Parenting FailsSpecial Needs

Those Damn Horns: Learning to Parent for Special Needs

M, one of my 18 month old twins, loves big vehicles: buses are a favorite, but construction equipment, pick up trucks, and the USPS guy will do just fine.

So, I was excited to surprise him with our community’s spring Touch a Truck event even though the twins have a few challenges left over from their rough start as micro preemies, including some sensory processing issues and I was worried the crowds would trigger those.

I say “issues” instead of disorder, because it really isn’t a “do they or don’t they” have a disorder thing at this age. It’s more “how much or how little” of a problem it is and what aspects of sensory processing it affects. In some preemies there’s never even an SPD diagnosis (despite the sensory challenges) because most preemies have sensory challenges to some degree that therapy can help if it’s started young. In the boys’ case, an occupational therapist works with them to assess and address the problems as they crop up and work to overcome whatever can be and minimize what can’t be.

I have learned to approach social experiences slowly with my sons. At the park or play group, we sit off to the side while they take it all in. After about five minutes or so, they crawl off to play like any other kid. Within a few moments you wouldn’t even know that they had been hesitant.

But, I have also learned to move quickly at the first signs that they’re getting overwhelmed. It’s as if they have a bucket inside them that fills with the noise and chaos of people, and when it is almost full they needs to go somewhere quieter, calmer, and darker to let some of that chaos pour out so they can return and fill it more. If I misjudge, and they stay until the bucket overflows, things get rough (and loud).

I see other toddlers struggle with too much excitement too, which makes me wonder how often we ask for more calmness in chaotic situations than our toddlers are capable of giving.

J struggles more with stimuli than M, so he stayed home and took a nap.

pic by Tomas Fano, flickr
pic by Tomas Fano, flickr

M and I got to the park where the event was being held and walked into a wonderland of big vehicles: SUVs, army trucks, semis, dump trucks, landscaping trucks, tow trucks, it went on and on, a parking lot full of multi-axle amazement.

I had arrived early to avoid crowds “just in case,” had packed his diaper bag with comforting things, and was patting myself on the back for thinking ahead. Turns out I was crazy premature.

In front of us a gaggle of kids from a church group clustered in line, then scattered and swarmed the trucks. M seemed to love watching the “big kids” until, one by one, each truck joined a chorus of horns as the delighted children played in the driver’s seat.

I had forgotten the damn horns.

The cacophony crescendoed as I rushed M from the parking lot. I wasn’t fast enough, as the child in my arms suddenly morphed into a bucking, clawing, screaming tornado. He arched his back and tried to flip out of my hold, while he flailed his arms, swung his clawed hands, and kicked his feet. All of this was accompanied by a long series of shrieks that rivaled the horns in volume and sirens in pitch.

I have no idea if people were staring at us. Seriously, none. I was completely focused on trying not to drop my wiggly miserable kid and getting the hell out of there.

Fortunately, the event was held at a beach park on a cool day, so away from the trucks meant towards the abandoned beach, and I managed to gently lay him in the grass next to the sand, where he flailed and cried until he tired enough that I could hold and soothe him while safely seated.

Eventually the storm passed and M cuddled in my arms drinking his bottle. I couldn’t drive him home because he only puts up with his car seat on good days and I wasn’t willing to torment him more in order to get him into the car so soon after his experience with the horns. So, we sat, and eventually it was fine, as the storm passed and the day was bright and calm again.

pic by Deek
Toddlers who struggle with tactile stimulus often sit like this, with one foot up to avoid having to touch the grass as much as possible. (pic by Deek)

On the way out a side lawn with a small selection of non trucks beckoned: a school bus, ATV, and several tractors, none of which had working horns. M spent the next thirty minutes exploring the world of tractor wheel textures, crawling from tractor to tractor and running his hands over the tires. And then we were done. A quick stop by the donut truck for free donut holes (fat and sugar, can’t go wrong), and we were able to go home calmly and cheerfully.

The experience ended well, but it gave me a taste of the extra thought that parents of children who don’t handle stimuli well have to engage in every day. Even though I thought I’d planned ahead and taken into account all of the possible problems–avoiding the peak time, walking in slowly, taking only the child less likely to be upset–I missed a crucial one: the horns.

I look at the parents I know with children who don’t handle stimulus well, and they seem so prepared, and so together.

But this, I suspect, is how they got that way. Each awful trip helps them learn to have safe, prepared excursions with their child. Because my sons are preemies, there is a good chance they will grow out of their sensory problems, or so we are told. But, whether they do or not I can learn to parent for their specific needs by learning from my mistakes and oversights.

Next time, who knows what will happen, but I can be damn sure I’m going to think about auditory stimuli the next time I consider taking either of my boys somewhere.

In the meantime, we took the stroller to a nearby construction site today and the boys were enthralled by the huge cranes and front end loaders. Their beeping as they moved around the lot and the clanging of equipment and clatter of rocks didn’t bother them at all.


Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

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