Last year I read an article about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and suddenly realized that my whole family has it, which explains a lot. I didn’t realize it was a disorder. I thought everyone was like us. When my children manifested issues with certain sensory inputs, I thought it was something all children did to greater and lesser degrees and each in their own unique way. But apparently “normal” children do it to a much lesser degree than my children did and it’s actually some type of genetically linked abnormality, formerly called “sensory integration dysfunction.” Not just our offspring, but Ron and I as well, manifest a laundry list of features associated with SPD. Our family is, in fact, officially (clinically even) “special.”
People with SPD have issues with certain sensory inputs, and the collection of inputs that bother people with SPD are individualized. The experts have categorized them under headings such as “auditory,” “visual,” “tactile,” etc. The bottom line is that people with SPD are very sensitive to certain inputs and can be grossly distracted and driven nuts by some of them.
Having SPD means that Ron doesn’t just dislike okra, because the way it was cooked for him as a child it seemed to be sautéed in snot, he actually gets a shiver at the mention of the word and his bottom lip involuntarily twists perpendicular to his top lip. I have silverware in the kitchen that Ron refuses to use because it isn’t heavy enough for him to eat with. There is a utility knife that I use daily that Ron will not even touch because he cannot abide the texture of the handle. He complains that I walk through the house too quickly and it makes a breeze, which chills him. In fact, he is remarkably sensitive to heat and cold. Threaten to put an ice cube down his back and he will spill his darkest secrets without hesitation. He won’t eat melons (except watermelon) or any fruit that has touched a melon (bad flavor).
I’m no better. I am notorious for not only cutting the tags out of my clothing but removing labels, tags, and stickers from anything that I bring into my house (from fruit to storage bins). I can’t sleep in socks because I get claustrophobic. I find pants grossly uncomfortable, probably because they are too tight (I only wear dresses). I need either long sleeves or sleeveless clothing, nothing in between (I cut the sleeves off all my T-shirts). I hate wearing a hat (headache). I wear gardening gloves because I am afraid of touching a worm with my bare finger. I am intolerably sensitive to perfumed scents (some I am OK with but others make me sick), and take my own bed pillow with me in my suitcase when I travel in case, heaven forbid, the pillow on my bed is sheathed in a pillow case washed in scented fabric softener. I have trouble with bright lights and usually can’t sleep in a room with any light source in it (even a little LED light on a DVD player). Ron says I’m the original princess and the pea. I confess that I actually dislike the color yellow in general (though not always in the specific). There are a limited number of yellow things that I find pleasing (sunflowers and lemons are OK, but I don’t much care for daffodils and yellow wallpaper makes my hair stand on end).
Everyone in our family is pathologically particular about what socks we will wear because we can’t handle lumps or prominent seams. When Yael was a toddler, on more than one occasion, she threw a face-down, on-the-floor, kicking-screaming tantrum if her socks had the hint of a lump in them. For more than ten years, Sudi refused to wear any socks other than one particular brand and type. And Sudi will eat hardly any kind of fruit because he dislikes the texture. He won’t even touch a peach skin with his finger (gives him the shivers), and, as a child, he even disliked the smell of strawberries. (Strawberries! Could anything smell better than strawberries?) Watermelon is the only type of melon Ron and Sudi will tolerate, and even then it has to be just perfect. Too ripe and it’s too mushy for them. Not ripe enough and it’s too cucumbery. It was Sudi who refused to read library books as a child because he said they smelled icky. I had to buy him books to get him to read them. Akili and Ron have acute hearing and can hear sounds that no one else notices. Hence, they both have difficulty with distracting and annoying background noises that “normal” people would block out. Akili also has a keen sense of smell (I do too). He claimed he could smell ants and would get upset when he smelled them in our kitchen at the Ranch. He was almost always right about it too; if he smelled ants then sure enough we would soon discover an invading contingent. Yael used to say she liked the way fresh eggs smelled. By fresh, she meant straight out from under the chicken, when we went to the neighbor’s at the Ranch each week to collect our eggs. One feature of auditory SPD is that the person who has it is aware of so much auditory stimulation that they have trouble weeding out and focusing on things said directly to them. So my boys could never remember what I had just told them. Seriously, aren’t all children like that? Is that really a significant feature of SPD? I’d always make my boys repeat back to me what I had just said. Half the time, they’d say, “Wait, what did you say again?”
I was always amazed at what other people’s children would eat because mine were such picky eaters. Vegetables? Forget it. Yael once lived on nothing but Barbara’s Natural Cheetos for several months. This is the same child who liked to eat raw, uncooked tofu. Go figure. I remember a Thanksgiving Dinner at which Akili ate nothing but canned pears. He used to put ketchup on everything. In fact, he put ketchup on his Thanksgiving turkey every year up until he was about 21 (we have photographs of him at the Thanksgiving table with a bottle of ketchup at his elbow). Yael puts soy sauce on everything. Sudi puts pepper or hot sauce on most of his food. On many occasions, I made a tray of enchiladas (for family dinner) that was elaborately divided by toothpicks marking where the cheddar enchiladas ended and the Monterey jack enchiladas began and where the beans only (no cheese) started and which ones had cilantro and which ones didn’t.
SPD is not considered a serious problem unless it interferes with functioning and quality of life. Children with problem SPD can apparently be successfully retrained to cope with sensory issues through gradual acclimation to them. In our family, we just took these things in stride and adapted to them by making the needed modifications. For instance, we cut the tags out of shirts, found socks without lumps and stuck to those brands/varieties, didn’t force anyone to eat things they didn’t like, adjusted lights and sounds if they were bothering someone, and, in Sudi’s case, didn’t forced him to read a library book. I am thinking that not every family had to be as creative as we have been to accommodate everyone’s oddities. I used to think that these sensory issues were signs that our family is highly intelligent and sensitive. And SPD is often associated with high intelligence and creativity, but not always. I was so smug about how smart and perceptive we are, but in reality we are just peculiar. And imagine an entire household of people with all these weird sensory issues? Imagine raising three children with them? OK, now give it to me, some sympathy please.
[If you want to find out more about SPD, just google “sensory processing disorder.” You will never wear a pair of socks the same way again.]