Making Sense of the World

cool water2.jpg

When I was a small child, the world was a very confusing place. You see, like all youngsters, I had a desire—and even a biological need—for love and affection, but it often felt physically uncomfortable for me to receive that love. My mother, who had already raised three beautiful children, found that she couldn’t hold or cuddle me like she could her other kids. My own mother’s touch could send me into hysterics, so you can imagine what it was like when I entered into the chaotic world of preschool. Some of the kids might still remember the way I expressed my discomfort by biting, kicking, and even playing spoons on their heads! The very touch of my own clothes sent me into fits. When my exasperated mother needed to locate me, she knew she could start by following the trail of clothing I had left behind in my wake. At the end of that trail of clothes and diapers, she would often find me happy as a clam, with my toes in the mud and my fingers most likely gently caressing a cat, a dog, or a horse.

Today we would probably diagnose what I had as tactile defensiveness, a sensory processing disorder. Please click the "read more" button below.

However, in those days, the work of Jean Ayres and other pioneers in the field of sensory integration was not yet well known. Sensory integration is the way in which we process and evaluate the information that constantly streams through our senses. We have special circuitry in our brains and nervous system for perceiving and reacting to potentially dangerous stimulus from the outside world. Quick responses to danger can sometimes make the difference between life and death. But, like a faulty alarm system on a house, the nervous system can become hypersensitive to the environment, resulting in unnecessary calls to the fire brigade. The feeling of a clothing tag or the seam of a sock might unconsciously register as a creeping spider that just might be poisonous. The ever-vigilant nervous system might decide that it is better to brush it off than to wait and find out.

In response to potential threat, the body is programmed to respond in life-saving ways of fight, flight, or freeze. When the threat system is activated, we are more likely to feel that advances from others—even friendly ones—are threatening. An inadvertent bump from a classmate in the hallway or a loud bang coming from the street, might send an already vigilant person into action that doesn’t appear to match the actual threat. This can result in unusual behavior that is observed by parents, teachers, and classmates. It is also often confusing for the child who wants to connect on a mental and emotional level but who finds it sometimes challenging to do so on a physical level.

When tactile defensiveness is involved, children often avoid sensory input that is harmless and even beneficial. However, the antidote includes using all of one’s senses or adopting what is called a “sensory rich diet.” The body is designed to move towards health, so that when sensory input is received in a non-stressful environment, over time the body if often able to realign itself to work more efficiently.

As I child I wasn’t able to receive therapy that could have helped me, but luckily I was raised on a 300-acre farm where there was a lot of freedom to move and to experience my senses. Daily chores helped me to be physically productive. Many of the animals on the farm allowed me to approach them in a way that felt safe and non-threatening to me. I felt love towards them and was eventually able to allow myself to feel their love, as well as the love of my mother and other people. All of this helped to loosen the fight-flight-freeze response in my body and allowed me to actually take pleasure in the world. I am happy to say that now I generally enjoy touch and only rarely run naked through the fields!

In part because of this personal experience, I have a special affinity for children who sometimes find their world to be a confusing place. I know what it is like when the senses, which offer our opening to the world, serve to shut us down. I also know that for many people the ranch is a wonderful place to let down one’s guard and to let in the sensations of enjoyment and love.

Horseback riding lessons in Colorado