Let me begin with a bit of context. I have spent most of my life being very physically oriented – sports up through college and an extensive study of martial arts in Tae Kwon Do and Aikido. Therefore, not only do I not hide from conflict, I am willing to step right into its center in order to find ways to redirect it and diffuse it. And thus, I thought I was well prepared to raise a son, a very physically oriented son, a son with intense reactions, a son with Sensory Processing Disorder.
My son’s reactions to simple situations are often filled with frustration, anger and violence. When he gets overwhelmed, he hits, kicks and can scream like a wailing banshee.
Okay, you say – he’s a boy and most boys work through these reactions. However, I was completely befuddled by his extremes in two key aspects until our pre-school teacher started us down this path to discovering SPD.
First, my son often seeks physical input and he often doesn’t care if it is positive or negative. If he can’t get it through regular interaction, he is more than willing to push and push until he gets the input, which by this point is often negative.
This always confused me as a parent – isn’t my love enough? Why does he actively seek my anger at times? Nothing prepared me for that.
Second, many boys, and plenty of girls too, roughhouse with their friends. However, when I watch other kids play they seem able to understand an unspoken boundary of just how rough to allow the play to become.
Unfortunately, my son has never understood these unspoken lines.
If the games build in intensity he thrives in the midst of it, but where most kids are able to stop the momentum, recognizing the danger zone, he gets carried beyond acceptable behavior until he has a foot on his friend’s neck or dumping an entire bucket full of mud on another.
Again, his inability to sense limits and respect boundaries completely overwhelmed me. I felt like I could never leave him alone with a playmate and had to stand around like a hawk ready to step in at a moment’s notice. Not only did it often end in tears and embarrassment, I felt anxiety brewing like a bad pot of office coffee left on the burner all day.
There is the story of a person walking down the road and falling into a deep hole. Each day, they come back down the road and fall in again. This is how I felt interacting with my son for a long time, because no matter what I thought I’d learned from the day before to avoid the hole, here I was falling into the hole again – over and over again.
After 4 years of this cycle, I needed help.
There were days when simply tying his shoes the wrong way (based on his expert opinion) would throw the entire family over the deep end. Hugging him with love was not enough (and don’t even try kissing his head). Rationalizing through the problem was not enough. Threatening the big mean father was not enough.
I mean it was good practice in falling flat on my face and having to dust myself off, but I really dreaded spending time with my son because I knew at some point that hole was going to appear.
Today, only eight months into this process of discovery, I have deep gratitude for the people who have studied Sensory Processing Disorder and offered valuable insights into the whys and hows of this little known and even less understood diagnosis.
I have a long way to go in understanding how my son experiences the world – why his engine revs so high in excitement when he knows a friend is coming over that he starts hitting his mother, or why he is often falling to the ground in the middle of kicking around a soccer ball.
But what this path of diagnosis has offered me is a renewed gentleness with myself, my wife and my son’s quirky behaviors and extreme reactions. It reminds me to spin the conflict with an extra bit of creativity at the hard moments or be more curious about his approach to a situation. It has also taught me new tools, like brushing his body or squeezing his joints together – things I would never thought of on my own.
In a month, he begins an 8-10 week intensive with an Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory integration, but my parenting has already turned a corner in the path and my vision is broadening.
These days, we still fall into the hole on more days that not. But my son and I are able to pick each other up out of that hole with more grace and love than before – and that makes all the difference.