My sons both have trouble with and experience meltdowns occasionally. These episodes are scary and difficult to manage. But I understand why they happen. That’s because I also have sensory processing challenges, and have since I was a child.
Usually I’m good at using strategies to cope with the anxiety that comes with sensory issues. But a few months ago, something threw off my ability to self-regulate, and I had a meltdown — as an adult.
Experiencing sensory overload
While I was away for work, I fell and broke my ankle. My colleagues helped me every step of the way, from the ambulance ride to the hospital to navigating my way through the airport to get home.
Still, I was out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t control anything that was going on. I was in crowded, noisy, bright places I would have normally avoided — all while I was in pain.
The doctors had to immobilize my ankle in a toe-to-knee boot. The boot had metal rods up both sides, plus a pneumatic pump to squeeze my ankle in place. I left the hospital on a pair of crutches.
My sensory challenges include heightened sensitivity to tight spaces. I don’t like the feel of clothes irritating my skin or being tight against it. I also have vestibular and proprioceptive challenges. I get motion sick or dizzy when my balance is upended.
As you might imagine, I felt trapped and claustrophobic with my boot and crutches. Not only did my ankle hurt, but the feel of the rods and the Velcro that held the boot together was unbearable to me. Navigating on crutches nauseated me. And I had to manage everyday life and work like this for months.
Having my own meltdown
It finally got to be too much for me to cope with and filter out, and one night I had a total meltdown. My husband asked me what I wanted for dinner after a day full of meetings and a miserable appointment with the doctor. That simple question was the trigger. Suddenly I was shaking in my chair, saying, “I don’t know, I just don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that. I can’t do this.”
Panic washed over me. I felt like I was going to be stuck in this place of overwhelming confusion and pain forever. Within seconds, I was beyond the point of being able to calm myself. And there was nothing to do but let it pass.
That episode did pass. But the feelings of overload continued for as long as I was in that cast and exposed to sensations I couldn’t tolerate. Periodically, I’d lose it, but not in the same, out-of-control way.
That’s where having kids with sensory challenges is beneficial. My husband recognized when a meltdown was brewing. He could jump in to make decisions, such as talking to the doctor about ways to reduce the physical sensory input from the boot and the pain. Even my colleagues understood my need to take a day to regroup.
This experience helped me understand something, too. I need to be highly conscious of not minimizing my sons’ reactions to sensory input. Whether I hear it, see it, feel it, or smell it is irrelevant — they do. I need to listen to them when they say it’s too much. Because now I know what “too much” feels like.
Learn more about sensory overload. See a day in the life of a child with sensory processing challenges. And find out about the difference between tantrums and meltdowns.