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Sensory Integration Issues: Signs of a physical development disorder

My firstborn is a book-loving guy. He has loved words and stories from an early age, and was an early speaker who developed an extremely impressive vocabulary by toddlerhood. Here’s what he did not do: jump up and down, climb out of his crib, twirl until he was dizzy, ride a bike, attempt the monkey bars. His version of preschooler playground play was to walk around and make up stories out loud.

I worried that he was failing playground. Yes, playground. I realize this might not be a common worry for most parents, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not quite connecting in my son’s physical development. And although I fretted, none of his preschool teachers really agreed with me. They pointed to his verbal abilities, his love of books, his powers of concentration in the classroom as the strengths that counted. They made me feel as if I was looking for trouble.

It wasn’t until first grade, when he couldn’t hold a pencil properly or form the letters of the alphabet, that others finally took notice. At that point, his first grade teacher also informed my husband and I that he couldn’t balance on one foot, let alone hop on it, both skills that a seven-year-old should have.

Who knew? We didn’t. And no one – not his preschool teacher, kindergarten teacher or pediatrician-had ever told us that the fear I’d harbored about failing playground was, in fact, a reasonable one. Handwriting was simply the red flag that finally got my son some help.

So what was going on? It turns out my son had a sluggish vestibular system and low muscle tone. All of this is called Sensory Integration, a huge catchall for a range of physical and developmental movement and sensory issues.

We were very fortunate to work with a terrific pediatric physical therapist. She helped me see that my son’s habit of chewing on his shirtsleeves was a sensory issue and that his persistent constipation was another red flag. (I’d called the doctor’s office about that one plenty of times over and been told “constipation is a common problem for toddler-age boys.”) She also listed a few things that parents who feel share my nagging fear about their kid’s physical development should pay attention to:

  • Sleep dysfunction. After about three-six months, babies should be developing a regular sleep pattern. Certainly, by a year three, an inability to sleep through the night is a signal that something isn’t working in a child’s nervous system.

  • Lack of facial expressions

  • Inability to roll over or to tolerate lying prone on tummy. Inability to do a good, strong push up on extended arms while on tummy.

  • Lack of crawling or scooting on the butt as locomotion.

  • After age five, a child’s inability to balance on one foot.

  • Uncoordinated running and/or an inability to skip or gallop.

  • A general disinterest in playing on the playground.

While the last might sound strange, our physical therapist put it like this: “All kids should love to play and move – it’s what we were made for! Saying kids are intellectual or ‘brainy’ is ridiculous; you can be both.”

The best part of having a name and a treatment for my son’s slow physical development? The physical therapy really did wonders. My son, now a teenager, has gorgeous handwriting and has studied ballet, which of course required hopping and balancing on one foot. In other words, we’ve made it way past the playground.

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