The scene: Two days after school has ended. It is hot and humid outside – too hot to be out. It’s almost 10 am, and the kids have all been up for 4 hours already (you know, because there’s no school). Hot Wheels cars and trucks cover every room in the house, making it almost impossible to make coffee without tripping. Howie is in full blown out of control mode, running laps in the house and smashing himself into me and anything else he can find. Lewis is moaning like Chewbacca, doing his best to get my attention as he takes everything out of the pantry cabinet searching for something he can open himself. Gerry is overloaded with the noise already, on the verge of tears because there’s no quiet in the house at all. A diaper change becomes an impossible task, as Lewis wiggles and Howie hangs on me crying for a hug and Gerry stomps up the stairs. Just as I’m about to reach for the can of chocolate frosting I’ve hidden away for just such an occasion…
a knock at the door.
And in walks Mrs. L.
Mrs. L is an occupational therapist, good friends with Howie’s school OT. When I talked with his school OT about at-home services, she told me that her friend may be able to help. She works in a nearby school system, but has extensive experience with kids with sensory issues like Howie. I contacted her a few days before school ended, and asked if she’d be able to come out to the house and observe like “Supernanny” does, sit on the side, see how we all interact, then let me know what we need. Thankfully, she agreed.
I had worried that she’d come on a day when everything was running smoothly, like those days when you bring your car into the mechanic after weeks of it making a funny sound, and then on that day the car runs fine. But no, on that day our house was in full chaos. Mrs. L walked in to a sensory firestorm. And didn’t seemed bothered by it at all.
We sat at the table, and while Lewis climbed into her lap to draw on all her notes, we talked about Howie and all his issues. I had sent her a copy of his IEP, his OT reports and evaluations, his PDD-NOS diagnosis, and his early intervention notes so she knew all about his background. She was impressed by what he had had so far, and reassured me that we were on the right path. She talked to me while Howie was making noises and bouncing off the walls. The dog was barking incessantly upstairs. Gerry was playing a video game that I had asked him to turn off 10 minutes earlier. I was trying hard to focus on everything she was saying while filtering out the craziness around me. Mrs. L stopped talking, looked right at me and said “Three boys and a dog, eh? That’s a lot to handle.”
While that was clearly the understatement of the day, it was also our instant connection. She understood me. She knew that I couldn’t put in hours and hours of clinic therapy time. She knew that I was going to have problems keeping a busy and consistent routine for Howie, because I had other competing interests in the house. She knew that I was all at once overwhelmed and underachieving, a combination that leads to the type of morning we were having right at that moment.
Mrs. L broke it all down for me. She said she treats kids with sensory issues like they are a bank. We need to make sensory “deposits” in their bodies in order for them to get through the day without meltdowns and transition problems. She asked me if we’d ever been to a birthday party on one day when things went smoothly, and then another party a week later when things fell apart. The key, she said, was to examine what happened up to that party – on the smooth day, we had a good night sleep, lots of sensory input through play, a good lunch, and a calm ride all equal the ability to draw on the sensory “deposit” and get through the party. Throw in a tough night sleep, a change in routine, no lunch, and rushing around and this will deplete deposits and limit the ability to function at the other party. It made total sense of course. We all get a little “off” when days don’t go smoothly, but for kids with sensory processing disorder not having that reserve to pull from will make the rest of the day impossible to get back on track.
We talked about ways to build up those reserves everyday. Get him swinging high on the swings every morning for 15-20 minutes outside. If the weather’s bad, create an inside obstacle course that has both controlled body movements (stepping over a tower of blocks) and squishy input (jumping into a bean bag chair, then pretending to swim under it). She set up a course in the house, and as she had Howie move through it, she explained what each part was doing for him. She also suggested expanding our picture schedule, getting Howie involved in planning it that morning so he knew what was happening. We created an “oops” card to use when the schedule changes.
Then she did something no one had done before. She saw Gerry sitting there, desperately trying to figure out his place in all this. Mrs. L pulled him aside and explained to him what we were doing. She told him that Howie’s engine runs very high, and unlike him and most of us, he can’t slow it down on his own. We need to teach him how to slow it down, and the obstacle course or the swings were ways to do that. She told him that once he learns how to do these things, he will be much calmer and quieter, which helps us all. Mrs. L asked Gerry if he would help plan the next course. All of a sudden, Gerry had a role in this. His attitude changed, and he asked what he could do to be more helpful. I looked at Mrs. L with tears in my eyes and mouthed “Thank you”.
Mrs. L offered to come back again if wanted, but she didn’t think we needed consistent therapy if we implemented a few of these things. She told me to hold off on clinic work for now, and reminded me that we just needed to tweak what we had. With that, she said goodbye to the kids, the dog, and gave me a hug telling me to call whenever I wanted.
I closed the door with a sigh of relief. With her virtual “spotlight”, Mrs. L had pinpointed our most pressing problems, and guided us with a light to the solutions.
And for now, the can of chocolate frosting is still in the cabinet.
“And I feel
Quicker than a ray of light
Then gone for
Someone else shall be there
Through the endless years” – Ray of Light by Madonna