Holding it together – back to school for the sensory challenged

1977. The bell rings. Time to go home. Wanting to remain in the safety of my second grade classroom, I look outside. Still raining. Pelting. I don’t want to feel the cold drops hitting my skin. Water will run down my face and I won’t be able to see.  My clothes will stick to me. Icky. Why doesn’t my mother come and get me?

I’m running home in the rain. I usually cut through the back entrance of the school, using the hole in the fence to make it home almost instantly. But on this day, the ground is muddy, slippery. I use the sidewalks around the school. It takes longer, running in front of houses. When I get home, drenching wet, my mother stands at the front door, holding towels. She rubs me dry.

2010.  The alarm on my iPhone rings. It’s 4 pm and the sales clerk at the SMU Computer Corner is expecting me. I have to return the borrowed Macbook power cord. I’m on campus to check with Financial Aid because my loan for graduate school hasn’t been applied to my tuition. I plan on waiting at my mother’s work, the Embrey Human Rights Program, until 11:30 am.  We’ll go to lunch and then I’ll go home. We walk to Snider Plaza for lunch. My cooling vest, with ice packs turned to gel, is now useless.

Knowing that I’d have to recharge my vest in the freezer down the hall, I remain at my mother’s work, staying cool in the air-conditioning. My autonomic dysfunction, made worse by the stroke, means I can’t regulate body temperature. Without the vest, I’ll overheat.

I’m trapped on campus and hiding out at my mother’s work.  I sit at the conference room table, under the lights, inhaling the smell of new carpet and trying to ignore the paint fumes. I look out the window, away from the flickering lights. The window is paned in old glass, the outside view distorted, refracted. I’m queasy.

By the end of the day, I am cranky, short-tempered, and bent over by stomach cramps. I feel put upon, having to take care of personal business while outside the solitude of my home. I wish for silence. I am poked and prodded. The world is beating up on me. Again.

5 pm. I’m on the SMU connector bus headed towards Mockingbird Station. My mother is beside me. Today reminds me of that second grade day in the rain. I am drenched with effort.

The next day, I notice that I’m still exhausted. I drink two cups of decaffeinated coffee, hoping that I’ll get a smidgen of energy. I am easily startled and jump out of my skin while watching television – the commercials flash too bright. I stretch more often, enjoying the serotonin flow. I welcome the opportunity to stay inside my apartment. Alone. No fluorescent lights. I want to lie on the couch all day, watching television,  storing enough alpha brain waves to make up for what yesterday’s stresses depleted.

I process what happened, my reaction to it, and lessen the negative effects.  As I shake off the sensory insults of the day, I feel held together.

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If your child is struggling in school, consider that a non-sensory friendly environment can attribute to lack of concentration, headaches, defensiveness, and stomach aches.  Sensory overload might even make a child reluctant to go to school.

Artificial environments, full of fluorescent lights, are difficult for the sensory challenged child to handle.  Consider what happened to me that day at SMU:

  • Fluorescent lights flickered, annoying, exhausting, and draining me.
  • Light reflected off surroundings: table, walls, and computer screen, blurring my vision and fragmenting my concentration.
  • The high pitch squeal of the metal ballast, the end caps holding the lights in place, made me nauseous and gave me a headache.

Letting your child wear a hat to shield them from fluorescent lights can help. Think beyond baseball cap – think whole new hat wardrobe that can be used to help build  confidence. When possible, let your child take a break from the lights with recess or gym. Since the lights can be draining, teach your child how to recharge:

  • Rubbing the tops of the ears activates the temporal lobe necessary for memory retention.
  • Applying pressure to the skin fold between the thumb and index figure is calming.
  • Brushing techniques used to calm sensory agitation are good for home and school.
  • Resting the eyes for a few minutes every hour recharges drained energy.

Working with a speech and language pathologist or occupational therapist with sensory integration training is paramount in trying to ameliorate sensory issues.  In addition to therapy, these professionals might also suggest a “sensory diet,” or lifestyle enhancements that would help “hold a child together.”

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Homeschooling can create the best sensory friendly environment, as Sara Elizabeth describes in her blog A Mama’s Story .

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