I live in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of snow, we get rain. It rains here off and on from late October until late June. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve gotten used to it. After buying good rain gear, I learned to like hiking and biking in it, and I’ve enjoyed the fact that sunny weather isn’t always calling me to play when I’m working.
But my seven-year-old son has not yet learned to appreciate our very predictable weather. That’s because he has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, also known as Sensory Integration Disorder). Among his many sensitivities is tactile defensiveness, meaning that his skin is very sensitive to all input, and to him, daily life feels like bombardment. He will only wear certain types of clothing. He complains and shuts down if I try to get him to wear anything other than specific socks, tag-free short sleeves and shorts, and the same flimsy hole-ridden sweater for the past 3 years. I dread when he starts to grow out of his shoes as it will be a 2 month struggle to find the right shoes and then help him mentally and physically transition into them. Sometimes I worry that other mothers on the playground are judging me because my son is running around in 30 degree weather in beach attire. I’ve gradually adjusted to his clothing preferences, but I’ve been having a tougher time accepting his astonishing aversion to rain.
Rain on any part of his bare skin results in tears and figurative paralysis. Baths and swimming pools have a similar effect. The only upside to his aversion has been his acceptance of a single pair of sweat pants for walking to and from school and at recess. I’m trying not to think about how he’s growing and the sweat pants aren’t. I also worry too much about the whereabouts of his umbrella.
This clearly impacts our family. My husband and I have always been outdoorsy, enjoying hiking, biking, kayaking, camping, and sailing all year round. When we decided to start a family, we promised each other we’d raise our kids outdoors, indoctrinating them early in an athletic lifestyle. But that was before we knew about SPD. It’s been hard as parents to keep from feeling resentful that we can’t, or don’t, romp outdoors with our children like we’d always dreamed.
In my experiences with SPD, I’ve found occupational therapy (OT) to be the most helpful approach to managing their sensitivities. At least two therapies are supposed to help with tactile defensiveness: Stabilizing Pressure Input Orthosis (or SPIO) clothing and the Wilbarger Brushing Technique.
I won’t go into the details of SPIO here, but in general, the firm pressure provided by the fitted neoprene clothing (like a wet suit) is supposed to calm the tactile sensory system by overpowering it. I’ve had good luck with this system with one of my children, but I’ve always struggled to get them to put it on and keep it on. It’s the kind of therapy that must be taken in baby steps: 2 minutes one day, 3 minutes the next, then 4 and so on. Incredible patience and bribery seem to be the key factors.
The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol (brushing) was recently recommended to combat our rain aversion. It’s the third time this technique has been recommended to me and I haven’t yet tried it. I’m feeling guilty that I haven’t just bit the bullet. Maybe we wouldn’t be imprisoned by the rain like we are now.
Why haven’t I done it? Well, before it was recommended to me, I saw a mom demonstrating it on her 8-year-old on a television show. But my first reaction was, is she nuts?! How could this possibly help his tantrums? I dismissed the idea as a wacky Ouija board gimmick.
When it was recommended to me for my own child several years later, I had more respect because I now had a better understanding of how it might help, but I decided to try the other five recommended therapies first.
I didn’t actually try it the second time it was recommended because I was afraid to start a therapy that I wasn’t sure I could do properly. If I start a therapy, I want to do it right, so we can observe with some certainty whether or not it’s really helping. Also, selfishly, I was overwhelmed with incorporating yet another time-consuming therapy into the already hectic school/lessons/therapy merry-go-round that already makes me feel like my head will explode.
So here we are at our third recommendation and I’ve put it off for two months. The OT recommended I start it on a “calm Saturday” in case my son has an adverse reaction to it. So far this year, there haven’t been any calm Saturdays!
I know this therapy will be a hard sell to my son. When the OT demonstrated the brushing on my own hand, I could feel the ghost of each bristle for over an hour afterward. I too have tactile sensitivity.
So on Saturday I’ll become the crazy mother who brushes her son like a pet twice a day and then compresses his joints afterward to counter the stimulation. I’ll struggle to squeeze in and remember the two 5-minute attempts around everything else each day. Most of all, I don’t look forward to his loud and lasting protests. I only hope that someday, he’ll forgive me and say thank you instead, as he walks through the rain, the drops falling gently on his face.
Photo by flickr user Eric Oebanda
Lorraine Wilde is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She posts regularly on her blog and has published articles at the parenting website www.Neighborhood-Kids.com. Lorraine is writing her memoir, Egg Mama: An Egg Donor and Her Extraordinary Family.