When Fear and Imagination Meet Sensory Integration

(There's GOT to be a less-awkward-sounding post title out there, I know. But I can't find it and it's driving me a little nuts so OH WELL. MOVING ON.)

When I went to pick Noah up from camp a few days ago, the following signs were taped to the door:

I thought the signs maybe had something to do with a story or game they'd played that day, but no. Turns out they were simply an attempt to creatively soothe another child's incapacitating anxiety about robots. Specifically, about killer robots coming and setting everybody on fire. That's ... cheery.

Anxiety issues are not new, for Noah or his classmates, though lately we're seeing so much MORE of it going around. Two weekends ago, we learned his fear of the merry-go-round at the mall is alive and well, with the bonus terror that we will make him ride the merry-go-round. HOURS, this went on, as we promised over and over again that we would never make him ride the merry-go-round if he didn't want to.

"Okay," he'd say, after my husband and I finished yet another long explanation/promise about it. "But I don't want to ride the merry-go-round. Please don't make me ride the merry-go-round. PLEASE MOMMY DON'T MAKE ME."

Yesterday, he freaked out because several little girls were playing fairy-princess dress-up, thus suggesting that this Halloween will involve another stressful struggle about costumes and wearing costumes and other people wearing costumes -- another fear we thought was Done and Dealt With, but I guess not.

And last night, Noah had a panic attack. A full-on fight-or-flight, kicking, screaming, shaking hysterical panic attack. I can't even describe it. It was so bad that I briefly debated grabbing the video camera, just to SHOW SOMEONE -- his teacher, his therapist, his doctor -- what was happening, because ... that's just how NOT RIGHT THIS IS.

It all started with our yay!fun!speshul! suggestion that we watch a "new" Star Wars movie. (The Phantom Menace, which he's never seen because Mommy Is Mean and Thinks It Sucks Jar-Jar Balls.) Noah had apparently heard or decided that this movie was too scary. We assured him it wasn't (IT'S JAR-JAR ... JESUS), but Jason had no sooner removed the DVD from the Netflix envelope when Noah flipped the switch between "kind of scary" to THIS MOVIE IS SO SCARY IT WILL CRAWL OUT OF THE TV LIKE THAT GIRL IN THE RING TO EAT ALL YOUR TOYS AND THEN YOUR FACE. MOO HA HA.

After much begging, pleading, holding, rocking, and reassuring, he eventually calmed down. And then five minutes later, decided to watch the movie. (Jason desperately ripping open some regrettably purchased Phantom Menace action figures he's had boxed up in our basement for all this time helped, I think.) And he loved it! And declared it to not be scary at all!

I spoke with his teacher/therapist about it this morning (she suspects a classmate possibly talked up Darth Maul to Noah a little too much), and she went into the whole "symbolic thinking" piece of the developmental puzzle, how scary it is for even a typically developing child to separate reality from fantasy and safety and danger and good guys and bad, and how a sensory-challenged child will have a tougher time, because they feel everything so BIG and LOUD and DISORGANIZED and lose things like vocabulary and grammar and the ability to self-regulate once they get into that state. Hearing it -- and typing it out -- it all makes sense, I suppose. She'll be getting me some articles to read and talking to someone higher-up about how to deal with the panic and anxiety.

And I will read the articles and listen to their strategies. And I will try to stop wishing it could just be enough for me to hug my child and tell him, over and over: You are safe. You are cared for. You are loved. You are SAFE! Please please please, let me make you feel safe.


Image via Amy Storch

autism, developmental delays, confessions, tantrums


To add a comment, please log in with

Use Your CafeMom Profile

Join CafeMom or Log in to your CafeMom account. CafeMom members can keep track of their comments.

Join CafeMom or Log in to your CafeMom account. CafeMom members can keep track of their comments.

Comment As a Guest

Guest comments are moderated and will not appear immediately.

Jennifer Riley

My heart goes out to you, Amy. I have seen so many mothers cry alongside their children during such panic attacks, I can't imagine how it must feel.

Phils... PhilsBabyMama

Oh, mama, hang in there.  I can't imagine how tough that is on you, your husband and your little guy.

cafemama cafemama

I'm sorry you had to go through that. I forget how old Noah is, but I wanted to let you know that my 3.5 year old son, who has no sensory issues that I'm aware of,  reacts similarly in similar situations. It sounds like my son is easier to calm down, but he FLIPS OUT when he merely thinks something might be scary. Like Toy Story. Or any movie. Sometimes when I read about Noah, I think his behavior sounds not that far off base for a normal preschooler.

Caireen Caireen

I'm sorry for you and your family that it's hard to calm him down. My son is one and half and no sensory problems as far as we know and he does that at night. He will wake up and scream till he is sick and almost nothing we do will calm him down. We even try acting like we scared away what ever monsters he thinks is there, that workds sometimes. But most the time I have to hold him till he falls asleep screaming. I can't imagine how hard it would be to do this everyday and night. Good luck girl.

nonmember avatar Mouse

The description makes complete sense, but it doesn't make dealing with the panic attacks any easier. We've been trying to deal with our son's anxiety, even took him to a therapist who was supposed to have experience with kids with Asperger's, but his approach completely downplayed our son's standard level of anxiety, almost dismissed it. So we're pretty much taking things as they're coming as best as we can.

ethan... ethans_momma06

I can't even imagine trying to deal with that...

hotic... hoticedcoffee

Right there with you.  My 4 year old is sesnory sensitive and a late talker, so I'm no stranger to hard-core melt-downs brought on by something I thought was totally safe.  Huge hugs to you and your husband - parenting a special needs child is hard battle, and it sounds like you did a great job!

Linda Malie

Oh man. I think we saw our generally fearless son's first encounter with something that scared him, and it was not pretty. He's nine months and my husband got him to calm down by showing him The Scary Thing was friendly, but he wasn't happy until it was knocked over on its side and ignored. He shook so hard!—I am now worried that he might have inherited his mama's penchant for panic attacks. I so feel for both you and Noah.

BTW: This is what scared him. My engineer/geeky husband won this monstrosity from Wired. http://www.pleoworld.com/Home.aspx

Liz Scarboro

I stumbled on this, and all I can say is thank you. My son is 5, has sensory issues, and works up all kinds of fears/ anxieties in his head. (your description of the merry-go-round is the kind of thing that goes on around here all the time.) but until i read your piece, i'd never thought to put the 2 together. now i can see why anxiety and sensory integration are part of the same picture. and i know exactly what you mean - you can't help wishing just being a loving mom was enough. i really appreciate

Tasha202 Tasha202

I'm so sorry that you all have to go through that. My children never had a panic attack, they watched everything knowing that it's just a movie & things don't hop out the TV at you..however none of them liked thunder & lighting storms at all! 

1-10 of 12 comments 12 Last