I have read and heard it said that we all have sensory issues to some degree. Whether you cut the tags out of your clothing, get a headache from fluorescent lights, cringe at the sound of a drill, or even still get carsick, you’re exhibiting a mild symptom of SPD.
But sometimes it’s not so mild. Sometimes your senses of taste, smell, and tactile processing are so affected that you can only eat a few foods. Sometimes your hearing is so sensitive that it’s difficult for you to be in a classroom and filter everyone else’s sounds – chairs scraping, pencils writing, kids talking, teachers raising their voices, bells ringing. And forget trying to function if the fire alarm goes off. Forget being able to filter a blender, drill, leaf blower, or air hand drier in a restroom. It’s enough to make you scream. And quite often, because you can’t talk and even if you knew how to cover your ears, it wouldn’t be enough, you scream. You scream and you run. And if you can’t run, you writhe on the floor, screaming in agony.
And if you’re a parent of a child who does that, you become ultra-aware of your child’s triggers, or possible triggers. This is just one of the many reasons why recent studies (sorry -can’t seem to find the link right now) have indicated that some parents of children with autism have PTSD, from years of being hyper-vigilant, stressed, and exhausted, among other reasons. You try to second-guess every situation. You instantly notice the echo-effect or noise level of every environment and hope that your child is okay with it. You cringe when you hear a loud mechanical noise. You still check for air hand driers every time you enter a restroom, even if your child is not with you.
In many cases, as the child gets older, they learn how to filter the sounds that used to be so agonizing to them. Sometimes, they get to a point where they only have to briefly plug their ears if a sound bothers them, instead of screaming and bolting in a panic. There is a huge reprieve as the parents feel safe to go out in public again.
But some parents – and I am one of them – are still affected by the experience of having a child who screamed and bolted and writhed on the floor. Even though my son is almost fifteen and it’s been several years since he reacted violently to a sensory issue, and even though I consciously know that he is fine now and would probably not have those reactions again, I still have these subconscious fears. Or maybe they’re psychosomatic sensory issues. When we are in public and a mechanical device or appliance goes off, it’s a trigger for me. Every sound is magnified. I almost break into a cold sweat. My adrenaline starts pumping and my pulse quickens. I become hyper-alert; I instantly look at my son. Often times, the sound doesn’t appear to have fazed him. Or, if he noticed it, he merely covered his ears. Sometimes he might make a comment like “That was pretty loud.” But that’s it. He no longer screams or bolts, and he hasn’t for a long time.
On some level, it’s like when I was in college and waited tables for my job. For years afterward, whenever I went out to eat at a restaurant, I couldn’t relax. I was constantly aware of the wait staff, how many tables they had, how they hurried. I would feel nervous when I would see food sitting in the pass-through window, waiting to be brought out to the tables, like I should get up and do it. If someone dropped or broke something, my adrenaline would race through me. For years, even after I no longer waited tables, I didn’t go out to eat much because I just couldn’t enjoy myself.
It’s been about sixteen years since I waited tables. And about a year ago, I was out a restaurant, and I noticed that I was relaxed. I wasn’t watching the wait staff. I wasn’t aware of the food coming out. I didn’t think about timing. I didn’t flinch when somebody dropped something. I realized that I was enjoying myself. So. Fifteen years. Fifteen years to get over the “trauma” of waiting tables for four years.
I don’t remember the last time that my son reacted violently to a sensory issue. I remember many of the individual instances, but not all. I’m sure that the times I’ve forgotten are those that I’ve mentally blocked, as a defense mechanism. But I can guess that it’s been about five or six years since we’ve dealt with a sensory meltdown. Since then, we’ve had meltdowns for other reasons, of course, but not sensory-related. So if my track record holds, I’ll need another nine or ten years to get over the experience of having a screaming/bolting/writhing child.
And while I know that this is nothing compared to the PTSD inflicted on many of those who serve our country, it is difficult for me. Time does heal. I just wish there was something I could do in the meantime.