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In the red zone

In the red zone

We went with my middle son to our first appointment with the Occupational Therapist the other day. A friend recommended this approach because my son, like his daughter, requires huge amounts of sensory stimulation through physical activity, to the point where he has trouble with regulating behaviour, controlling impulses, and managing emotions.

This behaviour is not ADHD (though I think it sometimes gets labelled as such). Some of his behaviours do present as hyperactive, but he doesn’t meet most of the other criteria for ADHD, and his need for stimulation appears in ways that aren’t consistent with that diagnosis. For example, he loves to watch frightening movies, not because he’s brave, but because he likes the adrenaline that the fear produces. He attempts risky tricks on his skateboard, not because he ignores the risk, not even because he thinks the risk is worth the reward, but because he likes the rush of knowing he could be hurt.

He even recognizes this stimulation-seeking behaviour in himself to a certain extent. On several occasions he’s told us that he doesn’t know how to stop, or that his brain won’t let him stop. He once confessed that he picked a fight with his brother because he needed his brain “to feel something big”. He knows and (in his calmer moments) is even worried that he can’t control the part of himself that always needs more and bigger stimulation.

In the language that the Occupational Therapist provided for him, if the Blue Zone is where you don’t have enough energy, and if the Green Zone is where you have just the right amount of energy, my son practically lives in the Red Zone, where you have so much energy that you just need to get rid of it. His brain chemistry defaults to this condition, where it needs the stimulation almost like an addict needs a hit and where no amount of stimulation sates the need.

The Occupation Therapist suggested that he might not even know what it’s like to be in the Green Zone, that his relatively calm moments are probably more yellow or orange than green. She said that it might even feel uncomfortable and abnormal for him to find himself in the Green Zone, that he might act out deliberately to avoid that feeling (hence picking a fight “to feel something big”).

She asked him to tell her about the last time he felt really calm. He said it was this past summer after skateboarding camp, which we told her involved eight hours a day of intensive boarding in a hot indoor skatepark. She said that sounded about right.

The good feeling of physical exertion and mental relaxation that I get after playing an hour or two of basketball, he only gets after a whole day of pushing his body to the limit. More importantly, where that feeling might last a couple of days for me, it only lasts a few hours for him, until his body has slept and recharged. He needs to do it all over again the next day.

The Occupational Therapist gave us some strategies. Some of them involve finding ways to help meet his need for stimulation (body breaks and wiggle chairs at school, a workout room and regular deep pressure massage at home). Others involve coping mechanisms to try and reduce that need (breathing exercises and music).

There will be some trial and error as we see what works for him, of course, and none of it will magically fix the problem, but hopefully he’ll gain some tools that let him feel more in control of his actions and emotions.