Monday, September 11, 2006

In a Knot about Sensory Integration

About 2 years ago we figured out that Kevin is somewhere on the spectrum of having Sensory Integration Disorder. It was an epiphany of sorts, brought on by the freezer section in a large grocery store. I was perusing the frozen juice section when he began twirling, arms outstretched, as if he was a helicopter readying for takeoff.

"Kevin, stop it." I had decided that, well, can't he just act normal? I mean, it's a store. You're nine, sweetheart, get with the program. I was at the end of my rope. I had already pried him down from climbing in the grocery case, he was touching every single box of cereal, chatting about nothing non-stop, and I was tired. Most of all, I was frustrated. Kevin has never been bad, per se, in a store. Instead he becomes totally unglued and so hyper that it appears that I've just fed him a cup of coffee. I have tried every damn trick known to man, read every single self help parenting book out there, and not one thing had worked. He had been this way since he was two years old, with no signs of stopping. The behavior that seemed more understandable when he was two looks far less appealing at nine.

Kevin stopped only for an instant, looking at me with slightly glazed eyes. I went back to looking at juice, and in my periferal vision I could see him starting to twirl again. This time I got angry. I was tired of having to tell him to stop five times before he actually stopped. Tired of getting him to stop one weird activity only to have him begin another. Just plain tired of trying to control him in a store where everyone looked at me like some inept parent who couldn't keep their child under control. Tired of being asked the inevitable, "Does he have ADHD?" or better yet, "Gee, you need Ritalin."

"Would you stop it?? What the heck is wrong with you??" I took him by the shoulders, gave him a gentle shake, and suddenly his eyes cleared, as if he was waking up from a deep sleep.

"That" he pointed to the freezer, "is humming. That.." (this time pointing to the loudspeakers) "is playing music. People are talking, machines are making noise, and I can't take it. I need to leave. NOW." So we left. Minutes later, outside of the store, it was like someone had turned a switch. I had the normally well behaved, calm child back. What the heck was going on?

I had been doing a little reading about sensory integration disorder, and suddenly it dawned on me. All the things that hadn't made sense before, the things that seemed like they were just Kevin's personality, fell into place. His fear of loud, strange, or sudden mechanical noises...even today he will leave the house when I vacuum. The way he can't handle crowds, and places that he finds too overstimulating, such as stores, the pool, friend's houses, and movie theatres. How when he was in those places, he would become hyper and eventually spiral out of control until he was almost literally vibrating from energy, or blew into an hour long tantrum. His attachment to all things soft and fuzzy. How he always needs things in his hands to fiddle with when concentrating. Most recently, his hatred for seams in his socks and inability to tie his shoes. Grade six. Can't tie his shoes. Almost got a note home on that one. "Kevin needs Velcro shoes". Well I'm sorry, but have you seen cool men's size 6 shoes with velcro? And don't you think I've tried everything known to man to teach that boy how to tie shoes, short of standing on my head? I give up. He can walk around with untied shoes. It's total irony that I, of all people, have had the daunting task of teaching shoe tying 101. When I was a kid my Mom says that nobody bothered to teach me how to tie my own shoes, so I learned from the little girl across the street when I was about 7. To this very day, I can't tie them normally. Trust me. I've tried to learn. Isn't happening. I actually ended up telling the school it's genetic so they'd leave him alone.

Explaining sensory sensitivities is hard, because it's not widely understood. More people have heard of Aspergers or Adhd, and are quick to apply the label to anything that remotely resembles either of them. What a lot of people don't quite understand is that people who are gifted, learning disabled, or dyslexic can have sensory sensitivities as well. Usually the response is, "oh, we all have sensitivities" or "he'll grow out of it.". Sorry, they won't go away, Kevin's only learned to manage them. Some new quirks develop over time, some fade. It's the ones that impede on his life, such as being too overstimulated by classrooms, which present the problem at the moment. The best response was a parent at the school.

"Oh, I know exactly what you mean."the mom chirped, and then leaned in as if telling me some secret, as if it was a piece of juicy gossip....."I reaallllly hate crowds. I probably have it too. I mean, doesn't everyone?" I just smiled sweetly and bit my tongue.

My darling husband is 55 years old, and if you want a good example of an adult with sensory sensitivities, he's a classic subject. He may appear picky and sometimes difficult, but it's just him trying to cope as well. Somehow the prospect of growing out of it doesn't look promising. For now, I'd like to just get Kevin through grade six, and maybe somewhere along the way, he'll learn to tie his shoes.

If not...well...there's always loafers.

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