Angela Hanscom: Stop Blaming Parents (Including Yourself) For Sensory Disorders

It's one thing to say that play-based learning is great. It is an entirely different thing to say that "We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age."

I love play. Kids need to play. Play is healthy for kids. Heck, play is healthy for all of us! Play can be excellent therapy for kids with sensory issues.

But for Angela Hanscom to claim that sensory issues (such as Sensory Processing Disorder, commonly seen in developmental disorders such as Autism) can be prevented by age appropriate play is unsupported, at least by any of the links she provides in her Washington Post article "The decline of play in preschoolers - and the rise in sensory issues." Furthermore, it encourages society to blame parents and look down upon children with sensory issues, recently exemplified in a lawsuit against parents of a child with autism. While this may be a singular example, the blame game becomes systemic where poor families are concerned. Hanscom appropriates data which points to poverty as a primary factor, and inaccurately claims that inadequate play is the cause instead, even for parents such as herself who had the capacity to sign "her up for music lessons, put her in dance, and [drive] her to local museums."

The first link in Hanscom's post is a Psychology Today article which discusses one 2015 report and the results of three studies. It does not mention sensory issues at all. One study was carried out in Germany in 1992, and the other two studied children from poverty. Socioeconomic status plays a huge role in identification of behavior problems. While lack of play could be a component in theory, cultural and environmental factors cannot be ignored. The 2015 report is linked directly by Hanscom, discussed below.

The second link discusses reading education, and is the same 2015 report highlighted by Psychology Today. Again, at no point are sensory issues mentioned. While sensory issues certainly can affect language acquisition and reading, difficulty in reading does not necessarily indicate sensory issues. I do not intend to critique the report here, but suffice it to say that at no point does it suggest correlation (much less causation) between play and sensory issues. Furthermore, it highlights the importance of considering the role of poverty in education:

"A massive amount of research conducted over the past several decades in the United States and in countries throughout the world consistently shows that families' socioeconomic status is the most powerful correlate of student achievement."

The third and final link is most contradictory to Hanscom's claims, regardless of socioeconomic conditions. The New York Times article itself states that "an increase in autism diagnoses among children... have grown, at least in part, because of more accurate identifications of the disorder." Diagnoses have increased because of better diagnostic procedures, willingness of doctors to provide (and families to seek) a diagnosis in order to help patients access support through their insurance or other services, and mounting awareness that Autism is not a simple binary, but an enormous spectrum.

As a parent who has dealt with the uncertainty of undiagnosed delays, my heart goes out to all parents who do not know the source of their children's sensory issues, including Ms. Hanscom. Self-blame can be the easier way to cope when the alternative is to embrace the unknowable. I wanted to believe that I was at fault for my child's delays -- I thought it would be preferable by far to accepting that something was "wrong" with him; that he might have a permanent disability. Now that we have a genetic diagnosis for a congenital condition, I know: there is nothing wrong with him. I didn't do anything wrong. I wouldn't change a thing about him. He takes his time, I take mine, and we play. I'm sure play is beneficial for him. But he doesn't experience life the way he does because he didn't play enough, or for any other reason within my control.