Over the past year I have been on an incredible journey learning about SPD and helping my almost four year old son transition to a school environment. Until O was 2.5, he was cared for at home by a nanny for 30 hours a week. When I became pregnant with our second child, we wanted O to start a preschool. We found one by our house that was highly recommended and was actually a private elementary school. They valued diversity and acceptance and had a gorgeous campus. Before starting there we needed coverage for a few weeks, so started at a local YMCA daycare. O was not happy about being at school at first, but it only took a week for him to stop crying at drop off. The teachers were really nice, and he was the youngest in the class by a year.
One day his teacher laughed and said “he likes to hit the other kids. We tell him to be nice to friends.” O had been saying “don’t hit friends” over and over, so I finally knew why. I was concerned because he had hit my nephew during a visit back home just before starting school. My brother assured me it was normal two-year old behavior, but of course it really bothered me. After hearing about his Y experience I was worried about the next school, but I also felt like the next school was more professional and would have ways to redirect and handle the behavior other than laughing.
We started the new school, and I was so excited because it had a yoga class, music class, and a Spanish class. The classrooms had gardens, and I was so excited for O. On the first day, my husband and I picked O up, and O left a circle time and doubled back to hit a friend before reaching us. It looked random, but I was already sensing it was a reaction to our leaving him at school all day. O started during the summer program, and we kept hearing this was a great way to introduce him to school since it was more relaxed. Within weeks we had a meeting with his teacher that she called asking us about his strengths and weaknesses. She assured us we weren’t even her first meeting of the day. We chatted and then she asked about O repeating sentences and saying things like “Don’t let S get it” during snack time. S is our dog, and of course the dog wasn’t there. He would also say “cars coming” when the teacher took his hand. His teacher was concerned that he had trouble during transitions and always wanted to play with sensory items. We didn’t know what any of that meant and just nodded.
I wasn’t too concerned about his language because at home he wasn’t doing that. We were shocked to learn that he only communicated at school with these few sentences. The teachers said they were working on gentle hands and teaching O to communicate when he wanted to play with his friends. My instincts were telling me something about the class was creating stress for him. A resource coordinator watched him, and I had a meeting days later with a sheet full of resources. The teacher and coordinator starting casually talking about how I’d want to do this assessment and that assessment. And they talked to each other about how difficult it is to find out something is wrong with your kid. I just sat there in shock not understanding what they were saying, and I assumed they thought he might be autistic.
They were telling me he wasn’t connecting with the teacher at circle time and that he didn’t understand where his body ended and the next person’s began. They gave him a squishy mat that seemed to help. It was a lot to take in, and in hind sight should not have been delivered in the way it was. The school had a two week break, and I took O to our pediatrician who said “He’s not even three. Relax.” Still, I wanted the school to see we were on board, so we made an appointment with a pediatric development specialist. The appointment was for the end of the school semester, so we had months to survive.
During the break we went to story times at the library and for the first time O sat still through them. I thought school had made this difference in him. School started again with the same teachers, and O started off great. He found his circle spot, followed directions, and was ahead of the kids who were just beginning. Then my daughter was born, and we started getting reports that O was head bunting people, pulling hair, licking the walls, putting everything in his mouth, and at times being physically aggressive. The teachers told us he wasn’t aggressive but that he seemed to be trying to play with others.
By now I had read enough about SPD to see him as a sensory seeker. At the same time, he had gross motor delays and was slow to climb stairs or be confident with movement in general. At his school assessment they recommended one-on-one attention if his physical and vocal outbursts did not decrease in six weeks. He had also been screaming at random times. My husband and I decided to start the one-on-one sooner, and my husband began in the classroom. We hired someone else when he couldn’t attend. Orion seemed to thrive with the attention, and it became clear that he had some problems with sitting in circle for twenty minutes at a time in one exact position. He also had trouble transitioning because of a loud bell the teacher would ring and the chaos that ensued. My husband felt like the school day was too structured for a 2s and 3s class. I dismissed him until I sat through a morning and saw that O was not having fun except at very specific times. The pace was frenetic, and the kids were constantly getting into trouble. The school uses Love and Logic, and we attempted to adopt that at home with poor results. It just didn’t mesh with our parenting style.
O’s assessment with the development team told us nothing except that he probably wasn’t autistic. We could do occupational therapy or speech if we wanted, but that process was easier said than done. We decided that funding a third teacher for his class was not sustainable, so we left the school mid-year and started at a daycare center that was also watching our infant. In part we left because the school refused to make any changes that would have made the day easier for O such as letting him always be at the front or back of the line, stop ringing the hand bell, and other transition ideas my husband had after weeks in the classroom that would have helped all of the kids be more successful. At the new center, O cleaned up without a problem because the lights were turned off and the kids all cleaned. I am not sure why there were always kids screaming in the more structured classroom but the new school was calmer, at least during times of transition. O became potty trained (the other school didn’t potty train), started putting his shoes on by himself, stopped using a pacifier, and started thriving in various other ways. After a few months he moved to an older classroom, and he did well at first. But then the class size grew, and we received reports of hitting and eating crafts. I told the teachers about SPD, and they implemented sensory activities for O. I also bought him chew toys. They treated it seriously, but they didn’t make us or O feel bad.
After months of working with him outside and inside the classroom O’s days have gotten much better. We met with a SPD center that offers Sensory Integration Therapy, but the owner said O had a mild case, and since our insurance was not going to cover the treatment, we could wait a year to see how he does. He had outgrown so many of his more severe symptoms (hitting himself, head bunting others), so we were willing to give it more time. At this stage we are starting another structured preschool that provided services if needed, because a spot opened. Looking back at this past year, it has become clear that the style of preschool and teacher really matter. In fact, we will always look for teachers that connect with O and who are willing to work with him. The teacher connection is so important, especially in the preschool years, and we were too blinded by the idea of a “good school” to recognize that it might not have been a good fit for our son.
We spent all of our energy trying to make O fit into the school rather than helping the school make him more comfortable. I have stopped feeling guilty and helpless, and I have (mostly) stopped resenting the school. I am still sad that O loved the school and had to deal with yet another major transition, but I feel like he has become so much stronger through these transitions and has learned to cope in amazing ways. As we start the new school, I will be looking for ways to help O continue his positive growth and become a better advocate for my children.
It is difficult having a child who would hit other children. I love my son so much and think he is amazing and creative, and I could only imagine that his teachers didn’t see those things. They saw him as an impediment to their highly ambitious curriculum. I spent so much energy feeling ashamed and embarrassed, and it was others who helped me realize that O was hurting and stressed. I still do not have any answers for what we went through or what is ahead for us, but I know reading other people’s stories gave me the most comfort, and I am putting our story out there in case it resonates with someone.