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

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