Sunday, August 17, 2014

Home is Where the Meltdowns Are

It's been a tough week at our house. We're coming down from a summer vacation high that's leaving us all crashing and burning. Routines have been upended, sleep schedules disrupted, and normalcy has flown out the window (quite possibly landing on another planet). We vowed at the beginning of summer to keep things as normal as possible. And we tried. We really did. But between extra library programs, random play dates, extra time spent with family, traveling, and some unexpected events, our day to day suffered immensely. Which means, we suffered, but particularly our daughter.

She has SPD or sensory processing disorder. She's a beautiful, introverted, intelligent, funny child who thrives on sameness, routine, repetition, and always knowing what comes next. This is typical of most sensory kids. When your world feels out of control because of your inability to process what's happening around you, the need to feel safe and in control in every other aspect of life becomes paramount. So when things are feeling jumbled, overwhelming, and scary, my daughter likes to come home. Her small body loses tension when waking in the door. Home smells the way things are supposed to. Home is where you know what is in every room. Home is where you can reach the soap to wash her hands as many times as necessary to make them feel clean. Home is a haven of safety and familiarity. It's where you can arrange your play food and baby dolls until the world is in order again. And for a child who processes the entire world differently, a world that more often than not is scary and senseless, home might possibly be the only place she feels truly secure and accepted. As Martha Stewart said, it's a good thing.

Home also happens to be where the meltdowns are. You may have heard parents of special needs children talk about these meltdowns. They are not temper tantrums. No amount of cajoling, bribery, or comfort can make them stop. A true meltdown is the total shut down of all reason and a child's way of screaming, "I can't handle this!" All children can have meltdowns, but in my opinion, meltdowns caused by routine disruptions and sensory overload are the worst. When faced with sensory overload or stimuli they can't understand, sensory kids experience a fight or flight reaction. For my daughter, in public, this means flight. For example, in a crowded grocery store, her body tells her, "hide, hide now and it will all go away!" The sensation of overload does not disappear though. Oh no, it lurks just beneath the surface waiting for a safe time and place to turn viscously into a 'fight' response. In our house, this has meant kitchen barstools being thrown across the room by a very slightly built two year old. I've lost plenty of necklaces and had all of my favorite coffee mugs thrown down and broken in the throes of an at-home meltdown. It means screaming, kicking, slapping, spitting, sobbing (at times to the point of retching), and lying in the floor limp while wailing as if there is nothing good left in the world.

People who see us in passing at the store or maybe see us once a week at storytime see my daughter as a shy, slightly quirky, but generally pleasant and smiling little blond haired cutie. It might be why SPD is sometimes thought to be unreal and why some say it's an 'invisible' special need. Through therapy, techniques, sensory diet, and modifications, my daughter can usually, and I mean usually, hold things together when we're at the store these days. Mostly, mostly gone are the days when we would have to leave because she was kicking items off the shelf and screaming until she was out of breath. A trip to the store is still a majorly overwhelming task. It's hard and the sounds still hurt her ears, the lights are still too bright, the people still stand too close. It isn't a safe place, but it's a place we have to endure at times. But my daughter knows a secret. There is a place you can safely and completely lose control. It's a special safe place. So when a meltdown is inevitable (after a change in routine or schedule disruption, or an overstimulating experience or day of errands), and though my heart breaks with every one, (as I sit with her in a bear hug while she kicks, slaps, and sobs as though she'll never recover), it brings a sense of peace knowing that we've created a home where she understands it is not only safe but absolutely beautiful to be yourself. The good, the bad, and the meltdown.