Our son is, in the language of child development, a sensory-seeker.

At least for tactile things — he wants to shove to feel the bodies next to him. His impulse to throw things (including punches) overwhelms him. He begs for us to “squish” him, and flings himself at our bodies. It’s made classes he’s been in tough, all that pushing, the time-outs and tantrums. It makes every night long, when the craving for rough contact seems to be stronger. He stuffs blankets in his mouth, tries to fold himself up in the bed or the couch, and sometimes seems to be trying to kick out of his own skin, as if he’s molting.

It’s hard to know, with toddlers, what is normal nuttiness and what is unusual even for toddlers, but we definitely thought that having a preschooler wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Other kids B’s age didn’t seem to be quite so turbulent every single day, or their parents quite so ragged, and B seemed to be lagging behind on a lot of behavioral stuff. We started with behavioral counseling, which has helped us as parents a great deal, but that segued into occupational therapy.

Now he’s been diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder. We’re still learning what that means, but it’s nice to have an explanation and a treatment plan for what we long suspected were more than the usual toddler problems. Some issues seem to be directly related to the sensory-processing dysfunction (like, er, using the potty). Other things (like going to bed) just seem held back by it–he was distracted, or overwhelmed, by other things. And of course some of them are normal toddler things.

For him sounds seem to be amplified, often distracting or annoying him, while tactile sensations don’t quite process, so he digs in deeper to feel. I’ve wondered so many times what is going on his head, and asked in that classic exasperated parental way, “what were you thinking?” Now I know his body is trying to give his brain the information it needs, or maybe any information at all. Suddenly everything made sense, so to speak.

So now we go to the sensitively-named AUTISM SHOP for weighted blankets and big-kid chew toys that give him the tactile sensations he craves. He sees two therapists every week. We’ve learned he needs to do “heavy work,” and my wife has improvised games for him involving shoving things around the house to calm him in advance of outings. We do yoga at bedtime. He loves it, especially “the lion,” which gives him license to roar.

Life has gotten a little bit easier. We’re even getting sleep, and sleep makes everything else seem less impossible.

We’re lucky to live in an era and a country where there is so much awareness of these developmental issues, and of course we’re lucky to have the resources to give him what he needs. I suppose many kids just outgrow the issues, but by then they have reputations that will follow them, expectations that become self-fulfilling–that they will be trouble in class, or get into fights. I hope he can learn how to cope before Kindergarten. I feel bad for him. Being a kid is so hard already. Obviously other kids have bigger challenges than he does, and I want to hug them all. Kids this age aren’t really guilty of anything. They have needs and impulses they are trying to sort out. They can be exasperating but none of them are “bad kids.”

If I can end this entry with a plea, it is for adults to stop clucking their tongue or pursing their lips when they see a kid like ours acting out, presumably judging us for not spanking him or whatever.  You really don’t know what’s going on with him, and you don’t know how much we’ve worried and stressed about his behavior, how much we’ve done and how far he’s come. Offer a sympathetic smile or mind your own business. We’re working on it.

We’re doing it for him, mind you, not for you.

5 thoughts on “Seeking

  1. Kurtis,
    I worked with a lot of kids with sensory integration disorder when I was an early childhood teacher, and the therapeutic things you’re doing make a big difference. We had kids who dragged stumps around the playground and jumped on small trampolines as though their lives depended on it. We had a toddler who asked to be placed in a high chair for activities when he was wont to flail or couldn’t focus. These kids’ behavior in/experiences of group living all improved dramatically. I think it’s important for all kids to learn that they can do things to feel better in uncomfortable situations. Kids with SID who get OT seem to get that sense of agency earlier and understand it more deeply. All the things you are doing are empowering him for life.

  2. You have said so many important things here. It would be my hope that such a post would go viral and encourage others toward compassion and understanding. You are so right – it is tough being a kid, which seemingly, many grown-ups forget.

    Thank you for sharing your own experience, and that of your son. Your love for him shines through in every word.

    I will still be patiently waiting for that book of personal essays.

  3. This sounds exactly like my oldest when she was a toddler/preschooler. Also diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, she was in therapy by the age of five. By the time she was seven or eight, she was threatening to kill herself with the kitchen scissors and running away on 30 degree nights in only shorts and a tank top. We hid all the dangerous items in the house and held on.

    Then, when she was ten, I underwent an elimination diet for health problems of my own. By proxy, the rest of the family joined in.

    My child became a different person within days.

    What she actually had: Celiacs. She never had digestive symptoms (she does if she gets glutened now, but not then.) Instead, she had sensory processing disorder, violent tendencies, emotional outbursts, and inexplainable bruises covering her legs (weird, I know).

    Shortly after we figured it all out, I came across this article, which led me to believe it’s not as uncommon as we thought.

    Just throwing it out there. B is a totally different person, and he very well may have a totally different issue. I just wish so much someone – one of the multitude of doctors or therapists or friends who knew about our daughter’s issues – had suggested an elimination diet before she went through ten years with all that emotional pain.

  4. Also wish the Autism Shop would change their name. I could come up with a million better ones. Equally bad, my son once earned an incentive gift: an insulated lunch tote emblazoned with “therapy for me!” I probably won’t be sending him to middle school with that. Although we have different issues, I understand the stress and fatigue you feel; remember to take care of yourself and treat yourself kindly. Btw, we are also in the midst of a diet detox with our son and after about a week and a half, we are seeing important changes. Not
    the answer for everyone but definitely something to explore.

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