The moment I discovered I was going to have a daughter, I couldn’t wait to dress her in ballet slippers and a tutu and send her off to dance class. The moment she turned two I did just that. However, the experience wasn’t as blissful as I had imagined. Why? Because my daughter has Sensory Processing Disorder (something that, at this young age, I hadn’t fully discovered). She started dance and the first teacher she had noticed she wouldn’t participate and would physically prompt her to shuffle her feet and shake her hips. Eventually she would explode into hysterics and run around the room. I now realize that she wasn’t participating because she was unable to process the various stimuli coming at her such as the teacher giving directions over music playing while tap shoes pounded on the floor. The physical prompting alarmed her as she has tactile sensitivities and doesn’t respond well to being touched if she isn’t prepared for it. While I had asked the teacher to give my daughter some time to get comfortable, she found her to be taking too much time away from the other students so we decided to part ways. But my little girl loved to dance at home and I thought I would give it another try. I found a Mommy and Me dance class and I thought that maybe having me there would make her more comfortable. The first day of class the teacher introduced tumbling and one somersault sent my daughter over the edge. The next couple of classes, despite telling her she didn’t have to tumble, she just screamed. I know now that part of my daughter’s SPD makes it difficult for her to process her feet leaving the floor but at the time I had no clue. I apologized to the teacher for my daughter’s behavior and she nicely suggested that maybe I should wait until she was a little older as she didn’t seem ready for dance class. Feeling embarrassed, I parted ways with dancing school number two and swore off dancing for my little girl.
A few months later, a friend of mine told me that she was signing her daughter up for a summer dance class. She knew all about our previous experiences but had only mentioned it to me as she heard great things about the teacher and thought she may be a good fit for my daughter. Reluctantly, I decided to give dance one last try. It was only a five week session so, if it didn’t work out, it was only a short commitment. We were met by a smiling and enthusiastic teacher. My daughter went in willingly and participated. However, as soon as she was dismissed she broke into hysterics in the lobby. When we got home I told her she didn’t have to go back but surprisingly she said she wanted to. So, we continued with dance. Each week she would meltdown as soon as class was over yet each week she would go back. I would peek in the dance room from time to time and see her participating happily. It was hard for me to understand why she would scream and cry immediately after something I watched her enjoy. And I realize now that this was the first time I had witnessed my daughter using all her strength and energy to combat her sensory processing difficulties. She had found something she enjoyed and a teacher who never questioned her behavior or forced her to do something she wasn’t comfortable doing. And, in that kind of supportive environment, she succeeded and she felt confident. The meltdowns after class were her release.
My daughter continued with dance that following year and she loved it. Yet, the entire year she melted down after class. As the recital grew nearer, I started to panic. Holding herself together for a 45 minute class was one thing but a recital was a whole different, overstimulating event. The music, the lights, the costumes…all things my daughter would have trouble with. During this time, I had found out that my daughter’s struggles were due to Sensory Processing Disorder and I was starting to research and educate myself. I shared my daughter’s issues with her teacher and she said she would continue to do anything she could to make my daughter feel comfortable. It was the first time my daughter wasn’t judged for her behavior. When recital day came, I sat through the show with a knot in my stomach. I had my daughter on my lap and I could feel her tension as she sat through it. When it was time to bring her backstage for her performance I kissed her, sent her off and held my breath. Suddenly she was on the stage and, while she seemed a bit unsure of herself, she got through it. She not only got through it but she danced…she overcame. By the time she took the stage for the finale she became a little more overwhelmed and, as I watched all the dancers waving to their families as the audience cheered, I noticed my little dancer trying to weave her way off stage with her arms out as if to say, “Come and get me, I’ve had enough.” But before she could go any further the show was over. Unsure of how she felt about the experience, I asked my daughter if she wanted to go back to dance and her answer was yes. So we signed her up again.
My daughter has been in dance ever since and, as each class passes, she grows more confident and more tolerable of all the stimuli that come with the territory. By the summer after her first recital, the meltdowns after class had stopped. During her second recital, she reacted to a spotlight on stage by covering her eyes, but as soon as that music came on she tapped her heart out with a giant smile. After the show, she collapsed in my husband’s arms and cried…releasing all the tension of being overstimulated and the exhaustion of reigning supreme over her sensory overload. And just as I had the year before, I asked her once again if she wanted to go back to dance. The answer was an excited, “Yes!” So she continued on. Just yesterday she participated in her third recital. It was a tough day for her. We had worked through her refusal to wear her itchy costume by lining it with a cotton undershirt so it wouldn’t rub against her skin. Thankfully, it worked. At the show, she was again sitting with us in the audience and I could immediately see she was uncomfortable. What really put things into perspective was that my 13 month old was completely unphased by the bright lights and loud sounds. The baby was actually enjoying the show, dancing in her seat and clapping her hands while her older sister was next to her, clearly suffering. And it’s moments like that when I am reminded of just how real my older daughter’s issues are. At one point she expressed that she needed a break. I was so proud of her for being able to verbalize what she needed as opposed to just falling apart. Knowing more about what soothes her, I had come to the show ready with a pack of gum for her to chew and a bear for her to squeeze. But at that moment, even with all these provisions, she just needed to get away. When I found her in the lobby with my husband she said that she wanted to go home. She didn’t want to dance. We sat there for a moment until she decided she would go back into the theater and watch one more dance. So I took her in and, squeezing her bear and chewing her gum, she watched the one dance. I told her there were a few more dances left until she had to head backstage but I told her we could go back in the lobby and wait. Instead, she watched each dance, counting down in the program how many were left until it was her turn. When it was time for her to go, she walked cautiously out of the theater. The second she saw her friends from class, something about her changed. Her body relaxed and she smiled and ran off to meet them without giving me a chance to wish her luck or give her a kiss. And on that stage she shined! When I picked her up after the show this time, there were no tears. Just a huge smile and, as she jumped off the stage into my arms, she screamed, “I did it! I actually did it.”
It is moments like these that I find parenting a child with SPD the toughest. When is the right time to encourage your child to try something they cannot tolerate and when should you just walk away? On one hand I see that sometimes she needs a little push because the only way she will ever learn to tolerate these situations is through exposure. However, as a parent all you want to do is shelter your child from anything that harms them. And, in my daughter’s case, it is these everyday sensations that harm her. Sure, some of us may not like the loud music and bright lights we experience while watching a show. But we get through it and we enjoy it, no harm done. For her, the experience is completely different. It consumes her and, the more stimuli thrown at her, the more difficult it is for her to process. And although I know that she has to be exposed to these situations it still breaks my heart when I encourage her to try and she breaks down. But I am slowly starting to realize that each time I push a little she tolerates something a little longer and a little more appropriately. I also fail to remember all the times, like yesterday, when I push her and she succeeds. Those are the moments that build her confidence and those are the moments that make taking the risk worth it. I realize that SPD is a condition that will never go away and it is something that the world can’t make accommodations for. So, I have to start teaching her how to adjust to the world around her instead of trying to shield her from it.
Every year my daughter receives a medal at her recital to commemorate the end of another year of dance. For us, these medals symbolize her victory over her SPD. Every parent is proud when they see their child succeed. However, for us, there is always a sweeter reward than just watching our daughter be the star of the show for the day. For us, it is a celebration of her overcoming this obstacle that she faces everyday of her life. It is the joy of watching her find something she is so passionate about that she will risk putting herself in a situation she knows is extremely overwhelming to her. And it is the pride of seeing her push herself a little further than she has before and succeeding. Just the other day my daughter told me that she didn’t think she was very brave because she got scared of a lot of things. I told her that the bravest people are the ones who know what is hard for them but try it anyway, even if they know they might not succeed. She was quiet for a moment, and then replied, “So I guess I’m a little brave then.” She couldn’t be more wrong. To me, she is more than a little brave. She is the bravest person I know. And beneath that tutu and ballet slippers, it’s that bravery that I see when she’s up on that stage. And that, in my opinion, is what makes her a star!