Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How He Learns

Ben is practicing his writing using the stop light letter technique invented by his OT.  
            This year Ben has started first grade at yet another new school.  This is the third new school he’s attended in as many years.  I know how important stability is for a child, and I never imagined I would have moved him as many times as we have already.  However, it was more important to find a school that has the flexibility to teach in a way that Ben learns best.  We are thrilled to report that it looks like we have finally found that place.  This meant a move to a private school, which wasn't an easy choice since I'm a public school teacher.  You can read more about the reasons behind our decisions here.
            From the first week of school it was clear that Ben felt comfortable at his new school.  On Friday of the first week of school, he told me that I had found a school that is a perfect match for him.  After the second week of school he told me that he wants to stay at his new school forever. 
            These comments comfort and reassure me, but I still find that I can’t completely relax.  Ben’s new school is not without its challenges. The indoor gym at the school makes the children’s voices “loud and echoey” and Ben must wear noise cancelling headsets to tolerate the amplified sounds.  “I hate when the boys and girls scream,” he tells me.  His after school teacher came up with a plan that allowed him to play just outside the gym in the lobby with a friend or two, and that has helped enormously. 
            Situations like these that make me realize that he has grown old enough for the talk.   There is much debate in the special needs community about the proper time to let your child know about his or her disability.  Some argue against telling the child at all, while others tell their child from the moment of his or her diagnosis.  I have read articles written by special needs adults who were not told about their disability until they were much older (or- worse yet- they discovered it on their own by coming across the paperwork), and they describe the resentment that they feel because they knew that they were different but didn’t know why.  They believed that there was something wrong with themselves because of these differences. 
            I never want Ben to have to feel that something is wrong with him just because he has different needs.  I want Ben to understand how his unique brain works and both the strengths and challenges that it brings him.   I want to talk about it in a kid-friendly way.  I’m not ready to put a label on these differences yet and call it autism or sensory processing disorder.  I will use these terms when the time is right, but for now I plan to have the conversation in a way that makes sense to him.  It will no doubt become multiple conversations that unfold over time.  I have patiently waited until the time when he was ready.
            I found the perfect moment one Saturday morning when he and I were out running errands.  I decided to stop off at our neighborhood Starbucks.  I bought him his favorite special drink- a vanilla bean Frappuccino (a caffeine-free treat) and we headed outside to sit at an umbrella table and watch the cars drive by. 
            After we settled into our spots, a long comfortable silence filled the space between us.  I learned long ago to respect the silence.  I could tell that it wasn’t just any silence.  Inside my son’s head, his thoughts were swirling and he was searching for just the right words to shape his deep thoughts.
             “I don’t go to my old schools anymore,” he mused, beginning the conversation in the middle as he so often does.  Or, more accurately, picking up on a conversation that we had begun days before.  “Those schools were not a match for me.”
            I paused, considering his words, and deciding that this was the moment I had been waiting for.  “And your new school is a match for you?”
            “Uh-huh,” he agreed.
            “Do you want to know why it feels like a match?” I asked.
            Ben met my gaze with a piercing stare of fierce concentration.  He nodded.
            I proceeded to explain how our brains are like machines.  Every person’s brain is different.  Each of us has things that we are good at and things that are hard for us.  I told Ben that his brain is excellent at remembering numbers and facts like his states and capitals.  However, his brain can sometimes get stuck and stop working well, such as when a room gets too busy or filled with noise.  It’s also hard for his brain to work when someone is telling him things to quickly.  This can make his brain shut down.
            “It’s like a traffic jam in my mind,” he agreed.  “I don’t like traffic jams.”
            I told him that his brain remembers things better when he sees pictures of what he is learning or when he can try things out with his hands.  However, his brain forgets easily if he only hears words.
           “I love stations,” he piped up.  “They help me learn.  My new school has lots of stations.   And I love science too.  Especially the experiments.”
            We talked about how every brain is different.  One is not better than the other.  We also talked about how every school is different, and some schools that may be a match for some boys and girls may not be the best match for him.  Ben has many friends who still attend these schools, and I wanted him to understand that there was nothing wrong with these places.  Lots of great learning is happening there, but his new school teaches in a way that his brain learns best.  Ben nodded.  He understood. 
            We talked for awhile longer about his sensory needs.  We talked about how things seem louder to him than they might seem to others.  We talked about how he is bothered more easily by noises and what to do when things become too much for him. 
             Ben and I talked like this for ten magical minutes.  It was the longest conversation that he and I have ever had.  As I think back on it now, I’m amazed at how easily the conversation flowed.  I didn’t have to steer the talk, nor did I have to probe him for information, which often causes him to shut down and turn off the conversation immediately.   In the past Ben hasn’t wanted to talk about school but on that sunny Saturday morning he shared details about his class with me that gave me a glimpse into his academic world.
             I am grateful that we have found a school that is so suited to his needs.  I wish every child could find such a place to learn and grow.  Ben is fortunate to be surrounded with so much love.  He has left his imprint on the hearts of those who have worked with him, and we appreciate each and every person who has helped him grow into the amazing boy who is is today.  
            I know that I cannot predict what the future will hold.  I know that I cannot make myself stop worrying completely, but what I can do is to teach Ben to know himself well enough to be his own advocate.  The more he can articulate his needs in a respectful way to the adults in his life, the more chances he will have for success.  And I know he is well on his way.

Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!


  1. Um...yeah - " I still find that I can’t completely relax."
    I think that'll be awhile for me...and my guy's 14.
    I am with you, though, on the TELLING.
    There's nothing to be ashamed about!!!! In fact, in the telling, we begin (in appropriate terms for where our kid are in life) to share THAT message above all.
    LOVE your sweet conversation with your Ben; how he already reflects your inclusive and non-judging language.

    1. Language is such a powerful thing, isn't it? And I am constantly amazed (but I should stop being surprised) by the depths at which my kid gets it. I learn so much from him every day. Thanks, as always, for your encouraging words!

  2. Such good news to find a new school that meets his needs, and what a great conversation! The love is the most important part in my book:-)

    1. I agree- love is what it's all about!

  3. So happy that you found what can make him relaxed. That is wonderful. I homeschool the kids due to their immense sensory needs and It is so great when you can find a supportive atmosphere!::)
    I loved your conversation too. We have just naturally incorporated words like Autism into our family since the kids were young...because I have it too which probably makes it easier...I grew up as an undiagnosed child and that was hard always wondering why I got all these other labels like nerdy, shy, socially inappropriate, high maintenance, sensitive, drama queen, geeky, smart....I prefer Aspie or Autistic or Dyspraxic with those I am close to...tho I prefer to be mysterious to those I am not:) This was lovely...

    1. Thank you, Kmarie, especially for your perspective as an autistic adult. Your children are so lucky to you have you for a mom...someone who gets them so completely! It is tricky to decide when to disclose the diagnosis to the outside world, especially because there is so much misunderstanding about autism out there. I know that I'll find the right words to explain it to him when the time is right. The rest of the world is definitely trickier! I do believe that all of us need to understand our strengths and weak areas so that we can find what best fits our unique learning style. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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