Therapist eases overstimulated young minds

Catherine Whiting is the island’s only pediatric occupational therapist.  - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Catherine Whiting is the island’s only pediatric occupational therapist.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

Specialized therapy helps children cope with sensory overload

Everyday life is a flurry of sights and sounds and sometimes adults have trouble taking it all in. Think, then, of the effect it has on children.

Pediatric occupational therapist Catherine Whiting has devoted 23 years to helping children – including infants – make sense of their surroundings and function better physically, emotionally, academically and socially.

The majority of cases she saw when she started her practice involved children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. She rarely sees those cases now. Instead, for about the past 10 years, she has encountered more children with autism and sensory processing problems.

“Something is going on. It’s epidemic,” said Whiting, the island’s only pediatric occupational therapist. “Other OT friends in Alaska and across the country, we all see it more.

“The world is just a noisy, busy, over-stimulating place.”

Whiting deals in sensory integration, which simply put means she helps kids take in all the types of sensory input so they have an appropriate output.

Her first goal is to figure out what form of therapy will work with a child and she draws on a range of ideas, including play, yoga, massage, obstacle courses and board games.

Children who are inattentive or out of sync fall into this category, said Whiting, who sees 30 children a week from as far away as Port Townsend.

“I look at sensory and motion,” Whiting said. “Parents tell me their kids are running and jumping and playing so how can anything be wrong? I say, ‘Are they exhausted after 10 minutes on the playground? Do they fall down…and fall to pieces? Can they vie with their peers?’

“A lot of times children get mislabeled as lazy or mean, especially the little ones,” she said. “(But) there’s something in their bodies and they need to regulate their bodies in some way.”

Whiting employs standardized testing and keen detective skills. “Is what they are doing more effortful for them than for a peer? Does it make them emotionally reactive or exhaustive?”

A lot of teachers and parents bring up the idea that perhaps these children are ADHD or ADD. Whiting doesn’t think there’s a “pure ADHD without being a sensory processing problem, such as dyslexia or an anxiety disorder. There is not one pure diagnosis.”

As to whether a child should be medicated for certain behaviors, Whiting said: “I’m the first one to say if you need an aspirin for a headache, take one. But first try to get a child to functionally self-regulate.”

Again, Whiting looks to a child’s behavior for clues. “Do they want to rock? Jump? Look at lights? Listen to music?” Rather than let them throw a tantrum, if they don’t have the language to express how they feel, she “has them draw or point to a visual picture.”

If Whiting thinks something more is going on, she will refer children to a psychologist or a medical doctor.

In April 2004, Whiting relocated her private practice to her Bainbridge home from Seattle. She turned her rec room into a safe haven for children, outfitting it with six different swings, an assortment of therapy balls, games and a computer.

“When I do testing, I compare it to norms comparable across the country, not the island. And I always play into the child’s strengths. If they are artistic, if they are good readers, we use that. Can they draw, tape record or make a song (to respond)? You help reinforce the child and help them with adapting to the environment.”

She believes if a person of any age needs a “sensory break,” they should take one.

To help parents understand the importance of such breaks, Whiting illustrates the point: “A company president has a toothpick in his mouth that he’s chewing, an exercise stress ball that he’s squeezing and he’s pacing back and forth. So why can’t a child do something similar?

“I can’t do my taxes at Chuck E Cheese’s,” Whiting said. “I may need coffee, soft music and low lights.”

In two weeks, Whiting will travel to Virginia to become certified as a yoga practitioner for children with special needs. She already does yoga with children as young as 2 years old.

Many times children have low tone or low strength. Yoga increases strength, range of motion and motor planning and teaches them to relax with their bodies.

The type of therapy Whiting provides isn’t covered by insurance, but it’s getting there, she said. Also helping the acceptance factor “are the hundreds of books now out on the subject.”

More people are willing to learn about sensory integration now and more teachers are using methods in their classrooms, she added.

“Once teachers see it, they’re sold,” she said.

Whiting believes recess is important for children, but it’s taken away if they misbehave. Music and P.E. classes are going, too, she said. On the other hand, classes are louder and very stimulating.

If a child has an obvious disorder, people will be accepting and understanding, Whiting said.

“If it’s subtle, like they’re always spilling juice, but don’t have a diagnosis…they fall between the cracks and these are the ones who come to see me with sensory processing problems. They don’t play sports. They’re hugging the wall.”

Whiting grew up in a big Italian family that moved from New York to Seattle when she was 17. Her father owned a Hallmark card shop and her mother “was a wonderful homemaker and mom.” When her father retired, he said, ‘Let’s just move,’ Whiting recounted, “and we wrote to every chamber of commerce in the country and picked Seattle.”

Having gone to an all-girls schools, Whiting was happy with her new coed high school. She then earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in occupational therapy at the University of Washington. She is certified or trained in neurodevelopmental therapy, sensory integration therapy and pediatric massage therapy and has worked in a variety of pediatric settings, including Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington.

Whiting is surrounded by a creative, nurturing family. One brother is a physical therapist; both sisters are social workers; and another brother is a chef. She and her writer husband, Jim, have two sons: a 19-year-old who is in the National Guard and a 16-year-old Bainbridge High School student.

Whiting offers parents this advice: “Your child comes from you. Think about when you were little, the problems you had and how you dealt with them and the strategies you used. Were they good strategies? Let (your child) learn from you and what you wished a parent or teacher would have helped you with when you were growing up.

“Parents say, ‘He’s just like me.’ So what can we do so he doesn’t have to go through (what you did)? Or they say, ‘Well, I made it through and I’m all right.’

“Maybe,” she tells them.

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