Bofh of my kids have sensory processing disorder to some extent. The boychild’s woes are well documented on this blog, but are mainly tactile. He has some really intense tactile sensitivity and has since he was a tiny baby. He used to have a lot more difficulty with noise but that has improved a lot. The girlchild, who is now 6, also has some tactile sensitivity, though it’s not on any scale close to her brother’s.
However, she has some big shoe issues. And it’s the time of year when we buy new shoes, and practice wearing them for school. With–gasp–socks. I’ve given up on the boychild ever wearing socks again (he went through a brief one year period of wearing a certain kind of socks after much OT, but that didn’t last) but I’m not going to give up on child #2. Last year she didn’t wear socks and since her feet are super sweaty all of her shoes were just nasty after being worn for a month. And she didn’t wear socks with her boots, and we live in Vermont, and though I don’t think she’s going to actually get frostbite in the very nice expensive insulated boots she has, it can’t be comfortable and it ruins the boots before they’re outgrown. Plus it really makes me look bad as a parent with the teachers at school. Yeah, I send my kid to school without socks in -10 weather.
So today, after her new shoes arrived (these which I got on sale–I totally did not pay that much for them–very cute, very sensory kid friendly with the mary jane velcro style and elastic around the foot, nice and smooth inside, and how can you resist the flowers??) I told her she could not wear them without socks. Period. Not even to try them on. After some grumbling, she said OK, chose some nice seamless socks out of her drawer, wore the shoes for 5 minutes, and freaked out. Predictably.
We’ve been talking a lot about evolution and the body this summer (my kids are science freaks) and so I thought it might be helpful to actually explain to her why her body has that reaction to socks. I told her that when humans first evolved, there were lots of predators around (they watch nature shows and the boy plays Spore, a video game all about evolving and catching prey, so they get this idea) and our bodies had to be able to run away really fast when there was danger. I said this was a good thing, and that when our bodies sense something scary, our brains send out a very strong RUN AWAY NOW message that makes us scream and run away. This was a good thing when there were lots of leopards around to try to eat us.
I then said that now our bodies still have that reaction to scary things even when there aren’t any leopards around. Like if we see a commercial for a scary movie (she had that experience this summer) our brains send out a DANGER RUN AWAY NOW message even though there really isn’t anything there to hurt us. Our brains still scream LEOPARD!!! RUN AWAY!!!! And it’s good our brains still do this, because sometimes there are dangerous things, like if a fire starts we have to be able to run away really fast, but that dangerous things don’t happen to us very often anymore.
I said her brother feels this way when he sees crumbs. Crumbs aren’t dangerous, but for some reason when he sees them his brain thinks there are a dozen leopards chasing him and sends a SCREAM and RUN AWAY NOW message that is really hard to say no to.
She totally got that. She wasn’t sure why crumbs make her brother’s brain do that, and I said I wasn’t sure either, but that some people’s brains just work differently. Which is pretty much the truth.
And then I tried to apply this to sensory processing disorder. I said that some people have senses that are so strong and good at feeling things that their brains have this same reaction to sensing some things. Some people are really sensitive to noise, so when they hear a loud noise their brains think a leopard is chasing them and their brains say RUN AWAY NOW!!! and they yell or try to hide. She has some noise sensitivity so she understood this too. I said that having really strong senses can be good, because it can make you really good at hearing music or making music, or dancing, or making art sculptures (all things she loves to do) but that it can also be hard.
Which leads us back to the shoes. I said that some people are so sensitive to touch that when something touches them that they’re not used to, their brains do the same thing as when the first humans saw a leopard. And it’s really, really hard to tell your brain that there is no leopard there when your brain is screaming LEOPARD LEOPARD LEOPARD GET IT OFF!!! It’s hard to keep wearing socks and do anything else when your brain is sending that message to your body.
But you can train your brain. It’s not easy, but you can get used to things like socks that bother you. If you can wear the socks for just a little while, even though it’s really hard, and do something else fun, or do some calming activities, sooner or later your brain is going to calm down and say, whew, that’s not a leopard. Your brain can’t keep up the leopard panic for very long. It gets tired. It will say, I guess there’s no danger. Those are just socks. And the next time you put the socks on, your brain might get upset again and say LEOPARD!! But it will take less time before it realizes they’re just socks. And the more you practice letting your brain relax while wearing the socks, the easier it will be to put them on. Soon your brain will just say, eh, socks, no big deal. Definitely not a leopard.
And if you get your feet ready for socks first by rubbing them, or brushing them, your brain will be calmer and won’t be so surprised when you put the socks on. I tried to apply this to her brother’s over-the-top behavior (e.g. the summer “sticky butt” problem) by explaining that he feels like ten leopards are chasing him, not just one, and that his brain gets really upset about more things than hers does. A lot of things that don’t seem like a big deal to us are leopards to him.
She seemed to really understand this. She hasn’t tried the socks on again yet, but I’m feeling pretty spectacular about my explanation.