Too many adults don’t understand ADHD, and even fewer know anything about SPD and sensory meltdowns.

A few weeks ago, Lee, my husband, and I were on a hike in Arizona during spring break. As we walked the face of a sloping rock, we heard a boy screaming, “Mommy!”

It’s a Sensory Meltdown, Not a Temper Tantrum!

At the top, we saw the boy, who looked about 12 years old, in terrible distress trying to avoid a bee. Been there, done that, I thought. His parents gave us an embarrassed look. My heart went out to them. How many times had we been in that situation with Lee? Although in her case, it was spiders.

Lee gave the boy a sympathetic look and moved away. She passed two couples perched nearby, and their conversation drifted over to me.

“I teach at a private school, and I love it,” one of the women said.

“I teach at a school for kids with behavior problems, and I don’t love it,” the other woman said, giving a disgusted look to the screaming boy.

“That’s because those kids need more discipline; it’s all the parents’ fault,” said private school teacher, giving a nod toward the boy’s parents.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What were the chances that I, of all people, the mother of a child with sensory processing challenges, would overhear this in the middle of the Arizona desert?

The boy screamed again, and the couples stood up.

I felt the hairs bristle at the back of my neck. The boy wasn’t a behavior problem at all. His reaction was familiar. It seemed as if he had Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) like Lee did, and couldn’t control his fear.

I watched the boy’s parents, who were staying calm and reassuring him the bee was going away. I wondered if they, like us, had spent hours in therapy learning to go with the flow during sensory panic attacks.

I thought of a recent trip to a botanical garden with spider-laden paths around a lake. Lee had followed me on a path, hanging onto my sweatshirt from behind, eyes closed to avoid any sight of a web. Strangers walking past us had done a double take, wondering why a teenage girl was acting so strangely.

What they didn’t know was that this was progress. When Lee was little, spiders could cause a screaming attack, just like this one. It was hard not to overreact and try to stop it, especially in public. This boy’s parents didn’t deserve criticism; they deserved medals.

Yet I understood the teachers’ criticism, too. They probably weren’t aware that the boy might have SPD or an underlying disorder, like ADHD, autism, or OCD, and felt overwhelmed by his reactions. It was experience that taught my husband and me that the discipline of love, respect, and patience helped sensory meltdowns dissipate more quickly than commanding a child to stop.

In a few minutes, the bee flew off, and the boy settled down. He and his family started their descent down the sloping rock.

Lee reappeared and said, “Are they gone?”

“Yes.”

“They were so loud.”

“He couldn’t help it…”

“Not the boy, Mom. Them…” she said, pointing at the couples in the distance.

I smiled to myself. Lee sensed who had really needed the help.

My husband called out from across the way, and pointed up. A hawk swung in low circles overhead, bringing Lee and me back to what really counted. We had a peaceful day to appreciate the beauty around us, both seen and unseen.

 

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