Author Interview: Sensitive Sam’s Marla Roth-Fisch
By Danette M. Schott, S-O-S Research (reprinted with permission)
We have all experienced our senses being on overload at one time or another. Although I love Bon Jovi, I wish I had brought ear plugs to his last concert. If I forget my sunglasses, I feel like I am a walking vampire being exposed to daylight for the first time. I grew up on fairly simple foods, so I can’t handle anything remotely spicy. But when is this typical behavior and when does it cross over to a disorder? When should you seek help for your child?
Marla Roth-Fisch is the author and illustrator of Sensitive Sam, a book written for kids to explain Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). The book is written in an easy-to-read rhyme format and walks us through Sam’s daily sensory slip-ups. Not only did I have the pleasure of reviewing Marla’s book, but I also had the honor of interviewing her.
In Marla’s book, Sensitive Sam, Sam has difficulty just making it through his day. Minute by minute Sam’s senses are bombarded with input from his clothes, the temperature, smells, sounds, and foods. It is tough to be Sam and tough to get through the day.
Marla does a wonderful job of demonstrating what a child with sensory issues may experience, because she has lived it. Marla stated, “I wrote Sensitive Sam to help make children with Sensory Processing Disorder realize how special they are, understand what SPD is, and that there is hope for them and their family. The book written in rhyme from a child’s perspective makes it so much easier on them to explain to family, teachers and friends what they are experiencing. I wanted to create a resource tool that children could use and enjoy reading.”
Sensitive Sam is unique because as Marla explains, “It is the first of its kind offering children a way to share with others what they are going through on a daily basis with SPD. It is easy and fun to read over and over. Kids can relate to Sam and his sensory challenges, and the children find comfort in knowing that they are not alone. I am guessing that is why Parents Magazine chose Sensitive Sam as one of their ‘Healthy Reads’ in the May 2010 issue. The illustrations are in water color, so it is very soothing on the eyes.”
Sensitive Sam won the 2009 Book of the Year Award from Creative Toy Awards. This book should be included in the library of any child experiencing sensory issues, and definitely be owned by those who have been diagnosed with SPD.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Before a child receives any diagnosis, parents typically observe behaviors that appear out-of-the-norm from their peers. A parent usually has a gut feeling that something is not quite right. If you’re wondering if your child could possibly have SPD, I asked Marla to describe some of the confusing behaviors her son exhibited prior to him receiving a diagnosis. Here is her response:
Abigayle is my first child and observing her disposition to my second Jason (aka Sensitive Sam) 20 months apart in age, there were some similarities, but with Jason different and more extreme and unusual behaviors.
Could we contribute that to boy’s behaviors verses girls? Perhaps.
Jason’s uncontrollable meltdowns seemed way over the top. His actions to various sensory stimuli were very questionable and puzzling, this is the short list;
- Eating certain foods made him throw-up
- Smells, like tuna caused him to gag and hold his breath
- Riding in the car seat while facing the rear resulted in screaming
- Refusing to walk after a rain for fear of the bottoms of his sneakers getting wet
- Holding his ears at the sound of the toilet flushing
- Not finding comfort in his own skin
- Inconsolable meltdowns sparked for no apparent reason
People commented on our parenting skills… or lack of.
Catering too much to feed our son only a handful of certain foods, became a problem.
We often heard, “he is just a picky eater and don’t worry he will grow out of those typical boy behaviors.” UGH…really?
Could we now be in the terrible twos? What is next, terrifying threes?
My daughter is patient and helpful, I depended on her, and the burden of dealing with assisting with her brother became all too common in our household, ignoring her own childhood to a point.
Sibling love and support is one thing, to burden your other children with the expectation of constantly helping out, and not enjoying their childhood is another.
The sadness, frustration, constant meltdowns had to stop, but we didn’t know how, time outs made everything much worse. We needed help, we prayed for answers.
It is important to get a child diagnosed so that proper treatment can be provided. Marla explained:
Presently diagnosis can be given as early at 18 months if folks are aware of the common signs of Sensory Processing Disorder.
Below is a list of Red Flags of Sensory Processing Disorder provided by the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation. This list can be extremely instrumental to those families that may be noticing unusual behaviors as we did with Jason.
“Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can affect one sense or multiple senses. Symptoms vary within the disorder. A complete SPD checklist may be found under Symptoms, SPD, in “Our Library” on the SPD Foundation web site.”
Infants and toddlers
- Problems eating or sleeping
- Irritable when being dressed; uncomfortable in clothes
- Rarely plays with toys
- Resists cuddling, arches away when held
- Cannot calm self
- Floppy or stiff body, motor delays
- Over-sensitive to touch, noises, smells, other people
- Difficulty making friends
- Difficulty dressing, eating, sleeping, and/or toilet training
- Clumsy; poor motor skills; weak
- In constant motion; in everyone else’s face and space
- Frequent or long temper tantrums
- Over-sensitive to touch, noise, smells, other people
- Easily distracted, fidgety, craves movement; aggressive
- Easily overwhelmed
- Difficulty with handwriting or motor activities
- Difficulty making friends
- Unaware of pain and/or other people
Adolescents and adults
- Over-sensitive to touch, noise, smells, other sensations, or people
- Poor self-esteem; afraid of failing at new tasks
- Lethargic and slow
- Always on the go; impulsive; distractible
- Leaves tasks uncompleted
- Clumsy, slow, motor skills or handwriting
- Difficulty staying focused
- Difficulty staying focused at work and in meetings
“Consider the child’s behavior during the past six months. If you recognize more than a few of the following symptoms in a child, screening for SPD may be warranted.”
Early studies by the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation indicated that at least 1 in 20 school children have Sensory Processing Disorder; however, more recent research shows that the incidence may be more like 1 in every 6. That is four million kids in the United States alone!
Marla’s personal experience with obtaining treatment for her son is described here:
Your son shows signs of Sensory Processing Disorder formerly referred to as “Sensory Integration Dysfunction” Jason’s Montessori teacher told us at a parent/teacher conference. What is that, our initial thought, holding back the tears.
She asked, “Could you please describe Jason’s behavior at home?” That opened up “a can of worms.”
Our fears and guilt, quickly turned to finding solutions, and thus lead us directly to an extensive evaluation and diagnosis with an occupational therapist. Finally, there is a name to the behavior and help is available! Double YAY!
We dedicated ourselves to getting Jason what he needed to help with his Sensory Processing Disorder, part in which included a “Sensory Diet.”
The personalized Sensory Diet included some of the following:
- Brushing and joint compressions every 2 hours
- Playing with dry sand and beans and wet jumpy Jell-O and sweet smelling pudding, mushy green slime, cans of shaving cream, homemade concoctions, and different color molding clay
- Balancing on exercise balls of all sizes
- Giving each other wheel barrel rides
- Jumping on a mini trampoline
- Food tasting
We played…a lot, taking our play (therapy) real seriously, and never missing the opportunity to engage, Abi joined the fun. Cousins even liked to get brushed!
As the weeks progressed, we incorporated speech therapy, writing classes with the “no tears” format, found neat products to help grip the pencil better, and helped Jason’s confidence! He enjoyed tracing super heroes.
The “Sensory Diet” makes a significant and remarkable difference, over coming many of his sensory challenges, Jason continues to enjoy all the crazy and messy things kids love to do!
He does still have occasional meltdowns, and by doing the therapy at a young age, it has given him the tools he needs to better manage his sensitivities.
Advice to Parents
If you suspect your child may have sensory issues, Marla offers, “If untreated or misdiagnosed, it only gets worse for your child. Take the first step and acknowledge the possibility that your child may have SPD, and go for a complete and professional evaluation. The results will put a smile on your child’s face.”
Marla continued with the following advice:
I want to share with you information about a world renowned Sensory Therapy and Research Center, called STAR Center. This premiere clinic is located in Greenwood Village, Colorado.
People come from all over the country to get assessed and treated, children and adults alike that have Sensory Processing Disorder and other conditions that include sensory challenges.
Their ‘treatment program varies according to each child’s needs and each family’s circumstances,’ because every child and family has different needs.
STAR Center’s expert diagnosticians and clinicians offer a unique intervention program that is science-based and family-centered.
Please visit STAR Center for more information.
What’s Next For Marla?
Marla is currently working on Sensitive Sam Snuggle. She stated, “I use the analogy, the toy in the cereal box. It takes a while to find it, but it’s in there, like a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, they are usually loving, sensitive, bright and caring kids, you just need to get past the sensory stuff, that heart is your special prize.”