Day 6: The pieces of SPD or How I learned to Hug my Son

The beginning of our story starts here.

You may have noticed on my letter to the school that I wanted them to test for Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).


The purpose of this post isn’t to wax long and eloquently about the complexities of SPD; rather, I want to share a few posts about what Sensory Processing Disorder looks like for us.**

Imagine you have a puzzle–but your child threw away the box with the picture on it and scattered the pieces all over your house. You are beyond frustrated! You just want to ignore those irritating little pieces, but you see them everywhere.
The only way to resolve the issue is to find the pieces and put the puzzle together. But you don’t know what the picture looks like; you don’t even know where the pieces are or even how you can find them all.

That’s what Sensory Processing Disorder feels like to me–intense frustration, a million tiny pieces, and no vision to guide the way.

I can only image what it feels like for my son.

The pieces were everywhere:
Full-out, screaming tantrums while shoe shopping.
Fighting about how clothes (especially pants) didn’t “feel right”
Constantly wrestling/moving/crashing into things
An inability to follow simple directions (forgetting half-way through the task)
An inability to retell daily events (what did you do today? How did you get hurt?)
Struggling with clear speech patterns
Struggling with fine motor skills (drawing, writing, tying shoes)
A strong dislike for getting his hands messy (play-dough, putting silverware in the dishwasher)
A struggle to have meaningful two-way conversation (back and forth questions, listening, comprehending, etc).
Craving physical touch (wrestling, etc) but pushing me away when I tried to hug him, touch his hair, etc.
An intense hatred of the music time during church

And much more.

This was my Normal. Before a year and a half ago, I had never heard of SPD. I didn’t know anything differently.

But I finally stopped looking at the pieces as just pieces and started trying to put them together in a way that made sense.

A few key things helped me.
1. I finally started “hearing” the advice from a dear friend at church, a wise older woman who has been a preschool director for many, many years and who kept sharing stories with me about children in her school who had some of the same issues as Benji.
2. I read The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz, right after Eli was born. This book had long been on my radar and it was so eye opening to me. The Out of Sync Child is like the Bible of SPD. I saw  my son in this book. Finally, I had “picture.” Not “his picture” but an image to glance at when putting our pieces together.
3. I stopped trying to simply discipline or control Benji’s behavior and started trying to understand him.

I remember the day I asked him how he liked to be hugged.

We had a disconnect, and the hugging was just a symptom. In random, unexpected bursts of emotion, he would fling himself at me to be hugged…and often hurt me. I often reacted in frustration and anger (Why are you being so wild? Be gentle! Settle down!).
In calmer moments, when I would ask for a hug, he would barely lean against me, hardly touching or squeezing at all–a butterfly hug.
But when I tried to hug him, especially when he was upset, angry or hurt, he would forcibly push me away, which sometimes hurt me physically but even more emotionally.

So I threw up my hands and gave up. It was impossible. He was impossible. We were not communicating. We were not connecting. We were not hugging.

But when I started researching the SPD, I found that children can be both seekers (craving stimuli) or avoiders (rejecting stimuli).
I’ve realized that Benji hates to be touched when he is upset, so I’ve had to learn to curb my motherly instincts to physically comfort him in these moments.
I saw how he craved physical touch by his constant wrestling with his twin brother so I knew the need was there. Plus, my need was there. I needed to know how to hug my son.

So one day, after all my listening, and reading, and observing,  I asked him:
“How do you like to be hugged? Lightly? or a big bear hug?”
He grinned and laughed, throwing his arms around his skinny middle and squeezing himself. “A BIG bear hug!”

So I did. I grabbed that little boy, the one with so many pieces, pieces that I was trying to put together into a big picture of understanding and love, and I hugged him like a big Mama Bear.

He laughed and groaned. “Ugg! too tight! Let me go!”
IMG_4432Never, ever Benji. I will never let you go.

**Here’s my short definition of SPD:

Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological condition where the brain does not interpret sensory information correctly.
It can over interpret information so the person with SPD is over-stimulated (the  music at church literally hurts my son’s ears and overwhelms him) or under-stimulated; or it scrambles the sensory information so it cannot be interpreted correctly.
SPD is very complex and it manifests itself differently for every person. It also looks different daily for us, depending on what is going on in our day, what happened yesterday, or whether he needs sleep or food.

More posts about SPD coming soon….


  1. This is such a touching post (no pun intended). I love how open communication helped you bridge the SPD gap between you and your son. I am an adult with sensory issues and I’m also both a seeker and an avoider. It’s an extremely tough experience.

    • Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, Astrid. I often wonder how my son feels about his sensory issues (obviously frustrated when he is experiencing them). He has a hard time communicating in a two-way fashion. Has it gotten better for you as you have gotten older?

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