“Mama, I want one more episode. Please. I won’t get angry.”
Famous last words. My five-year-old has epic negotiation skills. I have been tempted before, to plonk her in front of the TV. And each time, I’ve regretted it. My daughter’s current obsession is My Little Pony and after watching just one episode, she gets agitated and wants more.
My daughter has Sensory Processing Disorder and fits the PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) profile, a subset of the autism spectrum. Ordinary daily demands (using the toilet, eating, listening to instructions for tidying up etc) can cause her anxiety to skyrocket, and she reduces her anxiety by automatically resisting, as a way of exerting control.
Because of her sensory issues, her visual system is hypersensitive, and she gets extremely dysregulated after watching TV. Even during a short 22-minute episode, her eyes barely blink and often start to water. She also sits completely still. It feels like she is a rubber band being stretched, and stretched, and stretched. And when the episode ends, her rubber band of calm has frayed beyond return. She, of course, wants more episodes. I suspect that the AAP’s screen time limit was designed for neurotypical children. One hour of screen time daily for my daughter would send her beyond the edge.
When quarantine first started, like most other parents, I had a Grand Homeschooling Plan. When I showed her my cleverly curated board of #quarantine suggested activities, she took one look and decided it was too much of a demand. Now my little lists are floating around the house. I think my younger daughter uses them to practice her newfound scissors skills.
My child, who is wired to say no to direct instructions, is stuck at home with me, her father and little sister.
Let that sink in for a moment. My child, who is wired to say no to direct instructions, is stuck at home with me, her father and little sister. She has no more preschool, no more friends coming over for playdates, no more swimming classes, and no more trips to the park.
Desperate for answers on what else I could do to help her spend time without my direct involvement, I trawled the internet for ideas. Other parents with differently-wired children had fantastic suggestions, and I tried different things until I finally struck gold. Audiobooks. But of course! I also love audiobooks. When I’m too rattled to sleep, looking at screens only feeds my anxiety. Listening to the calming lull of an audiobook narration, on the other hand, can soothe me enough to sleep.
My daughter was excited to pick an audiobook all about unicorns. When I help my younger daughter go down for a nap, my older daughter is happy to listen to her favourite unicorn audiobook.
In addition to audiobooks, what helps is engaging her senses. I’ve discovered that taping hopscotch grids on the floor gives her a focused gross motor skill challenge. She loves water play, so her little sister and her take turns washing their dolls in the kitchen sink. We have a garden they can play in, so they’re practising their scootering skills. A steady supply of savoury and sweet snacks helps her stay calm. Baking is a fantastic way to both give her dry and wet sensory play, and she can eat the end product. Win-win.
One morning, she was determined to bake doughnuts. I had never baked doughnuts before. Then I thought to myself – why not? Watching her expertly sift flour into a bowl sent a warm surge of motherly pride into my heart. We didn’t have a doughnut cutter so she came up with the idea to use her plastic bowl. They were delicious, and I snacked on them while my kids were asleep.
Over the course of her day, sensory overload can set in.
Over the course of her day, sensory overload can set in. My daughter hates being in wet or sweaty clothes, or having sticky hands. Thankfully, occupation therapy has helped her increase her tolerance to tactile discomfort. When she starts getting frustrated, I remind her that she’s welcome to wash her hands or change her clothes. She can’t access her usual therapy during this time, so we’re making do at home.
Transitions out of her fun activities are still a struggle for her. She needs plenty of warning before her audiobooks end. There have been audiobook-related tantrums, but they’re nowhere near as bad as screen meltdowns. Playing in her ‘cubby house’ is also very soothing for her. It’s a fantastic way for her to de-escalate when she feels overwhelmed. All it takes is a blanket over her furniture of choice.
The plus side of being on quarantine is there is no stress of getting her to preschool.
The plus side of being on quarantine is there is no stress of getting her to preschool. She is so much more relaxed now, so the rest of us are also more relaxed too. Many other parents of PDA children are experiencing the same thing. Their households are calmer now their children aren’t expected to go through the exhausting daily grind of actually getting to school in the morning. School refusal is very common in children with PDA, starting around the ages of seven to nine. The demands of sitting still, cooperating with instructions and dealing with sensory overload adds up to a very potent and exhausting combination for her – let alone all the steps that need to happen to even get her to school.
When lockdown is over, I hope that my kids will have mostly happy memories of this strange time. Indoor hopscotch, pottering around in the garden, and seeing a lot more of their father. And of course, listening to her favourite audiobook.
At the rate we are going though, I will probably start having technicolour dreams about unicorns. Ah well. A small price to pay, for what’s left of my sanity.
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