My five year old, Mr. Sensitive, has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), serious anxiety, and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. We’ve recently made the decision to say screw-it-all to the jobs, healthcare and services the city has to offer and go live in a small town in Ontario. Why on earth would we do that, you ask.
In the past 6 months in the city we’re now on our SECOND behaviour therapist referral for Mr. Sensitive. His SPD and anxiety transform him into a small, worried tornado, chucking toys and trucks throughout our home (a large apartment). He yells, cries and whines his way through the day, stressed to the max by elevator doors that might close and elevator floors that do not line up.
He has done some weird compulsive things, like organizing the candy bars in grocery stores and refused to leave until the bars were ‘right.’ He does not do this every day, but those days he’s ‘stuck’ in having to do something – like shutting a gate at a farm – stick out in memory for his insistence, intensity and overall strangeness. Our doctors and behaviour therapists insist it’s a manifestation of his anxiety, not autism.
We’ve just returned from visiting my parents in small-town Ontario, the place we want to move to. During our visit my parents stayed overnight at a friend’s home. Mr. Sensitive announced that since Granny and Grandpa had moved out (!), we were moving into their home. Mr. Sensitive also repeated how much he wanted a house. Over and over again. He happily looked at real estate listings with us.
Mr. Sensitive would walk outside at various points throughout the day and sigh, ‘Ah, a kid can really breathe out here.’ He watched the stars and humming birds. He looked for bats. He loved playing in the dirt, a kiddie pool, the sand at the beach, and going fishing. For a sensory kid like him, life in the outdoors was nirvana.
He would stop playing and listen – to the sounds of leaves rustling, the patter of raindrops, and the buzz of cicadas (leading to a discussion about the lifecycle of the cicada, what they eat and how they protect themselves). For a person who wears noise cancelling headphones to school, sound became a source of wonder and pleasure, not pain.
During our few days at my parent’s place, Mr. Sensitive became a whole new kid, one we had forgotten. He was fun to be around, and full of interesting points of conversation. I realized he is a smart kid, something we neglect when we’re battling behaviour. Transitions were less difficult (I won’t say easier) and he was happier.
One our first day back to the city (aka home for now) I wanted to take Mr. Sensitive out to walk the dogs with me. He could bring his toy cars to play in the dirt. Did I mention transitions are a problem? He had a complete meltdown. I managed to drag him, shoes and clothes on, still yelling how much he hates me, outside.
Once outside he was a different kid. He drove his toy cars on some rocks and we headed to a nearby school yard with a dirt pile in it. Mr. Sensitive drove his cars through puddles and dirt while the dogs toddled about. I sat on the pavement and watched.
He found a fossil, and waved it proudly. We looked at insects, and discussed how they protect themselves. We also looked at clover and dandelions, and discussed how they don’t protect themselves.
It struck me how noisy the city is. We live on a major road, one so busy and loud you cannot have a conversation on a cell phone while you’re walking down the street. From where I sat I could hear the roar of traffic drifting around the school building behind me, the beep of a garbage truck backing up a block away, the hum of the school’s ventilation system, and the roar of a train zooming along the tracks about a block away. When the noise died down, I heard the buzz of cicadas.
Mr. Sensitive is hypersensitive to sound. The barrage of noise is a stressor on top of sensory and anxiety-provoking stressors. Imagine trying to stack a bunch of mismatched dishes on top of each other. Teacups, saucers, plates, balanced higgledy pigglety. They slid and skitter, and eventually fall. Some folks call this ‘stack attack’ – the stacking of stressors leads to a meltdown.
What if you remove some of those dishes? Reduce the stress of a crazy-busy city life and reduce the stress of noise overload. Move to a small town. Get outside, listen to the birds, the breeze, and the cicadas.