Has anyone ever heard of sensory processing disorder? Well I sure as hell never did, and when we learned that our son, Haydn, has the autism spectrum disorder, Asperger Syndrome, we were also informed that sensory processing disorder would most likely be riding shotgun.
Sensory processing disorder is pretty much the most ridiculous thing I've ever encountered in my life. It sounds like something some sick bastard invented to tell kids in order to get them to behave.
"You had better eat your vegetables, OR: the sound, smell, sight, and texture of just about everything in the world will distract, irritate, and annoy you. Always. No matter what. Forever."
Haydn goes through his life with all of his senses turned up to 11. Particularly his hearing. Throughout his life he has had a difficult time filtering out the noises that clutter up the airwaves. He had some problems when he spent time with his cousins, obvious now, but not as apparent to me at the time. About two and a half years ago at the Museum of Natural History I was formally introduced to sensory processing disorder. We were walking through the Hall of Saurian Dinosaurs, and I noticed a wild-eyed look on Haydn's face I had never seen before. He kept covering his ears and was getting extremely agitated. I picked him up and carried him to a corner and after much digging (This was pre-intervention, pre-education, pre-everything. Clueless Daddy trying to help the child who couldn't communicate yet) he told me there were too many loud voices. So we had to leave. Haydn was unable to spend any time basking in the fossilized awesome-ness of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and we needed to correct that.
Thus began what I like to call Haydn's Environmental Skills Training (I just made that up. Sounds very smart-ish and official-ish. Important to maintain the illusion of competency).
I began taking Haydn to Riverside Square (Fancy Mall, if you were to ask him), the least crowded of the local malls. I used my cellphone as a timer and we would go in for three minutes, go back to the car, listen to some music, and go back in for five, and so on. Initially it did not go well. We had a few spectacular meltdowns, and scared quite a few pregnant women (What if MY kid is like that?!), but after a few months we were able to work up to a full lap upstairs and downstairs, and 15 minutes in Barnes and Noble.
We worked our way through the malls of Bergen County. Same drill at each mall. Lots more sensory issues. Automatic doors freaked him out, but also made him laugh. He started paying very close attention to air conditioning and heating vents. Lights and fans were starting to make a very strong showing. Not too terrible, though. Everything was a distraction, but at least we were out in public. Then the hand dryers unleashed their thunderous fury on my boy's hyper-sensitive ears.
The first time we walked past a bathroom where someone was drying their hands, he jumped out of his stroller and stood in the bathroom entrance and screamed at the top of his lungs, hands on his ears, a little jumpy-hand flap thing going as well. Maybe a head-butt or two, perhaps some biting. If he had one, he would have probably beaten me with a bat or big stick. I didn't have an answer for this behavior at first, so we pretty much avoided the bathrooms with loud dryers for a while. During that time Haydn's Scale of Dryer Awfulness began to take shape. The silver dryers are loud and hurt, but the silver ones with buttons are OK (No sudden blasts of air). Black dryers are no good. Old, white dryers are very, very loud, but the new white dryers - like the ones at the Madagascar Exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, are nice and quiet. (I'm not making this up. Every place we go has been scouted out for a quiet place to take a leak. It takes a little bit of work to find a friendly bowl when we are out and about, but as far as I'm concerned, everyone has the right to take a leak in peace)
Haydn and I put a great deal of time and effort into his environmental skills training, and you will never guess what happened:
I created a little Jersey Mall-rat.
He knows girls in stores in all of the malls. Girls who will turn fans on for him when he walks in (we'll put an end to that soon enough... just happy to have him out and about), give him lollipops, let him work behind the register, and the "Cookie Lady" at Border's, who keeps a secret stash of sugar cookies for him and cuts the plastic off before handing them over.
And naturally, he wants to go the mall ALL OF THE TIME.
"Hey Daddy-o? We going out today?"
"I don't know yet."
"To the Big Mall (Garden State Plaza)?"
"Not today, Haydn."
"Can we go to the Great Big Mall (Palisades Center) today?"
"I don't feel like driving up there today."
"We can go to Paramus Park today."
Almost every day with this.
I have taken a child with Asperger Syndrome, serious social anxiety issues, and sensory processing disorder, and turned him into a New Jersey cliche.
However, my little mall-rat is also a very happy five year-old, who goes out to lunch with his Daddy-o on Sundays at Dave and Buster's where we eat AND play a few games. We take frequent trips to the Bronx Zoo, Liberty Science Center, Adventure Aquarium, anywhere... On John Lennon's 70th Birthday we even went to a jam-packed Strawberry Fields to listen to, and sing songs with, the rest of the Beatle maniacs for a few hours.
Of course, we run into challenges along the way, but my amazing little boy has, at a very young age, begun to develop coping skills that allow him to engage in situations that are extremely challenging for him, and have lots of fun doing it.
The bar has been raised, and now I believe he can handle anything. He will be the one who dictates where and how he makes his scene, not the sensory impact of his environment.
Now it's time to start working on those dryers...