Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why My Son Takes Gymnastics

Let's put aside the fact, for a moment, that he is one of those people with a God given talent in pretty much any athletic area. My youngest has always wowed people by being able to do athletic things easily. At three, he could easily hit a pitched baseball. Now, he was so small he could barely pick up the bat, but if he got the bat up he could knock the ball clear to the other side of the yard. He pretty much taught himself to swim by preschool age and was happily jumping of the diving board soon after.

The thing is, he is also a thrill seeker. When I was growing up we called them dare devils (or just plain ol' rowdy boys). For him, it's so much more than just an interest in physical activity or an urge to show off. He is the kid who has no fear of heights, who hugs far too tightly, who talks too loud, and stands too close to others. The bubble of personal space is a foreign concept to him. You see, he was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder at age 8. Now, SPD is a kind of spectrum in that at one end you have the "sensory avoiders" and at the other you have folks like my son, the "sensory seekers". Avoiders seem to be more common, or maybe their inclination to cringe away from noise, to shrink back from touch is worrisome to more people than a kid who likes to spin and spin and spin to the point that the people watching him feel sick, or the kid who appears to have no fear of heights to the point that he will happily hang too far over the lip of a building's roof, or climb as high as he possibly can in a tree and then jump to the ground. These sensory seekers come across as "wild kids" and often people ask if they have ADHD, assuming it is the hyperactive component that is making them take risks they shouldn't.

Still One To Climb To The Top!
Thankfully Low Enough That I Didn't Have To Worry!
In our case, I knew that he didn't process sensation the same way as most of us from very early on. As a baby, he was a head banger. I dutifully traipsed from one doctor to another trying to explain to them the horror of watching your child whack their head on the hard floor. "Does he rock back and forth when he does it?", one asked. No. "Oh, well he isn't autistic. No worries." and he smiled and patted my shoulder and sent me back home. A couple of others assured me this was a stage and he would outgrow it. At this point it had been going on for two years and I wasn't really buying that. Finally, I burst into tears and tried to relate the scene to a doctor. "He once hit his head so hard his nose started bleeding!", I wailed. "Well you can be sure he won't do it again!", he told me with a smile. Therein lies the problem. People with normal sensory awareness assume that a kid will stop doing something if it hurts.

Very little causes enough pain that my son slows down. He once jumped out of a rope swing in my mother's yard. It sat on a slope so he could swing and swing and swing until he was a good ways from the ground below. He jumped out and landed on all fours. He complained a few days that his arm hurt, but intermittently and it wasn't swollen or bruised. Then for days he wouldn't mention it and would go right on with his business. I even took him to the family doctor who looked it over, felt his arm and wrist and hand, then lobbed him a football which he caught with a smiling face. We were sure it wasn't broken, he couldn't use it like that if it was, right? Wrong. After he complained again that his wrist "felt funny", I took him to a bone and joint clinic. They xrayed his wrist and forearm and, lo and behold, he had cleanly broken the ulna. There was no doubt. So they cast him up (he thought this was fantastic) and sent us home admonishing him to "be more careful, fella."

At the time he was diagnosed with SPD, we were on our third broken bone. The occupational therapist carefully noted that in the evaluation and told me that is not unexpected with thrill seeking kids. The best thing for them, she told me, is to find them ways to get the sensory input they crave that are not terribly likely to result in injury. For a while, that proved hard to do. When we moved, however, we had access to new things and I began to explore what would be good for my kids.

His Favorite Month? WINTER! Why? SLEDDING!
The Bigger The Hill, The Better The Thrill

He now takes Martial Arts once a week. This helps calm and focus him. The class is constantly active, but in a controlled way and everyone is quiet as they listen to the instructor. I hope this helps him learn to monitor himself and be able to assess if he is getting wound up (which is when he seeks more and more input such as spinning an office chair as fast as it will go for minutes on end). Then, my daughter went to a cheer clinic at a nearby gymnastics gym. I really liked the gym and staff so I decided to sign her up.

As I looked over the flier at the days and times that the classes were offered, I noticed that they offered a class geared specifically to boys. On a whim, I signed him up. Wow! I knew he would be able to tumble, he has long been able to watch someone do a something and work out the mechanics of it in his mind so he can do it himself. What I didn't realize was how good it would be for him. A whole hour where people WANT you to run and jump, where they ASK you to "put some power behind" throwing your body! The entire gym is a sensory seekers heaven. Spring floors, thick foam wedges, a rebounding track, a foam pit!

He has been taking for six months now and I have seen such a difference in him. He doesn't look for input at home quite as much, he has even started to stand at a reasonable distance to someone and his hugs are quick squeezes instead of a constricting vise on your neck that you must literally pry off.

I think boy gymnasts are more common place today, perhaps, but back home it would have been very different. Some, perhaps most, people would have been fine with it but I know of plenty who wouldn't. I can pick out who would have been saying "A boy. Taking gymnastics. I would NEVER let my son - he is going to play a REAL SPORT!" A real sport meaning one that is typically dominated by boys and usually involves cleats. I expect there are those people all over the world, I just don't know them all personally.

Taken After Riding The Rope Swing Through The Sprinklers
(and jumping into the mud!)

I'm happy, though, that we persisted in finding him an athletic outlet that would help meet his personal needs and I'm thrilled that we now have a community of moms and dads shuttling their sons to and from the gym for tumbling. He can be part of a group, the same way a Little Leaguer is part of a team, while receiving valuable sensory input that calms and quiets him.

If someone asked me "What can I do for my thrill seeker child?" My first response would be "Try Martial Arts and gymnastics." They both allow the child to move and do things that provide the sensory input they crave, but at the same time someone is teaching them how to do these things correctly, how to do them responsibly, so that they learn how to seek out sensation but in a safe way.

Do you have a child with SPD? Are they a sensory avoider or seeker? I, myself, am prone to avoiding and I know that can be just as frustrating to deal with. What have you implemented in your personal lives to accommodate your child with SPD?

Snorkeling In March 2013. The Water Was Freezing.

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