It’s the moment every parent dreads: the phone call from the school principal that you need to discuss your child’s behavior. Here we go again, I thought, my stomach souring. To make matters worse, school meetings are always way too early, and you have to sit in those dumb kiddie chairs, just inches from the floor. It was like I was back in school being scolded by the principal.
We heard the all-too-familiar story that our 5-year-old son, Anders, was having difficulty in the classroom environment and acting out toward his classmates and his teachers. Unlike other schools where they asked me, the non-expert, what we should do about it, the director surprised me. She asked if we had heard of sensory processing disorder. Then she handed me a flier about an organization called LifeSkills.
Later that morning, I was on the phone with the director of LifeSkills, and just in a five-minute conversation, I felt that we had found the missing piece of our big, complicated puzzle of Anders.
Sensory processing refers to the way a child’s nervous system receives messages about sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell and then responds to it. In children with sensory issues, when the brain tries to communicate with the body, the child can’t quite organize all the signals in their surroundings and they react inappropriately. (There are several types including sensory over-responsivity, sensory under-responsivity, and sensory seeking.)
Anders hates being touched by someone he doesn’t know well. If someone snatches a toy or gets in his personal space, he lashes out. He can’t stand to wear socks. He still needs a pull-up at night. He gets very irritated by noisy places, which unfortunately means classrooms. Once, he yelled out in a doctor’s chaotic waiting room for everyone to be quiet. He can’t stand to smell our dinner or hear our chewing, and he demands to sit in another room for meals. Yet when he eats ice cream he gets it all over his entire face and hands. He’s very slow moving in the morning. He freaks out at the slightest change of plans or routine. These are all tell-tale signs of sensory processing disorder, and we thought he was just being a pain in the ass.
Later that evening, I was at the park with the kids, and our neighbor asked me about the school year; she hadn’t realized we had moved schools. I confessed that we had gotten kicked out of a school in January and were at Montessori now. I hadn’t wanted to tell her because she has four well-behaved children and seemed to have it all together. Then she blurted out, “Oh, that happened to us all the time. My son has sensory processing disorder.” (Wow! See what happens when you open up!)
There I was, in just one day I’d had three conversations about something I had never heard of the day before. Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on my door, and my sweet neighbor handed me a book called Sensational Kids by Lucy Jane Miller. She promised to come back soon (which she did) and discuss the struggles and solutions they found with their son, who is now 12 and thriving.
Anders had his evaluation, and the diagnosis was a classic case of sensory processing disorder. Public schools and insurance don’t recognize sensory processing disorder (yet), so in medical terms, Anders was diagnosed with dyspraxia (motor-planning difficulty), hypotonia (low muscle tone), and coordination disorder. Walking heel to toe for just eight steps, he can’t do that. Holding a cannonball position on the floor for more than two seconds, he can’t do that. Jumping up and down vertically, he can’t do that (and we just thought he was being a spaz at soccer practice). He can’t even hold his eye gaze for more than four seconds. He can’t draw a perfect square like his 5-year-old peers or legibly write his name. It’s not because he’s not smart (he is!), and it’s not because he’s not trying (he really is!). He’s just not getting the right signals for his body to do the work.
And, boy, did I cry some tears when I realized I was just not understanding him. (#momfail) But now, with each mystery we solve, we get one step closer to helping him. (#ahamoment)
We learned that mouth muscles develop before hand muscles. Anders has been in speech therapy since he was a toddler. He gnaws constantly on his collar, so much that he has holes in his shirt and his buttons pop off. He craves steaming hot chocolate, chewing gum, and salt-and-vinegar chips (much to my husband’s dismay, all three of his family members love the “stinky chips”) because the heat, the exercise, and the flavor stimulate his mouth.
Anders also loves riding his bike and kayaking. That’s because those are very simple and predictable movements that his body instinctively does over and over again. And there’s still hope (for my husband’s sake!) that he can be good at sports.
The solution to all of this is occupational therapy. Anders is having lots of fun with his occupational therapist who comes to his school (hallelujah!) once a week for an hour. She actually changed careers from engineering to OT to help her own son with sensory processing disorder.
I can’t help but worry that in the fall Anders still won’t be ready for kindergarten. Every parent just wants their kid to fit in and do well. But weeks after that parent-teacher conference, I gained tremendous hope and gratitude. We have a school willing to work with us.
I also have the support of family and friends who see my son’s wonderful potential. On the night of the parent-teacher conference, my friend left an encouraging note on my porch with a bottle of wine called Dark Horse. Hearing you’re a good mom from another mom and having a friend who gets your child is the best gift.
And the best gift for Anders is that we, his parents and teachers, finally understand just a little bit of what he’s been going through. With this wisdom, we can offer him more time, more patience, and more empathy to cope and to thrive in this crazy world.