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Triggers

  • Posted on November 19, 2012 at 9:00 AM

I got a call to pick up Ben. Apparently, over the last few weeks, Ben has been pinching, hitting, and biting. It had gotten bad. He was inconsolable. I needed to pick him up and bring him home.

As soon as I entered the room I knew why.

I’d been to the classroom before and it seemed like a good fit for Ben. There was a lack of certain sensory accommodations, but I gave them recommendations on how to change that. The room was a bit isolated, which meant that it would be quieter than his previous classroom, especially since it would also have fewer students and less traffic outside.

For the first few weeks, Ben did beautifully. He made some progressed and was able to show abilities that his previous school would never have expected of him. But something had changed.

I knew what it was as soon as I entered the classroom. I could hear it. The heat had been turned on. Now, the room was full of a loud, angry-sounding buzz.

For those without sensory processing disorder, this might not seem like such a big deal. Sure, you hear it, but you don’t listen to it. Your brain recognizes the sound, determines that it is not important, and filters it out from your conscious experience of the room. Ben can’t do that and that makes all the difference in the world.

Ben hears it, he listens to it, and the sound causes him pain. Every moment of every day he’s in the classroom, he’s being harassed by a sound he cannot tolerate, but one which he cannot control. To make matters worse, he doesn’t have the words or the communication skills to explain what he’s experiencing to those who don’t share in them.

I’ve seen this time and time again. My sensory processing disorder is much milder than Ben’s, but I knew that if I had to stay in the room, the stress of that sound would cause me a headache within an hour. I can empathize with Ben, because I can understand what he’s experiencing on a personal level.

Ben can’t say he hurts. He can’t say the sound is too loud. He can’t express this with words or pictures or any other form of easily recognized communication. So, he covers his ears. If you make him take his hands off his ears to do work, then the sound hurts him. He will quickly grow frustrated and angry. His ability to cope will lessen as he’s continually exposed to the painful stimuli. He’ll act out. He’ll melt down. It’s inevitable. It’s cumulative. It wears him out and his behaviors wear out the patience and tolerance of those around him.

It’s not enough to understand the theory of sensory processing disorder. For Ben, it’s not a theory at all. It’s an experience. The pain the sound causes is very real. That it “shouldn’t” hurt doesn’t matter. It does hurt. That’s all Ben knows. But he can’t say that. So, I have to say it for him. I have to teach others to empathize with the way Ben experiences the world. That sound is the trigger that will set Ben off like a bullet from a gun. Without intervention, that bullet is going to hit a powder keg and explode.

In fact, metaphorically speaking, that’s just what happened.