Fight or Flight

Watching my child have an epic sensory meltdown is extremely alarming and very tiring! Believe me people when I say that sensory processing disorder (SPD) is real, very real. SPD is a condition in which the brain has difficulty receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses.

I’ve watched my son struggle with self-regulation as the last two terms saw school work becoming more complex and increasing in volume. Trying to cope with sensory overload, the additional cognitive fatigue AND listening fatigue…at times the environment around him, just too much to deal with.

At home I’ve watched his meltdowns go from mere frustration and tiredness to being fuelled with anger and aggression. It’s like someone has switched the lights off and he is completely blinded, going into “flight or fight” mode. This is when the brain no longer processes the sensory information appropriately and the nervous system switches from parasympathetic nervous system to sympathetic nervous system and the body is unable to bring itself into homeostasis.

My child sees what is considered to be appropriate behaviour at school, just like every other child. He wants to blend in… OT has helped him exert a certain level of control. He can hold on to his emotions and appear as calm and collected as possible until he gets home, his safe space, a place where he is understood and accepted for who he is and loved no matter how OUT OF CONTROL or “ODD” he gets! I am sure other parents of SPD kids can relate?

There are however some days when a child with SPD will fall apart the minute they get home; I’ve experienced this first hand. The anger, the aggression, the crying, the obnoxiousness – FLIGHT or FIGHT, they fall apart, they can no longer hang on! My son’s sensory meltdowns can last anything from 20 minutes to an hour! Understanding his speech becomes a big challenge when he is in flight or fight mode, further compounding his anger, frustrations and aggression.

During a meltdown there is no reasoning, all you can do is ensure your child is in a safe space and watch as they lose control. Do not take offence to anything they say to you during this time, do not hold their behaviour against them, and do not punish them, DO NOT LOSE YOUR COOL!

Look at what may have triggered the meltdown and where possible look at ways to help them cope.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen this happen too often. It’s made me think about the changes. Perhaps we moved him to group OT therapy pre-maturely, not realising that the increase in school work will further impact on his sensory modulation. Unexpected changes in his routine – me arriving home late and not doing homework at the library, grandpa not fetching him at school as promised, struggling with socks and shoes in the morning, the constant sound of sirens and helicopters with the recent fires, disruptions during class, etc. etc.

We have an amazing team who I can rely on for guidance and support. This morning I decided to make some more changes.

  • Bubble bath immediately after school
  • I created a special corner where he can go to when he feels he’s nearing a meltdown (he is very excited about this space!)
  • Allow him to ride his cars up and down the passage before school in the morning – the neighbours will just have to deal with the noise (unfortunately)
  • Use the brushing method more consistently
  • Get myself a bike (hopefully by year end) so that we can ride before/after school (cycling really do wonders for him!)

I will soon read the Out of Sync Child and the Out of Sync Child has Fun books, can’t wait! In the new year we should hopefully also restart one-on-one OT (space depending) and work on a plan to get the new school year off to a good start with some workable coping mechanisms and an adapted sensory diet in place.

“Mommy, I’m sorry” the heartfelt words spoken into my ear once he’s calmed down and his body is in-sync again… often just before he falls asleep or after he wakes up from meltdown exhaustion.

To the man in the street or the lady in the supermarket who judge me and call my child naughty, in need of a hiding when he is on the brink of a meltdown in public “keep your comments to yourself, I may just lose all control and SLAP you!”