When my son was a toddler, he had many fears. He was afraid of loud noises, ostriches and doorknockers in the shape of lions. But what terrified my son the most was a McDonald's dessert called "Mega Button Blast."
The television adverts for this confection featured explosions of chocolate buttons and cascades of ice cream intercepted by high-speed streams of fudge sauce. The noises, the rapid movement and the unexpected collision of these ingredients rendered my son a quivering heap of fear. Each time we visited McDonald's during the seemingly endless six months of this promotion, we had to stand in the far left hand queue, as far away from the cardboard Mega Button Blast poster as possible. My son would eye the dreaded signage suspiciously and grip my hand as if we were embarking upon a voyage to the underworld.
I didn't realize until several years later that he, like many children on the Autistic Spectrum, suffered from a sensory processing disorder called Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Since my son's central nervous system was unable to process incoming sensory input properly, he tended to become easily over-stimulated and hypersensitive to the noises, smells and visuals (also know as sensory input) around him. The Mega Button Blast adverts bombarded my son with more sounds and vivid images than his fragile system could process. As a result, he would melt down and shut down. Indeed, my son spent most of his toddler years with his fingers in his ears, trying desperately to block out noises that overwhelmed him; his brain, like a faulty CD player, registered sensations too intensely. He was hypersensitive to sensory stimulation.
Laughing was also a big problem in our household. Until the age of 7, my son would burst into tears anytime anyone around him would laugh. Now this may not be a big problem for morticians or tax collectors who tend to be of a more sombre demeanor; I, however, consider myself gregarious and generally fun-loving, and tend to surround myself with jolly people. For several years, I had to beg my friends not to laugh when in the presence of my son. Eventually, it was easier to stop inviting people over to the house. Those years without laughter were indescribably lonely. No dinner invitations, no extended family gatherings, no play dates. We lived in a bubble.
The fascinating thing about sensory integration dysfunction is that an individual can be both hypersensitive and hyposensitive to sensory stimuli at various times. A hyposensitive child will crave extra stimulation because his central nervous system is not registering sensory input properly. Our son used to spend hours jumping from the sofa onto a mattress that I would lay down on the floor, running up and down the corridor shrieking and chewing on his shirt incessantly. We even made up a name for eating clothing, a word we use to this day -- "bonklebonks." All of these activities -- the jumping, the frantic running, the chomping on school uniforms -- were vestiges of my son's desperate need for sensory feedback.
The light at the end of the tunnel for parents of kids with sensory integration dysfunction is neuroplasticity. Because our nervous systems are plastic, neural passageways can be rerouted throughout our lives. With the appropriate input and therapy, we can change the workings and efficiency of our nervous system. I have seen it happen. My son's sensory processing improved radically after a few years of regular therapy, both traditional weekly occupational therapy and daily neurological rehabilitation in the form of HANDLE therapy (overseen by a practitioner and administered by me). Our O.T. used swings, trampolines and weighted blankets to help recalibrate my son's vestibular system (linked to the inner ear and associated with balance and coordination). Jessica Lough, our London-based HANDLE therapist (HANDLE is an acronym for "Holistic Approach to Neurological Development and Learning Efficiently") assigned us, every eight weeks or so, a small number of daily exercises, which primarily involved face and head tapping, rocking, squeezing and spinning motions, that together helped recalibrate my son's proprioception (our understanding of where our body is in space) and improve bilateral integration and visual tracking.
My son no longer minds the sound of laughter. He no longer feels the need to self-stimulate through frantic spinning, jumping and running. I still see the occasional "bonklebonk" when he is stressed and starts chomping on his collar and shirtsleeve. I offer him a doughnut instead. Still, his reactions to sensory stimuli are well within the normal range. Sensory integration therapy really does help to recalibrate reactions to incoming sensory input. Be open to lesser know alternative therapies like HANDLE. HANDLE therapy changed our lives.
We no longer eat at McDonald's. My son has moved on to pizza, fried calamari and politically-incorrect-but-oh-so-divine foie gras. Now we can laugh as a family as we recall my son's former fear of the dreaded Mega Button Blast. To quote Seneca, "Time heals what reason cannot."
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