July 22, 2012

When self stimulation does not work!

Our nervous system needs an “optimum level” of stimulation to stay alert and organized. When it is not getting enough stimulation we become under-aroused, have difficulty focusing, and will feel sluggish or anxious. When over-aroused the nervous system will become overloaded, disorganized, and anxious. So, the nervous system is always seeking that “optimum level” of stimulation that helps it stay calm but alert, and organized.

Many children on the spectrum have fragile, disorganized nervous systems that have difficulty reaching and maintaining the “optimum arousal level.” They are frequently seeking, or avoiding, a variety of sensory stimulation to pacify their nervous system. Their nervous systems do not know how to “regulate” the type and amount of stimulation that it needs. Their “internal regulator” is not working well. Usually they stumble upon the type of stimulation they need (movement, smells, proprioception, tactile, etc.) but may have difficulty regulating the amount and intensity it needs. For these children they may seek out more than they need, give it too intensively, or have difficulty stopping once they start. For them, having a structured sensory diet where they have controlled doses of sensory stimulation can be beneficial. It can provide the “just right” doses of stimulation to keep the children in their “optimum range” of stimulation. They need to have the amount and intensity regulated for them, until their nervous system becomes “reset” and can regulate themselves.

However, for some children, the nervous system is further taxed by biomedical imbalances that irritate and aggravate the nervous system so it is rarely in a state of equilibrium. Their nervous system may be over-aroused, on high alert, and leaving the child feeling anxious and insecure. When the nervous system is out of balance, the child is seeking out ongoing stimulation, often in intense forms, to the point that they cannot learn or are injuring themselves. For them, even steady doses of sensory input, provided by a structured sensory diet, will not stabilize their nervous system. The nervous system is in constant flux and rarely balanced.

When this occurs we need to do look closely at what may be aggravating the nervous system (digestive problems, allergies, biochemical imbalances, etc.) and treat the underlying cause of the irritation/imbalance. This may consist of regulating their diet, providing necessary supplements, or seeking medication to balance neurotransmitters. A sensory diet alone will not work. Usually for these children they are seeking out intense proprioception (banging, hitting, biting, etc.), or frequent movement. They cannot still and focus, driven to seek out stimulation. Often these behaviors are hard to redirect and difficult for the child to control. They feel driven to act, although the actions do not seem to satisfy them. They seek out very high doses of stimulation, to the point that it drives all actions, and inhibits engagement functional activity. It dictates what they do and when they do it. For them medical attention will often be needed. There is a chemical imbalance or medical/biomedical issue that needs to be resolved. For these children the families will need to seek out a DAN doctor, neurologist, or psychiatrist for added assistance. However, this process can be a long, trial and error, period of assessments and treatments before the vulnerabilities are identified and effectively treated.


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