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Sensory Processing Disorder in the Public Eye

My son was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) at age 2. This came on the heels of being born at 29 weeks, months in the hospital, several surgeries, therapies, and developmental delays, all within those first few years. SPD, can be displayed in different ways. There is seeking and avoiding.

Seekers tend to be undersensitive to input so they seek out stimulation, or other input, by doing activities that feed their need for intensity.  A typical seeker might: love rough play, have a high tolerance for pain, enjoy jumping and bumping into things, and might even seek out loud noises.

Avoiders tend to be oversensitive to sensory input causing them to feel overwhelmed by things like bright lights, being hugged or kissed, clothes feeling scratchy or uncomfortable in any way. Avoiders are likely to be picky eaters as well which can be largely due to both taste and texture of different foods.  

Not everyone with SPD is one or the other. Depending on their surroundings and familiarity of the setting they're in, it is common for a child with SPD to show a combination of both seeking and avoiding sensory input.

My son is a SEEKER. He likes to play HARD and rough. He doesn't feel pain as easily as others. Dealing with these issues in the privacy of our home is one thing, but one of the most challenging things that we have experienced are public meltdowns. Let me note that while a sensory meltdown might look like a regular tantrum or a kid pitching a fit to get their own way, the two are very different. Typically, a tantrum stops when a child gets what they want; the tantrum serves a purpose. A sensory meltdown will not stop even after getting what they want. Often times they don't even know what they want. A meltdown usually ends when their sensory stimuli changes or they become exhausted.  It is very difficult to reason with my son when he is obsessing over something that he wants to do or has to have. This can make shopping with him incredibly challenging.

One incident occurred recently, while shopping at Costco. He was doing well until he saw something that he wanted that he couldn't have. It wasn't long before he just lost it. After trying to distract him and calm him down with different tactics, he continued to cry and scream. There have been similar times when I admittedly just jumped ship. I just left the cart and bailed in order to escape the prying eyes and judgmental glances. This particular day though, I decided thatI was just going to plow ahead and check out with my screaming child in tow. My 13 year old daughter was with me as well, and we could feel the stares of surrounding shoppers. We are both used to this type of behavior from him, but I knew she felt embarrassed. All I wanted to do was hurry up and escape this very uncomfortable scene.

After finally getting to the car and forcefully putting my fighting kid into his seat, I was able to reflect on what had happened. I just sat in the car, exhausted. My daughter then asked me if I had noticed the woman who was filming us on her phone. WHAT?! NO, I had not and I was thankful I hadn't, because I likely would've given her a piece of my mind, which I'm sure would've resulted in major mom guilt later for not having better self-control. 

I share this story because that day I realized that, in spite of our best intentions, there will always be judgmental people out there, too narrow minded, or perhaps just too unaware, to understand that each child, each parent, is unique and different. From the outside looking in, I'm sure it looked like a bratty little boy not getting his own way, but not ALL situations are so cut and dry. 

I just wish there was more compassionate in moments like these, especially from other parents. When we see kids struggling in public, whether it be due to a specific diagnosis or simply because they are just tired and acting out, we do not always know the whole story or have every detail as to what's happening with that child and with that parent.

I also wish there was more awareness of SPD. (Sometimes I find myself tempted to make cards that read:"He has SPD, go look it up!" or "This not what you think it is, Ha!"). Many kids who have SPD also have other issues, such as ADHD, learning delays, or are on the Autism spectrum. Being diagnosed so young, and starting Occupational Therapy so early, has made a big difference for my son, and for me too. I have learned so much in the past 3 years. With my teenagers, I was unaware of most of this information. However, my youngest son has helped me to grow in my knowledge and has broadened my perspective, making me much more empathetic for others.

The following resources have been helpful for me in understanding SPD, how to accept my child the way he is, and also develop tools that help me parent him better. I want him to develop at his pace in order to become the best that he can be no matter what obstacles might come his way.

Helpful Resources

The Out of Sync Child, by Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A. and The Out of Sync Child Has Fun
Raising a Sensory Smart Child, Lindsey Biel, M.A. OTR/L and Nancy Peske
No More Meltdowns, Jed Baker, Ph.D


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