Jacob’s Sensory Stories

Jacob knew that he sometimes annoyed his parents, but he was tired of hearing them complain about things that seemed perfectly normal to him. For example, they were always telling him to quit stomping around the house, even though he didn’t think he was stomping. He wasn’t angry or anything, he was just walking.

They also told him that it bothered them when he hugged them and leaned on them without checking to see if they were ready for a hug. That seemed cruel; what parent doesn’t want a hug from their child?

Finally, he was nearly always in the doghouse for not cleaning the dog poop out of the back yard, which was his job—his horrible, horrible job.

Jacob wanted them to get off his back about these three things, and he also wanted to learn more about himself and why some of the things he did seemed to bother his parents so much.

Jacob is Proprioceptive Seeking

First, he thought about the stomping. Jacob considered stomping to be what a child did with one foot for emphasis during an argument. How could walking be classified as stomping? He asked his mother, and she told him that he walked more loudly than anyone else. They could hear him walk anywhere in the house, even when they were asleep upstairs and he was in the kitchen. Jacob said that he was heavier than his mother so it was only natural that his footsteps would be louder. Then his father stood up and walked across the room. “I weigh more than you do. Did you hear that?” Jacob didn’t. “Now you walk, and listen.” As Jacob walked across the room, he could hear his steps, and noticed the firm feeling of his feet hitting the floor, the pressure vibrating up his legs. It was a good feeling. But now that he listened closely, he also heard the glasses clink on the shelf with every footfall. Did he do that? He was frustrated. “Why does it make noise when I walk normally, but not you?”

His mother told him that when he had been evaluated in school, one of the things they told her was that he was a proprioceptive seeker. That meant that feelings of deep joint and muscle pressure helped him self-regulate. It made sense when he thought about it, but he realized that if his stomping annoyed his parents, it could seriously annoy other people. He didn’t want to bother people when he got a job, or was in a relationship, or hanging out with friends. He wanted to control how he walked.

Even if he learned to control his stomping, he would still need to find a way to get his proprioceptive need met. What were some other things that might give him the same kind of deep-body feedback? He brainstormed with his parents. When he was a kid, his occupational therapist (OT) used to have him jump on a little trampoline, but they didn’t have one at home. Jumping rope would give him the same feedback through his feet and legs, but it would be even louder than stomping. Jogging outdoors would definitely give him the kind of firm footfall effect that seemed to feel right to him. He also tried doing wall push-ups, leaning against a wall with his feet set back and bending and straightening his arms. That felt good, too. Jacob decided to make an exercise plan for himself that included proprioceptive feedback activities like jogging and pushups.

Jacob also needed a plan to learn how to walk more softly, since the way he walked seemed normal to him. He practiced ninja-walking, not making a sound. He knew he would forget sometimes, though, so he asked his parents to remind him if they heard him stomping. His mother said she didn’t want to irk him and then have him react in irritation. How could his parents let him know without annoying or embarrassing him? They decided on a secret signal. His parents would catch his eye and quietly say or mouth the word “propes,” which was what his OT used to call proprioceptive activities. That would remind him to be mindful of how loudly he was walking. If they had gone to bed and heard him walking, they would text him the word. He agreed to accept their feedback graciously, since he had asked for their help. If he felt annoyed about it, doing a few push-ups against the wall would help him self-regulate.

Jacob is Tactile  Seeking

The second thing his parents nagged him about was what he called a hug and they called “ambushing” and “hanging all over them.” Jacob thought this complaint was mean. He loved his parents, why wouldn’t he want to hug them?

His mother explained, “A hug is when two people stand near each other and put their arms around each other, giving a brief but gentle squeeze, and then releasing and stepping back. It requires consent, either verbal or nonverbal, even with family members and people you’re close to.”

“That’s what I do. I give regular hugs, and I know you love me, so of course you’d consent to a hug. You’re my parents.”

“What you do is not a regular hug, and it doesn’t allow time for us to consent,” his dad said. “Even though we love you, if we’re reading, or cooking, or watching TV, we don’t want to be surprised by a hug attack. You ambush us by lunging or flinging yourself at us, wrapping your arms around us, and then leaning your weight onto us.”

“When you were little it wasn’t so bad,” his mother added, “but now you’re taller than I am, and you’re so heavy it hurts when you lean on me. And, sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re giving me a hug to say you love me, but for your own need for physical contact and to let off steam.”

Jacob didn’t understand this, and his feelings were hurt. He went to his room to play video games so he could try to get his mind off of it.

About fifteen minutes later his mother rushed into his room, flung her arms around him from behind his chair, covering his face, and leaned against his back. “I love you, Jacob!” she said into his ear while hanging onto him. He tried to push her away.

“Let go, you’re messing up my game!”

“I want to hug you because I love you so much!” she said, squeezing him even more tightly. He tried to pry her arms off from around his neck, but she clung to him.

“You’re too heavy, you’re in my way, get off my back!” He tried again to get out from under her. “I’m trying to play my game!”

“Now do you see what I mean?”

“I don’t do that!” Jacob thought about their discussion. “Do I really do that?”

“Yes, you do, actually. You don’t notice that I’m trying to read a book or cook dinner, you just attack me with a hug any time without warning, and then you hang on me. You’re not a little boy any more, I can’t hold you up.” Jacob was quiet for a moment.

“Does that mean I can’t hug you any more now, because I’m an adult?”

“You can always hug me, no matter how old you are. But grownups make sure someone wants a hug first, and they don’t lean on them or keep hugging after the other person is ready to stop. You have to think about the other person.”

“But what if I want a big bear hug, like when I was little? Hugs make me feel good.”

“You can always ask your dad or me for a bear hug, and sometimes we’ll say yes, as long as you don’t try to pick up your feet and put your whole weight on us. But if we’re too busy right then, ask yourself if you really need affection, or proprioceptive feedback. Maybe instead of a hug you could do your wall push-ups. You can lean your whole body on the wall instead of on us.” Jacob thought that was a good idea.

“It might be a need for touch instead of propes,” his father said from the doorway where he’d been watching. “When you were a baby you used to fall asleep touching your mother’s hair, and sometimes when you hug her now you pat her hair. What if you found something else you like to touch, like your blanket, or plush keyring? You could see if you need tactile instead of pressure.”

Jacob realized that he did like to touch his plush keyring, and pat his mother’s hair when he hugged her. Next time he wanted tactile input he could rub his keyring. The next time he felt like a big hug, he would first ask himself if what he needed was affection or sensory feedback. If he wanted affection, he would ask for a hug, and if they said yes, he would give a gentle hug and stop before it went on too long. If they said no, thank you, to a hug, he could tell them he loves them verbally rather than hugging. If he needs deep pressure or touch more than he needs affection, he could find other ways to meet his sensory needs.

Jacob is Olfactory Avoiding

There was one other thing his parents always nagged him about. The family’s dog, Mulligan, was Jacob’s responsibility. Jacob loved walking and playing fetch with Mulligan, and he didn’t mind feeding him, either. What he really hated was cleaning up his poop. He couldn’t stand it! The smell made him gag and retch, and he was afraid he might vomit. He would put the job off for as long as possible until his parents complained too much. None of them could enjoy sitting out in the back yard because of all the poop. They nagged, he put it off, they nagged some more, on and on.

Jacob begged them to take over that job. He even offered to trade any job they asked, but it was no good. Mulligan’s business was permanently Jacob’s business.

Because they had been talking about sensory issues, Jacob realized this might fall in that category. Maybe he avoided smells because they were more overpowering for him than they were for other people. So, how could he solve this problem? Mulligan wasn’t going to stop pooping just to make Jacob’s life easier. He needed to mask the smell long enough to get through the hated task.

After trying a few things that didn’t work, Jacob settled on swimmer’s nose plugs and a hospital face mask from the drug store. Sometimes he put on the nose plugs so he couldn’t breathe through his nose at all, but they pinched, so sometimes he wore the mask. He put some pure vanilla extract, a scent he enjoyed, on the mask before putting it on. As an odor avoider, he was able to manage a stinky task by either blocking the bad odor or adding a good odor to mask it.

Being aware of his own sensory needs really helped Jacob cope and stop his parents from nagging at him so much, at least about the stomping, ambush-hugging, and avoiding the Mulligan poop patrol. He liked knowing that it was in his power to reduce his parents’ nagging.

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