My 6-year-old son Benjamin is afraid of dogs. It’s not so much that he’s scared that a dog will jump or nip at him. Rather, it’s because he has sensory processing issues, and the sound of a dog’s bark is intensely painful to his ears.
The noise is so uncomfortable that he gets fixated on his worry that a dog may bark, and that he doesn’t know when or if a dog will bark. He mulls over this fear in his head, again and again.
Last summer, my son was playing in the park with other neighborhood kids when he saw a dog on a leash. As soon as he saw it, he put his hands over his ears and went over to the opposite end of the park, glancing back warily.
No amount of coaxing by me could get him to come back to play. When the dog owner saw my son’s fear, he tried to reassure my son that the dog was friendly and wouldn’t bark at him. But my son refused to come back.
Ultimately, my son told me he wanted to head back home, and I said OK.
As we left the park, I could feel stares from many of the other kids and parents. I felt like they were thinking: “What’s wrong with that kid? What’s the big deal? Why is his father indulging this?”
It’s times like this when I wish people knew a few things about parenting a child with sensory processing issues:
My son senses sounds, textures, tastes, smells and sights differently than other kids.Loud sounds that may be mildly annoying to most people are deafening to my son. Unexpected noises startle him much more intensely, making him jump or even fall. To protect his ears, we have him wear noise-canceling headphones when he’s in a loud environment. His sensory issues aren’t limited to hearing. Certain clothing and food textures are very uncomfortable for him. A faint unpleasant odor is sometimes enough to make him gag and plug his nose.
He’s not “being difficult” or “misbehaving,” he’s simply overwhelmed.When my son was 3, he used to literally jump out of the bathtub and run away. Only later did we learn that the sensation of the water on his head during hair washing and the texture of the nonslip mat in the tub caused him a huge amount of discomfort. These sensations triggered his fight-or-flight instinct, and he bolted. When this sensory overload happens in public places, my son can act out. From the outside, it can seem like he’s being defiant and misbehaving. The reality is that he’s simply overwhelmed.
No amount of explanation or reassurance will make him “get over it.”To help my son gain coping skills, we do our best to explain situations to him. We reassure him that he is safe and we will protect and take care of him. For instance, in the park, I told him that the dog was on a leash. I explained that the dog was nice and not barking. However, these explanations and reassurances can’t take away the discomfort caused by a loud noise or rough fabric. Nor can they always counter my son’s anxiety or fear.
My son won’t just “eat it if he gets hungry enough.”My son is also what some call a “super taster.” He senses the taste of food much more intensely than most people. While some kids can power through a piece of bitter broccoli, my son can’t. The taste is so intense to him that it will cause his throat to close up on instinct, and he won’t swallow. He’d rather starve than eat broccoli. It’s just too painful for him.
I’m not coddling my kid.The hardest thing for me is that I know people sometimes think I’m coddling or babying my son. But that’s far from the truth. If he had a peanut allergy, I wouldn’t pack him a PB&J sandwich for lunch. If he were deathly allergic to bee stings, I’d be nervous around beehives and flowers. He has sensory processing issues, so I’m making sure he’ll be OK in a world of overwhelming stimuli. Sometimes that means exposing him to a bit more so he can get used to the world. But other times, it means shielding him from things that can cause him anxiety or sensory overload. It’s a tough balance that I try to get right every day.
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