There are some oddball milestones in parenting, aren't there? A recent one for me was taking my son to see Godzilla. The noise, the monsters, the immersive nature of watching it in IMAX 3D ... there was a time I would've predicted that sort of movie outing would have been about as successful as trying to force-feed him a bag of live spiders.
It seems so obvious in retrospect: he wouldn't have enjoyed a loud dramatic movie because he was too young. But at the time, I thought of him as quirky. I mentally referred to his sensory issues. It occurs to me -- now that he's older, now that I'm not so caught up in how he compares to other kids his age -- that our easy access to an infinite amount of anecdotal medical information has ruined our collective ability to let our kids develop at their own pace.
Okay, maybe that's a slightly dramatic claim. I'm sure there are lots of people who don't obsess over their kids' aversions and preferences, but I sure did. I looked at my young son, who was anxious about a variety of situations -- noises, textures, temperatures -- and filed all these aversions under "auditory and tactile sensitivities." I read up on the subject, I listened to the well-meaning advice from friends and acquaintances, I considered the possibility that my son had a sensory processing disorder.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that there was no need to fret over him. At nearly 9 years old, my son is no longer fearful of balloons, resistant to getting in the water, or deeply anxious about new situations. It's been a long time since he's clapped his hands over his ears at the sight of a fire truck or had a complete meltdown triggered by a skinned knee. He remains a frustratingly picky eater, but being unwilling to eat broccoli no longer seems particularly unusual to me.
He wasn't "cured" by anything we did, he just needed time to grow up a little. From where I stand now, it seems almost a little ridiculous that I was in such a hurry for him to become a big kid who wasn't fazed by the sound of a firecracker, and yet I still remember worrying that he would become a twitchy, unhappy adult. Someone who maybe needed medication to deal with being constantly overwhelmed by the world.
I think as parents there's a tough balance to be found these days between the wealth of information available to us and what we do with that information. How do you decide what's "normal," after all, when there are so many varying descriptions to be found? How can you be sure you won't look back and regret not pursuing a diagnosis of some kind, especially when early intervention and occupational therapy is so clearly beneficial? How can you truly determine the difference between a disorder and a perfectly healthy developmental stage? As a friend of mine put it, "Diagnosis for one can be diagnonsense for another."
It also seems to me that even medical professionals are far too quick to diagnose these days. I mean, a 2009 research study suggested that 1 in every 6 children has "sensory over-responsivity issues" -- doesn't that make you think we're sometimes unnecessarily categorizing these issues in a negative way?
Of course, plenty of kids do have real challenges and it's crappy to insinuate their problems aren't real, much as I'm sure it gets old for celiac sufferers to hear jokes about gluten-free foods. I don't have any answers for how we can better navigate those confusing early years when it's so tempting to compare and contrast, only the hindsight that comes from my own experience. If I could give my years-ago self some advice, it would simply be this: He'll be fine.
Image via Linda Sharps