My daughter is an earlier riser, so our Saturday morning tradition is to be out and about exploring parks, trails, playgrounds, beaches, and the occasional local event. When she was 16 months old we stopped at a local green market so I could get myself a coffee at a Starbucks nestled into the downtown area of a local beach town where they sell fruit pouches that she loves.
Not long after we entered the busy coffee chain, I sensed that my daughter was starting to feel overwhelmed by the sounds and people surrounding us. I knew we were on borrowed time, and my impatience began to mount. I was prepared to walk out without my coffee. No sooner had I decided on an exit strategy, the barista pressed the button on the espresso machine. The usually innocuous sound sent my daughter into a tailspin, and I was left standing in the chaos of a popular coffee shop on a weekend morning as my daughter went into full meltdown mode.
What was happening? I used to vacuum while wearing her in her baby carrier. She never had a problem with sound before — why now?
I rocked my daughter on the floor, singing her lullabies until her sobbing slowed and I thought we could make a break for the door. To the delight of the other patrons, I grabbed my bag and my daughter and opened the door to make our escape only to have a herd of motorcycles go roaring by.
Cue uncontrollable wailing (from my daughter externally, me on the inside). Although she was unable to tell me what she was feeling with words, I could see the emotion in her eyes – she was scared and in pain.
That day, I learned firsthand that Sensory Processing Disorder is not black and white. Just because things don’t bother your child one day doesn’t mean they won’t the next.
So – how do I get my daughter who won’t wear earphones outside to play without worrying about loud noises? How do I vacuum at home? How do I use a blender? Why is it that loud music is fine but a leaf blower would send her into a tailspin?
My sensory seeker was a mixed bag when it came to auditory input, and I needed help. I sat down with my daughter’s Occupational Therapist the following week to discuss strategies. Some things that helped us:
- We started watching short clips on YouTube of motorcycles, trains, and airplanes and talking about what they do and how they sound. Then when we saw them in real life, I would point them out from the car window to familiarize her with them.
- I found toys that made the actual sounds that a vacuum and blender make. We put her in control of making the sounds and that helped a lot. Bonus for parents everywhere: the vacuum actually sucks dirt too!
- I mimicked covering my ears when things were too noisy, and my daughter caught on.
These simple strategies went a long way in helping my daughter with loud auditory input over the course of a couple months.
Eventually, my daughter grew accustomed to these sounds and even began to vacuum with me.
Now as a toddler, my daughter will say something like, “It’s okay mommy. It’s just a train,” while we wait at a railroad crossing. She often hears things before I do, so when I see her cover her ears, I expect to hear the sound of a distant lawnmower or leaf blower and within a few moments, I can hear it too. And we can hear it all without a Starbucks-style meltdown.