|Ben is cuddling on his bed with Jo-Jo the stuffed monkey. He is sporting his new wolf hat, under his new fuzzy blanket and with his fuzzy pillow behind him.|
We all have sensory comforts in life, whether it’s that steaming cup of coffee that gets us going in the morning or the heavy down comforter that helps us to fall asleep at night. My personal favorite is cuddling in my jammies under a blanket with a good book, especially when soft rain is falling outside. Most of us adults have discovered our sensory “comfort zones”, and we make adaptations all the time, often subconsciously, to keep our bodies calm and regulated. We probably learned to do this by ourselves. Our sensory kiddos often do not.
My son is learning to understand and even appreciate his unique sensory self, but has taken time and lots of conversations to get us to the place where he is at today. He knows what makes his body and brain happy, and he will tell you when his body feels good or when it feels “wacky”. My husband and I believe it is our job as parents to help teach him tools for self-regulation (and we rely a LOT on the sensory experts around us to help with this), but at this stage of the game we are more often than not the protectors of his sensory comfort zone. We grew into this role over time. We had to learn how to stand up for our child’s needs in a respectful way. We had to learn to say no, even to loved ones. And, most of all, we had to learn to take our cues from our child. We respect his needs, even if causes others around him to be disappointed or momentarily socially uncomfortable.
When Ben was a younger child, my husband and I would keep Ben in uncomfortable situations just to please others. Looking back on it now, I realize that I would see the signs that Ben was becoming overloaded, but I would keep him in the situation anyway, either because I didn’t want to disappoint someone or make someone else feel awkward. However, more often than not, this would end up backfiring because Ben would become overloaded and cause an even bigger social scene that could have been avoided altogether if I would have taken my cues from him to begin with. It wasn’t until later that I would learn to stop worrying about what those around me were thinking and focus instead on what my child needed most in that moment.
On one infamous trip to Sea World with a group of friends, I forced Ben to go into a dark theater to watch a show that I knew would be too loud and scary to him, simply because the rest of the group really wanted to go. When the underwater sea monster appeared on his stage, his screams of pure fright and terror finally prompted me to whisk him out of the theater, but the damage had already been done. He would not enter a darkened space for months after. It was on that day that I vowed never to put another person’s personal enjoyment above my son's sensory needs. Now when we travel places with friends and family, if there is a ride or situation that is too overwhelming for Ben, one of us will stay back with him and the others will go. I no longer force him- he knows his limits. I always offer and give him the choice, and it makes for a much better experience for everyone. We are fortunate to have a supportive group of friends and family who know what works for Ben and respect it.
Ben makes no secret about his sensory comforts. He loves all things soft and fuzzy. Lately he has been into collecting stuffed animals (the larger, the better!) and his bed has become overrun with them. This weekend on a trip to Target, I couldn’t resist letting him have a large blanket comforter with gray faux animal fur and matching pillow. My husband hoisted Ben into the shopping cart, pillow behind his head and blanket over his body. “Ah, this feels nice!” he pronounced. “This feels cozy! My body and brain are happy.”
Our home is Ben’s haven, and he’s more than happy to color, draw, write, or play games all day. Ben also likes to get out and explore, and as long as we follow a sensory-friendly plan, he has a great time. Whenever we go somewhere loud, such as a play, we bring his noise cancelling headsets along, and he is able to enjoy the show. Ben loves the theater and can’t wait until his birthday when he gets to see the musical Wicked for the first time.
We avoid overly crowded places, which means we pay attention to where and when we go on our outings. When we take Ben on weekend adventures, we’ve learned to go early and leave early. In fact, we try to get there right when the place is opening. In recent years we’ve learned to avoid crowded theme parks altogether because they are too loud…too over-stimulating…too much. Circling a parking lot to look for a parking spot is pure torture to Ben. Ben doesn’t enjoy riding most rides anyway. In the past, we’d go to places like Busch Gardens only to have him spend the whole time in the giant sand box. These days we make a trip to the science museum instead, and he is happy as can be. When we visit Orlando, we don’t visit Disney, even though it’s less than two hours away. We’ll go to the Crayola Experience instead. It’s smaller, less crowded, and has lots of projects for him to do. What’s not to love? We’ve learned that three hours are about the maximum that Ben can handle at these parks, and so we go and then make our exit. Typically we are leaving the park just as the crowds are arriving for the day. We’ve also learned that Ben is only good for one adventure per day, and he needs a lot of down time after an outing. If we follow these guidelines, Ben generally has a great time and we all leave happy.
Most of the time, Ben is a calm and regulated little boy. We have family and friends who have never seen our child pushed past his sensory comfort zone, and this can lead to confused and hurt feelings, such as when we leave a birthday party early or politely decline an invitation to a certain theme park. However, we hold firm because we know his limits. We are teaching Ben to advocate for his needs in a kind and respectful way, even if he can’t always articulate it for himself yet. As a wise person once said, “We do not want to be his voice, but we will be his microphone.” Because, after all, he is a human being, not an object made to please others. It’s tricky to help him learn to live inside the sensory comfort zone while still teaching him to roll with life’s unpredictable moments. We don’t always get it right, and as I look back on my early parenting self, there are plenty of cringe-worthy moments. And yet, we keep trying because he is worth it.
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