Trauma and Sensory Processing Disorder
Updated: Feb 17
A year ago, if you looked me in the eye and told me that my son had experienced trauma, I would have looked back at you with a deliberately judgmental stare (a good offense is the best defense) and shouted, Traumatized by what!?? His loving parents who nearly broke their backs trying to keep him soothed over the past four years? His unending and quixotic bedtime routine of three books, two *original* songs, a different made-up dream story line each night so he doesn't have nightmares, and an OCD-tinged finale of receiving six squish hugs and four fake kisses before he would rest? The lovingly-prepared meals that he refuses to eat? His pool membership even though he hates swimming? And you would look at me and think, Wow, what is wrong with this woman? And that would be a valid question, but that is a topic for another day.
As you rightly walked away from me, however, I would have felt the pain start to gnaw at my gut again. And although I would not have been able to utter aloud this truth at the time, I would have known that something was wrong with my son. Really wrong. Because a mom always knows in some corner of herself, as she feels it in the tightness of her chest, in her wakeful ceiling-stare each night, and as she watches her son struggle and suffer through the mundane accomplishments that his peers seem to master effortlessly, almost unaware of their unfolding ease.
Last summer when our son's behavior took a sharp downturn, he began having multiple meltdowns a day where it appeared as if he were a feral animal, losing eye contact and verbal ability. He growled, tore things off the walls, and cowered in the remotest corner of the room. In these excruciating moments, when we tried to calm him, he would fight me and my husband viciously, as if we were assailants in a dark alley. Sometimes this scene would last for almost an hour, and my heart would seize with anxiety, despair, and anger. In the aftermath of one of those encounters, I remember asking my husband, "Isn't this the way abused children behave? Do you think something happened to him?". As we watched him, we simply could not understand where his rage and defiance (or what appeared to be rage and defiance) were coming from.
As it turned out, there was "something" that happened, or was happening. Although T hadn't experienced an external traumatic event (abuse, neglect, accident, or natural disaster), he was traumatized simply by living through the internal experience of untreated Sensory Processing Disorder. Our son was trapped in a body that couldn't execute its cognitive tasks, and in a brain that perceived daily sensory input as dangerous, even life-threatening. At the same time, T was unable to soothe or "regulate" himself, which had been an issue since he emerged from my womb. By the time summer rolled around, he had begun to panic from the moment he left his bed until he got back into it twelve hours later, screaming at or fleeing nearly all the small - imperceptible to me at the time - stimuli in-between. Without me realizing it, his little body would go into fight or flight mode throughout the day, every day, over and over and over. And eventually he started to panic about... well, just about everything. He started to panic about life.
Of course, at the time we didn't understand any of this. As you might expect, four-year-olds don't exactly turn around and say, "Hey mom, my brain is wired differently, I am experiencing the world as threatening and I am starting to have panic attacks." Instead, they scream. They fight. They run from you. They cower in corners and they eventually shut down. And this is exactly what T did. He fled - from me, his father, the car, the table, his food, his shoes, his clothing. And he fought - me, his father, the car seat, the chair, his food, his clothing. He largely stopped communicating, which makes sense because when you are facing a traumatic experience, you don't exactly have the luxury about chatting about what you are confronting in that moment. You just need to get your body the hell out of there. T's learning
had slowed down and then during this time, largely stopped. For example, his drawing skills stayed frozen where they had been since he was two-and-a-half years old. The delight we felt when he learned to write his name at that age, melted into confusion and worry when we noted he hadn't advanced beyond that single word, with the same scrawled handwriting, in two years. We would explain things over and over, but he seemed to no longer have the ability to understand cause and effect, the sequence of time, or process new information. Eventually, with heavy hearts and confused minds, we decided that we had just been dealt a bum hand in the cosmic lottery, that he was simply a difficult, poorly-behaved, often unpleasant kid. Our kid.
When I presented this image of my son to my dear friend, the child development specialist, she told me that she didn't think he was a bad kid. That really, most kids aren't bad kids. One particular sentence she shared with me provided a key to unlock the mystery that was my son: Behavior is communication. From her perspective - and I have since heard other specialists echo this - children are not inherently defiant, oppositional, or aggressive, rather there is often an underlying reason or root cause for the atypical behavior. (I mean, I am sure there are some child psychopaths out there, but ignore them for the moment). For example, when a kid has autism, a developmental delay, sensory issues, or severe anxiety, the root cause can be hidden behind what appears to be chronic misbehavior. But when children's behaviors are relentlessly unresponsive to normal parenting strategies (sticker charts, time-outs, natural consequences, etc.) or wildly out of proportion to what is going on around them, it might merit a closer look. With this sentence, she gave me the permission I needed to dig a little deeper.
What I found was not a bad kid. Rather, it was a child who was traumatized because of, but also in addition to, his sensory disorder. And it is only now after eight months and over a hundred hours of occupational therapy that I can begin to parse these differences and separate out how to work on both. While of course it is important to treat the sensory issues so that he can improve his postural control, learn to catch a ball, and improve his handwriting, acquiring the tangible and measurable skills - for the sake of the skills themselves - in my mind is really secondary. Because what has been at stake is his ability to have healthy, attached relationships and operate in - and belong to - a family, a community, a classroom. Basically, to belong in his life.
How do you treat trauma? As you may have gathered, childhood trauma does not lend itself to a quick fix or offer a "just-find-a-good-doctor/therapist/specialist-to-solve-the-problem" kind of situation. Rather, we have to heal him, the relationship, and also ourselves, within the family, while hopefully D stays his buoyant, chubby self and doodles along his fifteen months without realizing the intense rapids that have been churning beneath the placid surface of our fragile equilibrium. And it isn't easy to stay this long-term, pebbles-at-a-time course because of those damn expectations we all have. For what life was supposed to look like, what our careers would become, who our children would be.
Although I still dread the (increasingly more rare) moments of defiance and rage that explode out of my son, I can also finally see a sweet five-year-old in there. A five-year-old who really wants to make friends at his new school in Michigan, to impress us with his made-up jokes and drawings, to make sure his baby brother doesn't play with outlets or climb the stairs, and to snuggle with his dad when he has bad dreams at night. And it makes me both so happy and so sad. So sad when I think about the counterfactual - What if I had given up on him? What if I had truly decided he was a bad kid? Where would he be now? And what would have become of us, this family?
Like anything, I suppose the only way to heal the trauma for all of us is one day at a time. And in the meantime, I'll send a little extra love to all those "bad" kids and "crappy" parents out there.