Every day my family must muddle through our conflicting sensory needs. Whether it is sensory overload, sensory avoidance or sensory seeking, at least one member of our family tends to be off-kilter at any given time. This wouldn’t be such a problem if our needs didn’t conflict quite so often. It usually starts out simple enough. One child needs quiet. Another child needs to make noise. If we don’t act quickly, things will escalate. If the conflict isn’t resolved, things can roll out of control as quick as a scream.
Hello, my name is Stephanie Allen Crist and this is my first post here at SPD Blogger Network. It is my great joy to be the mother of three wonderful children who happen to have autism and sensory processing challenges. Before the boys were diagnosed, they received special education services as part of the Birth to 3 Program, which included occupational therapy. It didn’t take long for our occupational therapist to figure out that we had Sensory Processing Disorder; and since none of us knew how to go about getting a diagnosis, she gave us one—whether it counts or not. Oh, did you notice? I said we. Yep. My three boys and I all fit the criteria for Sensory Processing Disorder and we all manifest our sensory needs in different ways. (My husband probably fits the criteria, too, but he didn’t spend enough time with the occupational therapist for us to be sure.)
The moment that nailed our diagnoses was when the occupational therapist and the speech therapist were teaming up to try to brush my son’s teeth. It wasn’t going well. I made the off-hand comment that, “Well, can you really blame him? He doesn’t understand why brushing is important.” I got that look that people give when they think I said something inappropriate. I shrugged and said, “Well, it does hurt.” It seemed like everything stopped for a moment. Time and motion were suspended. Then, they explained. Apparently, brushing your teeth isn’t supposed to hurt. Apparently, those little bristles are not supposed to feel like spikes scraping against the tender flesh of your mouth. Apparently, not only did my boys have SPD, but so did I.
That was ten years ago. I’ve learned a lot since then. We’ve learned, as a family, to try to meet our sensory needs so we can keep as many of us on an even-keel as possible. It’s a challenge, though, since we have seekers and avoiders among us. Far too often the thing one of us craves sets another of us off. The boys compete for sensory equipment, and they use it so extensively that the equipment wears out quickly. We can go through four to six indoor trampolines per year. We haven’t replaced the latest indoor swing, because we can’t find one that my husband feels is safe and secure. The boys have pulled down two already; while they escaped serious injury both times, we’re not ready to risk a third until we find a better way to secure the rod that supports the swing. Of course, we have a swing set outside that’s holding up pretty well; we also have a team of people who help us take the boys on outings to fulfill their sensory needs during the blah winter months.
But, for all the effort we put into meeting our sensory needs, there’s times when it’s just not enough. For me, the hardest part is the screaming. Alex is non-verbal. Many people assume this means he’s quiet. He is most definitely not quiet. Alex has an aversion to lots of different sounds. He’s most comfortable in sound-dampening headphones. But he has another strategy that helps him block out unwanted noise. He lets out a series of loud, piercing screams. See, if he is the one in control of the noise, then it’s all good.
But those screams are not good for me or for my youngest son. I can’t describe what Ben goes through, though I can tell you that he covers his ears and tends to attack Alex to make him stop—not that this strategy works well. For me, it’s a cross between having a spike driven through my temple and an electrical shock messing with the wiring in my brain—simultaneously. If Alex hits the right decibel—which he does with remarkable frequency—it seems to literary shut my brain down for a few seconds. Screams at just the right pitch are like a jolt of lightning through my brain that makes all my mental systems crash for a brief moment as the sound registers. The reboot can be slow and numbing. I get the same thing with fire alarms. Emergency vehicle sirens are even worse if they’re close enough.
Lately, the boys have developed their own tandem systems. Alex spends a lot of time in the upstairs—which is our designated quiet area—where he can play without getting overwhelmed. Ben prefers the busiest part of our house. He likes to be surrounded by noise, attention and activity—as long as there’s no high-pitched screaming and as long as Alex isn’t stimming on a video he’s trying to watch. Eventually, Ben tires of all this stimulation and he heads upstairs to his room for some quiet playtime. Alex usually takes that as his cue to come downstairs. As long as they maintain this pattern, meeting their differing sensory needs away from each other, there’s a semblance of peace.
But this happy parting isn’t always possible. Sometimes my two youngest boys want to spend time together. Well, at least they want to spend time doing the same thing—though sibling rivalry and their natural conflicts being as they are, neither of them really wants the other one to be doing it, too. Sometimes they can work out their differences, playing in parallel with a moderate level of assistance. But when their sensory systems are at odds, they can’t cope without interference. Generally it takes two adults—one meeting Alex’s needs and one meeting Ben’s needs—to restore sensory equilibrium and our semblance of peace. Sometimes one or the other ends up separated from their desired activity, whether they like it or not.
Ideally, we’d have a system of sensory diets that work in tandem to ensure everyone’s needs are met when they’re needed. We haven’t gotten there yet, and I doubt we ever will. The boys’ sensory needs and sensory cravings change, sometimes inexplicably. What used to work great now barely works at all. What used to be an aversive is now a craving. Our lives are in constant flux and we merely try to snatch peace and well-being from the chaos. Meanwhile, when chaos reigns, Alex screams to regain control—and the rest of us bare it as best we can.