Sensory processing, coats, and parenting

This morning I was sitting in a mostly empty parking lot checking my email and waiting for the post office to open.  A few spaces away a car pulled in and parked, and a small family got out – mom, dad, and a little girl who looked about two and a half years old.  She was dressed in a cute little skirt and top with a ribbon in her hair.  But it’s about 45 degrees here and windy this morning, so mom says, “Here’s your coat, I know you don’t like coats but you need to put it on because it’s cold.”

The sweet little girl instantly became a red faced, squealing, squirming bundle of terror on the parking lot pavement.  As mom and dad, showing the type of patience and teamwork that clearly indicated they had practiced this scene hundreds of time, struggled to get the coat on her, I flashed back to scenes from my own home during elementary school when my oldest daughter cried and tantrummed and raised the bar on things that make no sense when she would want to wear clothes that were two sizes too small for her, swear that anything that actually fit was about to fall off,  or want to wear the same thing she had already been wearing for a week.   I also flashed on one memorable morning when she angrily pulled every piece of clothing out of her dresser, tossing them on the floor while screaming that there was nothing for her to wear because all her clothes were “damp.”

This same daughter never had a good relationship with her coats, either.  She was constantly losing them. She would forget to put them on.  She would forget to pick them up when leaving a place.  She would forget she owned one.

In junior high, it became a running struggle to get her to wear one at all when headed off to school.  Since that’s a common theme for junior high kids (“I’m not cold, mom!”) I didn’t think too much about it, other than to think she would eventually suffer being cold enough that she would start wearing it.  But it continued on into high school.  On the coldest mornings (which, granted, are not all that cold here in central Texas) she would put on four shirts rather than wear her coat.  By the end of high school, I had stopped even buying her coats.

I convinced myself that her tacit decision to never wear a coat was actually a sign of her maturing into acceptance of the ADD  she had eventually been diagnosed with. If you can’t figure out a way to stop losing your coats, then stop wearing them. You can’t lose a coat you don’t have, after all.

But it turns out it was a bit more complicated than that. One evening a few months ago my daughter, now 19 and a freshman in college, called me as she was walking across campus to her dorm on an evening when the safety escort service was closed.  It was about a twenty minute walk to her dorm and she thought if she was on the phone she would be safer from attack – I don’t know if that’s true but at least I ‘d be able to call for help immediately if something did happen.

During the conversation the weather came up.  It had been unusually cold here and that night was in the twenties as she trekked across the campus.

I said “you’re not wearing a coat, are you?” and she answered “no, I have a sweater on and four shirts, though.”

Me: “I figured you wouldn’t be wearing one, but when it’s this cold you really should, you know.”

Daughter: “You want to know why I never wear a coat?”

Me:  “I always thought it was because you couldn’t lose them that way.”

Daughter: “No, it’s because I can’t stand the way the way they sound when the sleeves rub against your body.  That sound makes me absolutely crazy. I can hear it all over my body and I can’t stand it.” ID-10049346

That was a bombshell to me. Her twin brother has autism and another son has cerebral palsy.  I was well aware of sensory processing issues and the effects they can have.  I even knew that my daughter’s clothing issues as a child had been related to sensory processing difficulties.  But it had never occurred to me to think about sensory answers to some of the other “crazy” things she did.  But if I had known the sound was driving her disinterest in coats, we could easily have looked for specific types of coats and probably found something that worked for her.  I’m a firm believer in rooting out the reasons behind odd behavior, because I have found that once you find it, you can usually work with it.

As for the family on the ground in the parking lot earlier, I really wish I could have gone up to one of the parents and told them about my daughter’s revelation.  Simply changing the type of coat they buy their daughter might solve the problem.  But I know from experience that when a parent is in the middle of working hard to keep their cool and their patience in the presence of a screaming child is not the time to offer suggestions, even perfect suggestions.  Because parents can get sensory overload, too.  I hope these parents read the internet.

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