After 3.5 months of waiting, our sweet child was able to go to OT for the first time two weeks ago. This was an answered prayer and milestone moment for us, because all of the books and online courses that I have been studying for the past year all emphasize the power of occupational therapy for kids with sensory processing challenges. The problem is our healthcare system is so overloaded due to COVID delays that many families receive a diagnosis, but are not able to receive the much needed treatment for long periods of time. OTs have the beautiful and challenging job of helping children make their sensory systems work correctly, and our OT is a Godsend. Through play, she helps our child do “hard” things (his words) and retrains our child’s central nervous system signals to stop tangling in his brain.
One of the trickiest parts about having a child with a sensory processing challenge is on the outside he is a typically developing child. His vocabulary is rich and his eyes light up when he tells us about all he is learning about science and the world around him. The confusing part about sensory challenges is that the things that most typically developing children take joy in participating in is the same kind of experience that sends our child into a sensory meltdown. One of the challenges we have been working through the last year is to strengthen his hands to want to enjoy coloring and writing. We have worked with therapy putty, tried a myriad of different writing utensils (dabbers, crayons, colored pencils, markers, etc.), and built a ton of lego and magnet tile creations. Have I mentioned this child should really be an engineer or architect?! He finds such joy in creating things with his hands.
When it comes to writing, we hadn’t quite found the right writing utensil that would make the writing process doable until our first OT appointment two weeks ago. I shared with our OT the fine motor challenges we were encountering and the confusing nature of our child loving to build, but not loving to write. Part of this challenge is that the bones in his hand are still developing like all young children, but as I watched our child begin the fine motor writing tasks in the OT evaluation, I learned that his writing aversions might be sensory in nature. When you think about it, most people have a preferred writing utensil that they reach for time and time again. For some, it’s the Ticonderoga pencil, others it’s a Bic mechanical pencil. Others prefer the weight and smoothness of Sharpie S gel pen. The older that I get, the more my “go to” writing utensil is a flair pen. I love being able to color code what I am working on, because color helps my brain hold space in my memory. Our older three kids are huge fans of the flair pens and love to use the different flair pens to create artwork and writing pieces.
From my background as a writing teacher, I knew that flair pens were engaging for kids and that kids will 9 times out of 10 write for longer periods of time when they have a flair pen, but what I didn’t realize is that for kids who have a sensory processing challenge, flair pens could be such an empowering way for them to enjoy the writing process. After talking with my friend who is an expert on SPED and also serves as our processing coordinator, she helped me realize that flair pens might be just the thing for kids who have sensory challenges. Flair pens feel good in young hands, they are smooth as you write, and they are not squeaky like other pens, pencils, markers, and crayons. For a child with tactile and auditory challenges, flair pens can be one of the answers we have been searching for! (Something to note-just because your child has a sensory challenge doesn’t mean they will qualify for an IEP or special education services. This is why I am so passionate about empowering classroom teachers and families with strategies to help their sensational kids. We all need strategies to support our children’s writing growth.)
So, back to our first OT appointment. I shared with the OT the challenges we have been working through with writing and I warned her that this task might not go as well as the other activities. She was super encouraging and said, “let’s see how it goes!” As she started the writing task, I expected that she would hand him some type of pencil with a writing grip, but instead she handed him a red flair pen. She explained the task of tracing the images. I couldn’t believe it when he willingly picked up the flair pen and started doing exactly what she asked. Not only he was able not only to trace the lines accurately, but he was able to neatly complete the mazes. I wondered if this success would be an isolated experience, so the next week as we waited for our OT appointment, I gave our child a flair pen and notebook, just to see how he might respond. This time instead of completing a maze, he created his own maze and told the most engaging adventure story of finding buried treasure as he created each part of the maze. As a reading and writing teacher, my brain immediately connected this experience to the children’s book series by Laura Numeroff If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. So, here’s my version of “If You Give a Child a Flair Pen.”
If you give a child a flair pen, you will see his eyes light up with possibilities. When his eyes light up, he will start to spin the most creative tale about the maze that he is creating and the adventure his characters would take as they searched for the buried treasure. When he tells you about the buried treasure, he will begin to hold his flair pen differently in his fingers. His grasp will change from a fisted hold to more of a traditional grip. If he changes his grip into a more traditional grip, then you will see his Momma’s eyes fill with tears. If his Momma’s eyes fill with tears, then you will see her eyes light up with possibilities. And chances are, when you give a child a flair pen, you will open up the adventurous world of writing.
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