How I Explained Sensory to my Son
As my son has gotten older, he’s become more aware of his sensory issues and how they make him, well, more sensitive. Recently, during bedtime snuggles, he blurted out, “mommy, why is C so much tougher than me?”
My younger son, C, also has sensory processing issues, but they manifest in a completely different way than H’s. While H is tactile-defensive and extremely sensitive to pain, C is a tactile-seeker and is seemingly void of pain receptors.
For example, when C was 3-years-old, he gashed his head open on our railing and ended up at the ER, needing staples. The doctor prepped the area with lidocaine while he simultaneously prepared several nurses to hold C still.
Everyone braced themselves as the doctor delivered the first staple. Everyone but C, that is. He sat there like a statue, completely unphased. No exaggeration, he didn’t even flinch. The doctor said he’d never seen anything like it!
Meanwhile, if H so much as gets the tiniest little scratch, I’m talking microscopic, you can hear him screaming from a mile away. It’s quite a noticeable difference, one that had apparently started to bother H.
After an awkward attempt at explaining that everyone’s brain processes pain differently, that this was part of his and his brother’s sensory differences and that it was neither good nor bad, but just was, he replied, “mommy, will I ever become less…. sensitive?”
My heart broke as he snuggled into me to have a good cry.
I knew he needed to let those feelings out, so I curtailed my attempts to try to make him feel better, and just rubbed his back until he fell asleep.
I laid awake thinking about how to explain things to him in a way that both made sense and helped him feel empowered and confident in who he was. Here’s what I came up with and how it went down…
Me: H, I want to explain why our senses are important and how we use them for lots of things.
H: Blank stare.
Me: Did you know that our brains are constantly taking in information from our senses?
H: Blank stare.
Me: * changing tactics * I bet you don’t know how many senses you have!
H: Yes, I do!
Me: How many?
Me: That’s what most people think, BUT, you actually have 8 senses. Do you want me to tell you what they all are?
H: Nods head.
Me: Well, there are the five that most people know about: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell AND there are three more that have big names: the vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive senses.
H: Mom, why are you talking about this?
Me: Becaaaauuuse...** the way our brains make sense of the information we get from our senses affects everything we do** - the way we move our bodies, the way we feel inside our bodies, the way we learn, the way we make friends, the way we play… EVERYTHING!
Sometimes a person’s brain gets a little confused by sensory information. Like the person might touch something slimy or squishy and the brain says, ‘What in the world is that, I don’t like that!’ Or the brain might hear a loud sound and say, ‘YIKES! That was scary!’ Or when the person eats certain foods, the brain says, “This is the yuckiest food I’ve ever tasted, spit it out, NOW!”
Everyone’s brain has a special built-in alarm system to tell us when something is dangerous - like if you see a giant spider, your brain’s alarm system says, “don’t touch that!” or if you’re trying to cross the street and a car comes speeding by, your brain says, “STOP!” The alarm system is there to keep us safe and it springs into action without us even being aware of it.
When a person’s brain gets confused by sensory information, the alarm system goes off and tells the person he isn’t safe, even though he really is! When this happens, the person might feel scared, angry and overwhelmed and it makes it harder for him to play, learn and have fun.
H: Does my brain get confused?
Me: Yes, honey, it does. But, everyone’s brain gets confused sometimes… like you know how mommy gets super agitated when it’s really noisy? That’s because my brain is getting confused by the sounds I’m hearing and it tells me I’m in danger. When mommy, says things like, “YOU GUYS! You are being WAY TOO LOUD!” That’s because my brain got a little confused by noise and my internal alarm started going off.
Some people’s brains get confused a little more often. When that happens it’s called Sensory Processing Disorder.
H: Does my brain get confused more often?
Me: Yes, honey.
H: But, why?! I wish my brain didn’t do that.
Me: Everyone is different, we all have things that our brains are really good at and things that our brains need more help with. The things your brain is good at are your Superpowers! Like, your brain is SUPER good at remembering details about things, so one of your superpowers is being attentive to details.
H: I’m also really good at Minecraft. Is playing Minecraft one of my Superpowers?
Me: Er… sure, honey! In Minecraft, you have to be creative, so I think creativity is one of your Superpowers. Remember how I mentioned the senses with big names- the vestibular and proprioceptive senses?
Me: Those two senses are very important because they have to do with how we move our bodies and with our sense of safety. Some people’s brains have trouble with those senses and it makes certain things a little more challenging for them.
H: Like what?
Me: Well, things like holding a pencil and writing can be more challenging, keeping your balance, sitting up without slumping over, having enough energy to play without getting tired, feeling safe when you’re in a crowded or a noisy environment… these are some of the things that can be harder for people whose vestibular and proprioceptive senses get confused by the information they're receiving.
H: Writing is hard for me. And I don’t like being around a lot of people, especially when it is noisy... and I always get tired, especially when I'm running around a lot.
Me: I know, honey and that’s ok. Like I said, we ALL have things that are hard for us. I don’t like crowds or noise either! The important thing is to understand is that everyone’s brain processes sensory information differently and we ALL have sensory superpowers. Being sensitive IS a superpower.
H: But, I don’t want to be sensitive. I want to be more like C.
Me: I know you wish you didn’t feel pain so intensely and I can understand that. AND, being a super feeling person gives you amazing superpowers to understand how others feel, to be extra attuned to your environment and to notice details that most people miss. Being sensitive is what allows you to be such a good artist. It's what makes you so curious and funny. It's what enables you to be so neat and organized. It's what makes you, YOU. There is no one else in the entire history of the world like you and there never will be! YOU are inherently special and your sensory superpowers are part of that.
H: But, C NEVER cries when he gets hurt and I ALWAYS do.
Me: That's really bothering you, isn't it?
H: Yeah, I hate it.
Me: Why is it bad to cry when you get hurt? What's wrong with that? It just means that your body is feeling something and you're having a reaction. It's not bad to cry, it's actually good! It's something our bodies do to get our feelings out so they don't stay stuck in our bodies.
H: Then, why doesn't Cruz cry?
Me: He does cry. He cries about other things. He cries when he's frustrated, when he's tired, and sometimes he cries when he doesn't get his way.
H: Yeah, it's annoying when he does that. I used to cry when I didn't get my way, but I don't do that anymore. Well, sometimes I still do, but not as much as C does said smugly.
Me: You're right, honey. C might not be sensitive to physical pain, but he's sensitive to other things. He has sensory challenges and sensory superpowers as well, his are just different.
H: mulling it over
Me: There is nothing wrong with you and there is nothing wrong with crying when you're hurt. There's no such thing as perfect- you are perfectly imperfect just the way you are. We're ALL perfectly imperfect! What do you think about that?
H: I still wish I didn't cry so much when I get hurt, but I do like that I'm a good artist and I AM better at organizing things and building cool LEGOS than C is. He's super messy and his LEGO creations aren't as good as mine.
Me: We all have our sensory superpowers and we all have our challenges. That's what makes us human and that's what makes us unique.
H: Ok, mom, are we done?
Me: Sure, honey.
If you're a parent of a sensory kid, teaching him about his "sensory superpowers" is a great way to introduce the concept of sensory processing. Our goal is to empower our kids and this is a wonderful way to do it.
Here are a few more sensory resources that might be helpful: