I remember knocking on wood. It was an obsession. The knocks carved out patterns in my mind, assuring me I was safe. The darkness, I’d sensed, held temporarily at bay. I also remember the ordeal of styling my hair. The blow dryer always felt too hot against the nape of my neck, and the bristles of my brush shocked my scalp with little jolts of pain. When all the knots had vanished and my pony tail was finally in place, I remember running my hand repeatedly over the top of my head to be sure it was perfectly smooth. The slightest imperfection meant I’d be handing the brush back to my mother, exasperation on each of our faces.
By the time I recognized these habits as signs of sensory processing issues, I’d already conceived and delivered two children. Even though my son is the youngest, my sensational journey begins with him. At one day old, he nuzzled into my chest while the hospital staff, who facilitated my natural childbirth, performed a mandatory hearing test. The process for one ear had been smooth, but the other required about 10 takes to pass. The nurses shrugged and smiled, “We just keep trying and usually it works out fine in the end.” Meanwhile, I prepared myself for my son’s hearing to be significantly impaired. As he aged, I watched for, and noted the signs: He did not respond to his name. He knew very few words. He struggled to repeat sounds.
When he was two, we sat together in an audiologist’s office. The comprehensive hearing evaluation involved moving between multiple rooms to conduct numerous tests using sophisticated technology. When these were complete, the doctor announced confidently that there was nothing structurally unusual about my son’s ears. Instead, the issue was how his brain perceives sound. This revelation led first to my understanding of sensory processing disorder and next to my son’s final diagnosis of autism. As for my chatty, socially conscious daughter, I thought her sensory development was taking a more ordinary course. Then, years passed as she excelled in understanding complicated academic concepts but struggled to read and get dressed in the mornings. For her, letters moved around on the page, and the fabric of her most stylish outfits felt like sandpaper against her skin, each thread a tiny dagger sparking new pain and frustration.
I sought therapy for them. I joined national health organizations. I kept learning. Almost 10 years into our marriage, my children’s father realized he too had significant sensory issues, and I began to see myself along the autism spectrum. Together we all learned that, left unattended, sensory processing differences can seed serious psychological conditions like borderline personality disorder, especially when trauma is coupled with neglect. We also learned that, with understanding and support, people with sensory differences lead beautifully fulfilling and functional lives.
While that last bit may sound encouraging, one of my most striking lessons has been that not all people feel this way. For some, treatment and it’s promises feel demeaning and objectifying–liked profit-fueled pathways, presumptive in shaping what the human journey should be. I see the logic in this criticism. However, direct experience is my guide. Fortunately, the therapy I’ve experienced focuses less on rewiring my children’s brains than on providing maps so that each is more effective at navigating a uniquely altered sense of reality. I’m struck by the truth inherent to the cliched notion that no two people see reality exactly the same anyway. Navigation skills lead to sensory awareness, and sensory awareness grants power to everyone. It allows us to process sensory input however we do and then to have the final say in making sense of what results from that. In this way, the input we receive matters less than the outcome. We become adept at sensing the soul of things.
by Kelli Lynn