Sensory Processing Disorder in a young child might mean refusal to wear certain clothes, aversion to noise, and battles over bathing. But when SPD meets puberty, the story changes.
Parenting Special Needs

When SPD Meets Puberty

Sensory Processing Disorder in a young child might mean refusal to wear certain clothes, aversion to noise, and battles over bathing. But when SPD meets puberty, the story changes.

By Kim McGinty

I love that my thirteen-year-old son is high maintenance. Actually, he’s always been, but it used to be a source of anguish.

For instance, his refusal as a toddler to wear any shirt sporting graphics, buttons, collars or pockets. Or how for an entire year he wore only rain boots over bare feet despite the weather, stench, or that by the end they were a size and a half too small. From diapers to third grade, he went commando until he decided Dad might be onto something. Weeks tortured by skivvies—the buying, returning, and complaining in between—mercifully ended when he surrendered to tag-less stretch-cotton boxers. His preference to this day.

It may sound typical, but more than the average kid, his behaviors were unpredictable and extreme.

Like at six, when we stopped to watch a street fair musician engage a dozen or so kids in percussion instruments. As they played with joyful exuberance, our son pressed his hands to his ears and begged, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” Shoes that slipped even the slightest against his heel, a drop of liquid hitting his shirt, a smell, sound, seam or tag, even the “wrong” color cereal bowl could send him reeling. Behaviors, we rationalized, of a headstrong personality endlessly taxed by those dastardly developmental milestones we kept reading about. Sometimes we blamed the stress of a new baby sister, more often our ineffective parenting.

At nine, our answer came when he was officially diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a neurological dysfunction defined by poor fine motor skills and how one’s sensory world is translated by the brain. For instance, a typical child may sit in class and draw a picture of bugs with pastels; the one with SPD will hurl his across the room because he can’t get past the irritating sound of twenty pastels scratching paper or the chalky feel on his fingers. For youngsters who’ve yet to acquire the words or coping mechanisms, discomfort gets acted out as defiance, aggression or withdrawal. It affects more children than autism, and our son could’ve been the poster child.

On the upside, we figured, he wouldn’t break the bank. People say kids are expensive? Hah! Ours thrived on boxed mac’n’cheese and berries. Sweatpants and a short rotation of t-shirts worn soft as chamois constituted acceptable daily attire. Grubby fingernails and unkempt hair were par for the course. It wasn’t a hygiene thing, but an SPD thing.

As parents, we all pick our battles. For those with kids suffering SPD, we learn, wading neck deep through eggshells, to be even more selective. As a result, we look like pushovers and our son like he should belong to a family selling daisy chains out of their van.

Then, midway through fourth grade, the wind shifted or something. He came home and said, “Mom, I think I want to try jeans.”

Jeans! This was big, though wanting and wearing are entirely separate things. Despite my pessimism and the obligatory weeding at Goodwill, we were out the double doors with his first pair of new-used, loose-fit, boot-cut jeans without a hitch. Which told me, he must really want jeans. So much, they became his school uniform. Granted, he’d replace them with flannel pj’s the minute he walked back through the door. But still!

The wind picked up as we embarked on the middle school transition where, in the social scheme of things, an offbeat sense of humor and mad yo-yo skills can only take you so far. Suddenly he wanted new jeans. Ones that weren’t baggy, faded or frayed. He wanted a belt, skate shoes instead of crocs, and a zip-up hoodie rather than its less sophisticated cousin, the pullover. He wanted to go shopping!

As usual, I kept my expectations low, but after just two hours at the mall, we were swinging bags like Barbie’s Friends on a holiday spree—or was that just me? It wasn’t cheap, but I figured what the hell, an opportunity like this may never come again.

Wrong. To look sharp you’ve got to maintain the tip.

When he asked, “Mom, can we go to the big mall?” it was like being asked to ride the bull after just getting comfortable on a pony named Gumdrop. The big mall was a real commitment, forty minutes away and three times the size. It bothered him to be seen in the same three outfits over and over. I understood, but I can’t say I didn’t mourn the imaginary nest egg I’d put away as a result of his so-far simple tastes. Once his wardrobe fit into a single drawer, now I was forced to evict outgrown toys and clutter to make room.

By seventh grade, gale force winds were blowing. His taste in shoes turned to pricier brands. To extend their life and avoid harboring the male equivalent to Imelda Marcos, I started spraying them with stain repellent. As if that wasn’t enough, for Christmas he received a gift of trendy Stance socks courtesy of his aunt. I thought, he’ll never wear these— they have seams. Wrong again. Not only did he wear them, Stance became the essential sock of choice. Sixteen dollar socks! Yeah, thanks.

It was becoming clear, SPD had given Puberty the keys to the car. It took stock of his hair—yup, there it is—and found it wanting. Suddenly it needed style, professional attention. Not Mom and her dull clippers. Overnight we went from bribery to chop his mop every six months to a stylist who makes regular house calls. With surprising aplomb, he ventured into hair product, but with stringent criteria—nothing smelly, gooey, or too stiff. Only his demand that I apply it, a regular reminder that Puberty may be at the wheel, but SPD still holds the map.

To accessorize this newfound bauble atop his shoulders, he bought a baseball cap. Specifically an OBEY cap. He liked its bold statements. It said, ‘Leader.’ It said, ‘Nonconformist,’ ‘Don’t pigeonhole me,’ and ‘I discriminate.’ But he ditched the cap because it messed up his hair.

Before my son leaves the house, he asks how to get dried mud off the sleeve of his Independent jacket. Meanwhile, his sister was out the door ten minutes ago. His clothes are freshly laundered, hair sculpted, belt strap folded beneath the belt loop just so. He chooses to walk to school these days since his bike helmet, like the OBEY cap, will funk up his coif. Jacket zipped, hands in pockets, the morning sun catches the trim and whoosh of his Nikes as he heads away from home.

The very picture of adolescence.


About Kim McGinty

Kim McGinty is a writer, surfer, wife and mother of two (not in that order) based out of Santa Cruz, California. Blogless, her writing can most recently be found on Scarymommy/Club Mid and BLUNTmoms.