16 months old, and Daniel, who is 3 and on the autism spectrum.

“Daniel gets very alarmed when he hears noises,” said Simon-Higgs. “Loud noises are especially upsetting, although a sound like a running toilet bothers him, too. Things the rest of us can filter out, he can’t.”

Higgs noted that Daniel is also distracted by lights and by doors opening, and he is highly sensitive to smells and crowds. When it comes to entertainment, Simon-Higgs said, “usually, we don’t even bother going. Even going to services is overwhelming.”

That’s one reason why Simon-Higgs, an Oheb Shalom congregant, is so pleased that the BJAA and the JCC will be offering a workshop on sensory processing disorders on Oct. 24 and a sensory-friendly concert for children at the Gordon Center For Performing Arts on Nov. 3.

The workshop, Sensory Processing Disorder: Signs, Symptoms and Strategies, will be facilitated by Ida Zelaya, president of Sensory Street, Inc., a Baltimore-based educational and consulting organization that raises awareness about SPD and provides strategies for managing it.

“In my workshops, I teach what SPD is, how to spot it and what we can do at home, in school and out and about to help kids self-regulate [their nervous systems],” Zelaya said. “And we do it cheaply. We don’t have to spend a ton of money on these tools.

“For example, after my workshop for BJAA, I will teach parents to make fidget balls. They have been a big hit with everyone. We fill 12-inch balloons with rice or salt or beans, and kids can squeeze them. They reduce anxiety and provide the deep pressure that is calming for kids. There are tons of examples like this.”

As the prevalence of SPD has bec-ome recognized, many performance venues and performers have begun to offer programming especially geared toward children who are sensitive to sensory stimulation. Although not specifically designed for children with SPD, the concert and interactive science program, with band The Curiosity Crew and Lucy Buckle performing music from the CD “Swamp, Stomp Boogie: Science You Can Sing To,” will be modified to meet the needs of young audience members.

Julie Ann Sgroi, an educator and singer/songwriter who will play Lucy Buckle in the production, worked with Erez to make sure every aspect of the program is “sensory friendly.”

“During the show, kids don’t have to be quiet, and we will be leaving seats and aisles empty so they can move around freely and do self-soothing movements if they need to,” said Sgroi. “I will be singing with an acoustic guitar, and that is friendly for sensitive listeners. There won’t be any surprise elements, lights will be low, [and there will be] no flashing lights or loud noises. “Normally, when I do a show, I invite lots of kids up on stage, but for this show I will go into the audience to interact.”

Sgroi emphasized that the science experiments in the show were also selected with sensory friendliness in mind.

Simon-Higgs said it’s amazing what a difference programming such as this can make for children with SPD. She encourages all educators to consider making their programs sensory friendly.

“A lot of what teachers think of as misbehavior is students — even ‘typical’ students — indicating that their sensory system isn’t working the way we think it should,” she said.

Zelaya agreed: “The main message [I am trying to communicate] is that we need to understand and have compassion for these kids.”

Sensory Processing Disorder: Signs, Symptoms and Strategies
Thursday, Oct. 24, 10 a.m. to noon
From 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. attendees will be taught to make sensory products from household items.
Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC
3506 Gwynnbrook Ave.,
Owings Mills

The Curiosity Crew and Lucy Buckle
Sunday, Nov. 3,
11:15 a.m. to noon
From 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., the JCC will offer sensory-friendly carnival games.
For more information, contact jerez@jcc.org or 410-559-3613.

To learn more about Sensory Street, Inc., visit sensorystreet.org. To learn more about Curiosity Zone and Everwonder Records, visit curiosityzone.com and everwonderrecords.com.

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter — sellin@jewishtimes.com

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