Desensitization versus Accommodation

As a child, my son Joey was wary of many things—one of them being the subtle sensation he’d experience as I’d apply the car brakes when coming to a stop in the car.

One of Joey’s doctors had suggested to me that the way to help an autistic child “tolerate” those seemingly unnerving elements was to “desensitize” them to that specific sensation.

Heeding the doctor’s advice, each day in our driveway—Joey in his car seat in the back—I would drive our car back and forth, occasionally touching the brakes. Initially, I did it for a minute or two per day, slowly building up to 15 minutes of actually driving time around town—stopping when I needed to stop—until Joey reached a point where he could visibly manage the experience. It took 2 ½ months—or more specifically—73 days of daily driving and continuous stopping and going. A tedious task? Yes. But what would’ve been the alternative? Medicating Joey to the point he could tolerate the drive? Selling my car? And what would be the alternative today—a car without brakes?

Joey, being tactile defensive, couldn’t tolerate the feel of sand on his bare feet. I tried water shoes but little grains of sand seeped in, causing him major anxiety. I purchased sandbox sand at Toys R’Us, and slowly began desensitizing Joey to the texture.

Each night before his bath, I’d place a little of the sandbox sand on the floor in our bathroom. Initially, Joey just stared at the pile of sand. One night he touched his finger to it—and then his hand. Eventually he stuck his foot in it and then quickly stuck his foot in the bath water. Eleven years later—Joey became a lifeguard at the public beach here in town—barefoot and all.

Back in 1992—when Joey was diagnosed with autism—the internet was barely in existence. iPads, sensory-friendly movies, and wide-eyed dolls to help improve my child’s social skills, did not exist.

The Awareness Movement has brought autism into the spotlight so much so that not only are schools making accommodations for autistic children, but movie theaters, toy stores, and even your neighbor across the street are modifying their offerings and behaviors to make life more tolerable. Do we need to modify and accommodate every aspect of our child’s daily life?

I think it is important to have your child be comfortable in his/her environment to help them feel safe and to flourish. But I also think it is equally important to help your child learn strategies and ways to cope with everyday life.

If our goal is to help our children have successful futures, be independent and to feel confident, secure, and happy with who they are then shouldn’t we as parents be providing them with the tools and strategies they’ll need to function as part of society—as opposed to modifying the world around them?

And so as not to say I wouldn’t have enjoyed taking Joey to see a sensory-friendly film without the fear of a meltdown—it’s concerning to me to see in which direction—and how far—this movement will take us and the overall effect it will have on our children when they become adults.

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