This morning I was just putting the dogs’ breakfasts on the floor (with three dogs who all have different dietary needs it’s quite a production) when my son J came running into the kitchen, holding a bit of trash, and gagging. He rounded the island, made the just-before-puke-gagging sound, and vomited all over the floor, splattering into two dog bowls.
I wish I could say this was an odd occurrence in my life. My son has Sensory Processing Disorder which (in his case) comes with a hair trigger gag reflex. SPD has received more attention in recent years as educators and health practitioners have learned more about Autism characteristics. No, he’s not Autistic, but as it was explained to me “every child with Autism has sensory processing disorder, not every child with SPD has Autism.”
If you haven’t witnessed someone in your life with SPD it can be hard to understand how the senses- sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and proprioception- can be disordered. But everyone, at some point, has experienced sensory overload. Maybe you stayed at a carnival all day and felt a little unbalanced or like you were still shaking even hours after getting off all the loopy, zooming rides. Sometimes you walk outside on a sunny day and the light is so intense you instantly started to fumble around for your sunglasses. And you’ve probably smelled something so sour and overpowering it made you gag. All of us know what it’s like to have sensory information come at us with such intensity we cannot instantly control our own reactions. People with SPD spend their whole lives in that state.
Having my son gag and vomit due to holding one piece of trash (a food wrapper his dog had discovered and hewas trying to take away from her) wasn’t odd. The fact that it hasn’t happened in over a year is the remarkable part.
Last July I signed him up for summer camp at the Shasta Riding Club. He loves cowboys and images of the Wild West, and loved playing ‘Sheriff of the West!’ for five days in a row with REAL HORSES. At the conclusion of camp, he asked to keep going with riding lessons. Some of J’s friends from developmental preschool attended horse therapy programs as part of their own treatment, so I already knew there was something special about horses, just not ‘why’ or ‘how.’ Living in an area that doesn’t have a ready group of developmental and occupational services, I was willing to try traditional riding lessons to see if it made any difference in his own sensory processing.
For the last year, we’ve trekked out to the barn after school, one or two times a week, regardless of whether or not he wanted to. I get it, sometimes it’s nice to just stay home, play video games and wear pajamas. Everyone feels that way sometimes. But no matter his mood when we get there, he never wants to leave, and always comes home happier (and dirtier!)
At first I didn’t notice if we were having any therapeutic benefits. To be clear, SRC is NOT a therapy barn. The instructors are wonderfully skilled teachers and trainers, good with children, and creative educators-not certified therapists. I went into his riding lessons with willingness to give it our best, an open mind about a sport/lifestyle I know nothing about, and curiosity about how it would affect him, not any expectations. After about six months though, I noticed J was less prone to gagging at dinner if he had ridden that day. He also had less stemming behaviors and decreased anxiety at school.
Maybe it’s the bilateral motion of riding (there’s some evidence to suggest that is an important motion to stimulate in SPD treatment), maybe the therapy of riding is the healing of being outside, and maybe horses are magical…but it had been a year since he gagged to the point of vomiting and I can’t help but notice that J hasn’t been out to ride in over a month. I’m glad he’s going back to summer camp next week; my sweet “Sheriff of the West” will be happier, dirtier, and much calmer.