My daughter, Charlotte, has autism and sensory processing disorder. She has a fairly light IEP for which I am eternally grateful. School is her place. It has been since kindergarten and continues to be so in second grade. She likes her teacher. She enjoys learning. She LOVES her friends. Most of all, though, Charlotte loves the predictable structure of her day. She thrives on routine.
That isn’t to say that the school environment isn’t hard for her. It is. I can’t say with certainty which components are hard. Is it the din of noise in the cafeteria or the unpredictable nature of recess? Is it the fluorescent lights? Are there smells or noises or crowds that feel like an assault on her senses?
Honestly? I don’t know. Charlotte does not complain about any of those things. She likes recess. She will say that lunch is her least favorite part of the day, however, so I have to suspect that it’s overwhelming.
Although the environment must challenge her, she does a terrific job at school each day. She is very proud that in first grade her card was never flipped from green. Part of what motivates her to do her homework is that if she doesn’t do it she’ll get her clip moved and, “I never get my clip moved,” she matter-of-factually states.
Her teachers have shared that Charlotte is a model student.
And then she comes home.
For a long time, I dreaded the end of the school day. For the first half of first grade, I was met with yelling. Either I parked in the wrong place (I didn’t), came to the wrong door (same door every day) or committed some other hideous offense. An offense so objectionable, she would scream at me the entire 7-minute drive home. Once home, things were not pleasant. Everything from homework to bath time to when to turn off the TV or the computer was a battle. A battle that nobody was winning.
Around Christmas break we made some changes in her diet (which deserves a post all on its own so I won’t go into all the detail here) which included eliminating a few foods that we knew cause problems but had begun to believe were resolved. The diet changes were very effective. The battleground we were living in faded.
One thing didn’t change, though. Each day at pickup, Charlotte still screamed at me. I still parked in the wrong spot, came at the wrong time or, I don’t know, wore the wrong coat. Luckily, Charlotte was walked out to me each day by her Inclusion Specialist (special ed teacher) so she bore witness. She would tell me Charlotte had a marvelous day but then it was like a switch flipped and she would, essentially, lose it.
The teacher suggested we add a sensory break shortly after lunch. She was part of a morning sensory group, but maybe she needed a something extra to help her regulate herself after spending 30 minutes in the cafeteria.
Sure, why not?
The next day she had an afternoon Engine Stations break.
That afternoon, she came out of the building with a smile on her face. There was no yelling. There was no crying. Just a “hi Mommy!”
Her teacher and I kept track of which days she had the breaks and which days she didn’t (occasional misses would happen) and, lo, the pattern was consistent. No sensory break resulted in an unhappy, yelling girl at the end of the day. Sensory breaks meant the opposite.
When we had her annual IEP meeting a few weeks before school ended, her special ed teacher vocally advocated for Charlotte’s need for not one but TWO sensory breaks per day.
Fast forward a few months to the start of second grade. I knew the sensory breaks wouldn’t start immediately. I knew the staff would need time to sort out their schedules. Besides, Charlotte was coming home in a great mood every day. No yelling. Lots of good conversation. I was in no rush to push for the sensory breaks.
But I could see the tension building in her. Each day she was doing more sensory-seeking. More smooshing of herself into the couch cushions and rolling around the floor. With each passing day she grew more uncomfortable in her own skin. The day she had her first Brownies meeting, she was a hot mess. She came home yelling and disruptive. The whole evening was spent managing her behavior. The following days weren’t quite that bad, but I could see the direction we were going.
Two weeks and four strongly-worded emails later, the sensory breaks finally started. One in the morning and one in the afternoon.
And guess who’s back?
Yep. My sweet, happy Charlotte. What a difference those breaks make.
When she misses one of them -it’s obvious. Painfully obvious. One day, not too long ago, she screamed at me when it was time for us to leave to pick up her sister from preschool (what we do every day after she gets home). Although the whole night was not a bust, there was a fair amount of conflict over trivial things. Things that were normal parts of the daily routine.
At bedtime I asked, “Charlotte, did you get your sensory breaks today?’
“No, Mrs. [whatever her name is] wasn’t there today.”
I may not know exactly what’s bothering her sensory system, be it light, noise, crowds, touch or something else, but I sure do know what fixes it.
Behold the power of the sensory break.