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Carrie Goldman Headshot

Sensory Issues Suck, and Gapers Make Things Worse

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Dear Tables of People Gaping at Us in the Restaurant,

I know what you saw. You saw one of my three daughters jump abruptly up from the table during lunch, knocking her chair to the ground. You saw her rip at her clothes, trying to remove them from touching her skin. You saw her lash out at me as I kneeled in front of her with a napkin, trying to dry her off.

I know what you heard. You heard my daughter screaming, admittedly very loudly. Okay, I'll grant that it was piercing. You heard me urging her to take a deep breath, to stay calm while we took care of the problem. You heard her hollering her head off.

And I heard you too.

I heard you say that some kids shouldn't be at restaurants. I heard you say that some parents don't know how to discipline their kids.

But here is what you don't see or hear:

My daughter has sensory issues, and one of the sensations that she finds most intolerable is wet clothing. Two seconds before her meltdown, I had accidentally tipped over my glass of iced tea, and it dumped into her lap.

As soon as the cup tipped, I knew. I knew how this would play out. I didn't have any extra clothes with us, but I managed to grab a number of thick, dry napkins to place inside her pants and shirt. The napkins formed a barrier between her and the wet clothes, and she instantly calmed down and resumed eating.

You were briefly inconvenienced, and I am sorry about that. But that is no reason to make sweeping judgments and assumptions about the child and the parent. It is not about discipline. Yelling at or punishing a kid who is having a sensory meltdown is not going to make it stop. It will only make things worse.

And here is what you don't know:

Things are actually better, because whereas punishment is not the answer, treatment is. I felt pretty good about this episode, considering it only lasted 90 seconds and ended with her happily eating again, as compared to the days when I used to have to carry her kicking and screaming from the restaurant. (I usually give a two-minute window, and then if she is still yelling, we leave, because it means she will need a longer time to recover, and I don't want to subject other people to the meltdown).

What you don't know is that my daughter has worked with occupational therapists and physical therapists for much of her life. She used to recoil from the sensations of sand under her feet at the beach and grass under her feet at the park. Any exposure would lead to horrible eczema outbreaks, which made things even more difficult. Now she happily plays alongside her friends at these places, and we dab her with steroid cream to control the reactions of her skin.

She used to scream from the feeling of food on her hands or from the texture of solids in her mouth. This, along with severe food allergies, led her doctors to diagnose her with "failure to thrive" when she was a young baby. She subsisted primarily on a special liquid diet for much of her life, until months of feeding therapy taught her to tolerate eating food. She carries an Epi-Pen and has learned what foods to avoid.

So I was feeling pretty damn good about the fact that my daughter pulled it together after the iced tea episode and was eating some mac and cheese and clearly enjoying it. I felt less good when I heard the rumblings from disgruntled diners and noticed the harsh glances being thrown at us.

I know it hurt your ears when she screamed. It hurt mine, too. But did you know that she was actually in far more discomfort than you or I? She was in sensory agony, and her misery is what caused her to erupt in screaming and thrashing.

Empathy is described as "the identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives."

Empathy is the antidote to judgment. It is the answer to much of what causes intolerance, entitlement, bullying and ostracism.

Next time you see a child thrashing and screaming, try having a little empathy. Maybe instead of staring with open hostility, you could offer a smile or a kind look. You will find that you no longer feel annoyed, which means that you will benefit too! Such a simple cognitive change, but one that makes all the difference in the world.

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This article originally appeared on my blog, Portrait of an Adoption, on May 12, 2012.