Why My Son With Sensory Processing Disorder Is Thriving With Distance Learning

Before my sensory kid entered public school, I knew him to be “the little guy on the go.”

“What are we doing today, Mom?” he’d ask.

“Well, we are all going to the Y so that I can work out. Then we will have lunch with Grandma, and then maybe we can go walk at the botanical gardens before we have to be home for your sister’s bus.”

He’d furrow his brow and say, “That doesn’t sound like very many places.”

On days when I wasn’t working on laundry or cleaning the house, I would try to pack in as many activities as I could to keep him stimulated.

When he started 4-year-old kindergarten, I worried about his big transition. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have meltdowns when leaving places. Other times, these would happen out of the blue. But after a week of uncertainty and meltdowns in class, he reached a calm that lasted him the rest of the school year. His teacher was thrilled that she didn’t have to get him his own tent.

His occupational therapist wasn’t surprised. “Sensory kids thrive in structured environments,” she told me. I was elated.

My son’s cooperation and successful school performance continued into kindergarten. His kindergarten teacher was delighted by his positive energy and bright ideas. He blended in with his classmates as a neurotypical kid. However, he later started having outbursts on the school bus.

Several times a week, the bus would pull up in front of my house and, after my first-grade daughter would exit, I would see there was a struggle in the vehicle. I’d climb onto the bus and the driver would give me a perplexed and apologetic look. Sometimes I’d carry him off the bus as he melted down; other times the bus driver would carry him off the bus for me.

Once his feet would hit the ground, he’d take off running down the sidewalk, stripping himself free of his backpack, coat, and whatever clothing he could manage to tear off his body without breaking his pace. “You can’t keep doing this,” I reminded him at the beginning of 2020. “There’s a baby inside Mommy that makes her really tired.” I’d do an awkward dance of reaching one hand toward him as he ran while simultaneously gesturing to my daughter that she needed to walk toward the house and stay near my 3-year-old son.

I wouldn’t chase him too far — just far enough for him to make the point that his journey home wasn’t going to be an easy one. I’d carry him back, ask my daughter to collect his backpack and clothing, and secure the high locks on the doors so that he couldn’t successfully take off on any more adventures. (He’s tried many times.)

His assistant principal would call me to tell me that my son had difficulties following the rules on the bus again. She’d mention that we should consider revoking bus privileges.

I called my uncle, a retired primary school social worker, a few times. He firmly believed that the bus was part of my son’s education, and that the school should step in to help with his behavior. “He has trouble with transitioning,” he’d say. “It would be of very little bother for the school to simply send an aide to speak with him 10 minutes before the bell sounds to mentally prepare him for the bus ride each day.”

I talked to a friend who works for Wisconsin’s Department of Instruction. She described bus rides as “international waters.” The school puts the responsibility on the bus company (or driver, if the district is lucky to have bus services in house) and then the bus kicks it back to the school. No one really ever knows what’s happening on the bus and no one is ever sure who is supposed to be taking responsibility for issues that occur on the bus.

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Colleen Seto described this phenomenon as “after-school restraint collapse” in her Today’s Parent article. Once the student arrives at a safe place, they act out after spending a considerable amount of time regulating their emotions as they adjust to different environments.

His meltdowns don’t occur solely when he returns from school. On occasion, when he doesn’t wake up on his own terms, his whole morning is a bust. He’s usually bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and the first one awake, but when his father has to wake him for school, he’s often struggling. After putting forth our best efforts to dress him, feed him and brush his teeth, I’d have to bring him to school behind schedule while he had a meltdown. I’d call the school’s office and ask for help escorting him. As I’d carry him, he’d kick off his shoes and a staff member would collect them as well as his other belongings.

I’ve tried calling his school and asking what we can plan on the days where his meltdowns leave him inconsolable and unable to function. His life skills teacher emailed me to explain that outside of his occasional emotional entrances, he doesn’t exhibit any behavioral problems and is otherwise a “model student.” She then suggested that I try applying sticker charts to modify his behavior at home. I have a master’s degree in cross-categorical special education. I essentially majored in sticker charts. It wasn’t the first time I’ve contacted the school to ask for support and was in turn given suggestions on how to parent at home.

I have a solid hour between retrieving the kids from the bus in the afternoon, dropping them off at my mother’s, and entering work. It was enough padding for the inevitable meltdown. Often, when I’d check in with my boss at the tutoring center, I’d let her know that my family had a rough transition that day.

“I’ve had students with Tourette’s suppress their tics when they work with me,” she once said. “Their parents prepare me with stories about how bad their tics are at home, but I never see them when I tutor. On occasion, a student will tic in front of me, and I feel honored that they are comfortable enough around me to do so.”

“You know what a tic is, right?” my uncle once asked me. “It’s ‘don’t touch your nose.’”

If we all learned one thing during this pandemic, it’s that we all love to touch our nose and faces when we are told not to.

My son’s change in behavior from school to home wasn’t my first encounter with a child who acts differently based on his environment. When I was a special education teacher in Milwaukee, I had a student with autism who had selective mutism. She spoke at home, but never at school. I had her communicate with me through her own whiteboard.

Once the pandemic came about, my children stayed at home with me. Before their teachers sent distance learning schedules, my husband and I would wing an education program of our very own. We read books, tried science experiments, baked and planted a container garden. Because we were juggling a 3-year-old in the mix and my pregnancy fatigue would hit me at different times, our schedules weren’t perfectly structured.

And our son was fine.

Even as the warm weather hit, we stayed inside more often than not because my pregnant body needed to rest, and we took extra precautions to self-isolate. My on-the-go son adapted beautifully to becoming a homebody.

I mentioned this to his behavioral counselor, who was not at all surprised. “Your son has anxiety over going out and about,” she said. “He didn’t always request for his days to be busy. He mentally prepared for them to be busy.” She then described some of her patients who were awkward teens and thrived on their new virtual learning lifestyle.

Does this mean that my son is cured of his meltdowns? No. He still has them if we accidentally “interrupt” him before he even speaks because he was formulating a thought. He still has them when he fights against taking a bath. He still has them when life isn’t going the way he planned within that moment.

But life is a little easier, and I’ll take it where I can. I’m relieved to know that as we start a new and unconventional school year due to the pandemic, he’s going to be OK.

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