How do I help people understand my daughter has special needs?
Q: My daughter has sensory processing disorder as well as several other problems. This causes public places, especially stores, to be overwhelming for her. She often just starts screaming and thrashing, and I can hear the comments from the other shoppers about what a brat she is and how I need to discipline her. All of this is very hurtful to me. How do I help people understand that she's special needs and not a brat?
A: First and foremost, please don’t make it your mission to gain the acceptance and approval of others (whom you don’t know and don’t know your child, by the way). You know your child best and others don’t. I know how those staring eyes and disapproving facial expressions can make you sweat and even want to run when you’re outside of your home with your screaming child. Believe me, I’ve been there. But, your focus is your daughter. She has sensory hypersensitivity or hyper-responsiveness to sound and visual stimulation. With that said, get your headphones, buds or whatever in her ears when you’re out in a place that you know is going to be painfully loud. That is, give her your iPad, phone or children’s tablet so that she is watching a video or playing a game in a public setting, and set it up before you go into the mall or store. This will give her something familiar and predictable to focus on and listen to while she is acclimating to the new environment that she is in. When she is ready, she will look up and beyond her video and slowly take it in at a pace that she can. Otherwise, your daughter will anticipate the loud sounds and sights, which will get her screaming before you even open the doors. So, I know I didn’t exactly give you the advice you were looking for, but my advice is to build the accommodations in the environment and give her the strategies to help her cope, instead of focusing on others and their reactions to your daughter’s sensory needs. Nobody understands her sensory profile, and you won’t be able to give a lesson to help others get it. You don’t have enough time in your day to do that! People will judge no matter what. If you are in the presence of another parent, they won’t judge you because they’ve been there. Maybe not with a child with sensory processing difficulties, but everyone has experienced the temper tantrum in the most inopportune place and during the most inopportune time. It’s okay. Let it go. Worry about you and your daughter. Maybe the strangers around you will get it, and maybe they won’t. That’s their problem!
Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Matheis