Coping with Emily's chaotic senses

Monday, March 13, 2006
Emily Peters, 3, danced in her bedroom while holding one of the stuffed pigs from her collection. The Jackson girl appears like any other child her age, but she suffers from a little-known disorder called sensory integration dysfunction. While intelligent and sociable with adults, Emily struggles to control her behavior, sometimes kicking and biting members of her family. Another symptom is her fixation on certain things, including pigs. (Diane L. Wilson)

On the TV screen, a light-haired little girl screeches "No, no, no, no, no, no, no....." and runs at her mom, swinging her small fists and trying to bite.

Mom holds her at arms' length, taking an occasional blow to the knees and speaking in a tired, familiar monotone voice. "Emily, calm down. Calm down."

But her voice doesn't calm the storm.

The little girl runs from the room and her mom follows. There's no one left in the camera's view now, but the animal-like screams continue from somewhere else in the house.

The home video is tough for Michele Peters to watch.

She had considered taping one of her daughter's fits before but hesitated, worried it might be misinterpreted in the wrong hands.

That's the same reason she's hesitated to send 3-year-old Emily to counseling, too.

Lately, Emily has taken to telling lies. Lies that accuse her parents and even her preschool teachers of hurting her.

Michele has no idea if her daughter knows what she says is untrue, or if reality and dreams become truly confused in her mind. In the end, that doesn't matter. The potential disasters are the same.

That's just a small part of raising a child with sensory integration dysfunction.

The white shelves in Emily Peter's room are stuffed with pigs.

Fluffy peach pigs. Poochy pink pigs. Porcelain piggy banks.

The 3-year-old's obsession with pigs began innocently enough, with a set of animal flashcards in the summer of 2005.

Emily liked the pink pig on one of the cards. The family bought her a couple stuffed pigs, some little plastic barnyard pigs. It was cute at first, mom Michele says.

Not anymore. Every day, Emily wakes up and asks her mom if she loves pigs. There's a ceramic pig-shaped cookie jar in the Peters' kitchen, and every time Michele walks by it Emily tells her she's afraid it's going to break. Emily won't look at books unless there's a pig involved. Even the tiniest little pig in the background of an illustration will do.

That's just one example.

A few weeks ago, Emily noticed several fire trucks parked outside a local fast-food restaurant on the way home from dropping Megan off at school.

"The firemen are eating breakfast," she said to her mom.

For the next two weeks, Emily repeated that every time she and Michele drove by the restaurant in the morning. Finally, Michele changed her route to avoid hearing the sentence repeated yet again.

The pigs and firemen fixation are another side effect of a disorder so little-known that the Southeast Missourian was unable to find state or national statistics to indicate how many children are impacted by it.

Some call sensory integration dysfunction the misunderstood, misdiagnosed and unseen disability. There are no physical markers for SID, no red flags to help explain to strangers why Emily Peters is screaming and punching at her parents.

Each member of the Peters' household has their own way of handling Hurricane Emily's rages.

Her dad, Scott, tends to think of those incidents a little like seizures. They just have to run their course, so he'll leave her alone until she calms down.

Seven-year-old sister Megan doesn't understand why her little sister goes from playing to kicking or biting. What she does understand is that having Emily as a little sister often means her parents' attention can't be focused on her.

Michele struggles with Emily's condition the most, sometimes wondering if her daughter's extreme behaviors are her fault and searching for solutions to problems that seem to go on forever.

How do you a potty-train a child who hates going to the bathroom?

How do you make her get dressed on her own when the feeling of so many textures hurts her skin? What do you tell her older sister when you've had to miss yet another swim meet?

But there are rainbows, too.

Emily has good days, when she is merely a winsome 3-year-old who likes dolls and fish-shaped crackers.

Maybe, just maybe, those days will become more frequent in the coming months as Emily starts music and horse therapy. There's even a chance she may grow out of at least some of her behaviors, though the long-term forecast for SID is unknown.

In the meantime, Michele hopes to find support among other parents dealing with the disorder.

Until then, there's nothing to do but just ride it out.

335-6611, extension 128

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