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The World Doesn’t Get My Son’s Sensory Issues — But His Momma Does

Ricochet’s special needs with sound and crowds have him running in the opposite direction.

Sensory challenges are the elephant that’s always in the room in our family, and they go everywhere with my son. My son has sensory seeking and sensory avoidance issues.

Who really knows if it is due to his ADHD (sensory-seeking behaviors are often hyperactive), or if it’s due to his autism, where sensory sensitivities are common. Or, maybe it’s part of both, or even a stand-alone condition (Sensory Processing Disorder). It doesn’t really matter. The sensory processing struggles are here to stay for my son, Ricochet, even now that he’s a teen.

Ricochet has struggled with sensory issues for as long as I can remember, although I didn’t realize that’s what some of his peculiarities were until around the age of six. As a newborn up until about seven months old, he would sleep only in his car seat. He needed the sensory input of that cozy, cradled space to feel safe and secure. Being held, of course, also helped. Sleep struggles are still a hurdle. Now, Ricochet sleeps in a Skweezrs bed sheet and under a weighted blanket to get that proprioceptive sensory input that helps him sleep.

Once the toddler years hit, he was a bundle of energy. Not just racing around and busy, but crashing into floors, walls, and furniture, seemingly on purpose. He was, actually, subconsciously, trying to get that proprioceptive sensory input he lacked. We initially thought he was just a rambunctious boy. When he was diagnosed with ADHD at age six and we learned about proprioceptive input from his occupational therapist soon after, we recognized that much of what is called hyperactivity was due to this sensory needs.

We began to notice some sensory sensitivities around the same time. Crowds and noise overwhelmed him. So much so that he’d cry and hold his hands over his ears if a loud truck or motorcycle sped by, or, god forbid, a train. He would refuse to go to a fireworks show or to the movie theater. It began to interfere with activities the family wanted to do together. I purchased noise-canceling headphones a few years ago and Ricochet will now willingly go to the fireworks every Independence Day, although he gets very anxious about it up until the moment they start and he sees that he’s equipped to enjoy it.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have Sensory Processing Disorder?]

We still cannot get him to the movie theater, but that has as much to do with the large, looming screen as it does with the loudness of the soundtrack.

I naively thought Ricochet would outgrow some of these sensory issues, especially the sensitivities. All the rationalizing in the world doesn’t change how his brain processes sound, though. It’s part of who he is. And that’s OK.

Now, we have a plan to handle the foreseeable challenges, like fireworks. We know how to manage those that come up along the way — retreating as quickly as possible. Just last week we stayed at a hotel with a water park when we traveled for his aunt’s wedding. He was excited and handled all the water play very well. As a reward for great self-awareness and self-regulation while away from home, I gave him $10 to play in the hotel arcade. He walked the aisles several times trying to decide which game he wanted to spend his money on before playing anything (a habit that wears me down). Any time he approached a loud machine, he’d swerve to the opposite side of the aisle, but he kept calm and proceeded.

He eventually settled on playing some games he was familiar with, without complication. Then, he decided to race the motorcycles, a game he’s played many times at a local arcade, and a game that he really loves (he’s been known to spend all his money on that one game at times). He swiped his card and jumped on the bike. He leaned in close to the handlebars, fully engaged, and waited for the race to begin. Instead, the roar of the engines began blaring from the console. Ricochet flew off the bike, hands over ears, and began crying and running for the door.

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I didn’t see it coming. He hasn’t had an issue that severe with noise in a long time. As I said before, I thought he was old enough now to be outgrowing it a bit.

I had two choices at this point: I could have tried to talk him into finishing the game or told him he was acting like a baby. Or I could show him understanding and compassion and use empathy to help him through. I took the latter route. I took him away to a quiet corner, arm around his shoulders, and let him know I understood and that I was sorry he got scared. He calmed down quickly, but he was done with the arcade – which was A-Okay by me.

When our kids have ADHD and/or autism, we have to address their needs. How neurotypical kids would have handled a particular situation doesn’t matter. Their calendar age doesn’t matter and our own feelings don’t matter. The work I’ve put into understanding Ricochet’s differences and special needs over the years allows me to support him in exactly the ways he needs me to.

From the outside, most people just don’t get it. But Momma does!

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