Like many teachers across the country I am gearing up for another school year. This year is going to be a little bit different though, because my almost five year old will be attending kindergarten. In fact he will be in the classroom right across the hallway from me. I know to some parents of children diagnosed with SPD it might seem like a dream scenario to have your child so close by. In my case however this has been the source of a lot of stress and sleepless nights.
Let me back track for a moment. My son has been lucky enough to work with an exceptional Physical Therapist and very caring Occupational Therapist over the past few years as a preschooler with special needs. These women are wonderful professionals and they truly understand my son. In fact they have impacted our little world so greatly that we often joke that they are like part of the family. Now that it is time to leave them and enter the school age world we are nervous to say the least. How will we ensure our son’s needs are attended to and that he continues to learn how to interact appropriately with the world around him?
Now remember how I said my son will be right across the hall from me? I am a kindergarten teacher in the same school district where we live and where my son will attend kindergarten. I have to say that I am lucky enough to teach with extremely dedicated and caring professionals, but the school district has never dealt with a student diagnosed with SPD. Knowing this and knowing the limitations of the district my husband, my son’s OT and PT, and I began preparing the school district for my son and all that comes with him way back in May. Initially we were met with open arms. “Whatever he needs we will make it happen”, but then when it came down to determining logistics such as: who would carry out brushing/ joint compressions and other elements of his sensory diet, who would get him through the chaotic hallways during bus unloading and loading, where would he sit during lunch, etc. there was a shift. Now instead of “What can we do to help your son?” it was “Why does he need that?” and “Are you sure that is appropriate?”
I have to say knowing the dedicated professionals I work with these questions where more due to a lack of education than any ill wishes towards my son. Unfortunately as many of us know SPD is not widely known about or understood in the world of education. Advocating for a child with an “invisible” disability is always difficult. In my case it has been even more difficult because it is essential to my student that I maintain positive professional relationships with the individuals who seem to hold my sons fate in their hands. As a result I have relied heavily on my son’s OT and PT to speak for him and our family as we prepare the school to meet his needs. I have been careful to only discuss the facts and have held back some of what I wish to say.
If I could speak candidly about my sons needs I would say: making eye contact is a very intense experience for my son. If he acknowledges you verbally or turns his body towards you he is listening. My son might stand too close to you or other children for your comfort. If he is told in a matter of fact nonjudgmental way that is proximity is making others uncomfortable he will do his best to back off. If my son makes noises or says inappropriate or odd things it is a good indicator that he is “stressed” and needs a break immediately. My son often does not feel in control of his body to compensate for this he needs to feel in control of his surroundings. As a result he is often inflexible with changes in daily routine. Don’t surprise him if you don’t have to.
No, my son does not mean to knock people or things over. He has poor endurance, postural control, and bilateral coordination. Yes, my son has a weak grasp and tires quickly when performing fine motor tasks. Please provide him sufficient space, time, and guidance to complete tasks and break challenges into little pieces. If you do this you will also be providing him with the satisfaction of completing tasks independently. Something he really wants for himself. Also when you step in and help my son get a break before he overloads you are aiding him in learn how to respond appropriately to stresses and are helping him maintain his dignity.
If I could do nothing more than speak strictly from my heart I would tell my son’s future therapists and teacher that: My son may not make eye contact, but he will listen and understand you with wisdom beyond his years. My son loves people with an intensity that is hard to match. He can find the good in anyone and wants nothing more than to please. Yes, my son may have differences in the way he experiences the world, but like most of us he just wants to be accepted and loved.