This month I’m honored to share with you a guest post by my good friend and colleague Shanna Philipson. Shanna is the mother of a 2e child and the author of Meet the Beaker Kids, a fun and informative comic book for anyone trying to understand their sensory systems or the sensory systems of their children and students. Purchase the comic and the corresponding manual here.  

It was not one thing, it was a hundred little things. It was a war that was lost through minute attrition — countless small provocations and challenges that never amounted to a full-scale crisis but cumulatively killed me every day, five days a week.

I’m not talking about parenting my 2e kid. I’m talking about teaching.

Why couldn’t I thrive in a job that came so naturally, so passionately from my mind and heart? I taught some of the brightest students in the district but felt utterly empty at the end of each day. How could a person love their work and yet be so unhappy in their work at that same time?

When I walked away from my high school classroom for the last time, I knew it wasn’t because I had failed my students or because I fell out of love with teaching. I walked away because the cumulative sensory, social, and emotional burden of my dynamic, loud, highly regimented work environment was crushing me. Hidden behind all my success was another me desperately trying to escape my environment.

The year after I quit teaching my seven year old daughter began to pull her hair out at school and suffer from migraines. It was then that I began to reflect on the cost of cumulative stimulus on students, too. Like my own challenges in the classroom, it wasn’t ONE thing that was wrong for her; it was a hundred. She couldn’t hold all she was expected to carry all day.

How could I explain this? For those of us who have children with a dual (or triple!) diagnosis, it’s especially easy to get swamped with the jargon of our child’s needs when we try to explain their experience to teachers and family.

What we need is an acknowledgment and a language to describe our — and their — cumulative stimulus experience. We need this because “problem” behavior is rarely the result of a single influence. We all have limits to our tolerance and need for stimulus, and the language of clinical diagnoses, therapies, or interventions just won’t cut it with grandma. Neither will subjective labels like “sensitive” or “emotional” or “intense”. After all, one person’s minute “intense” is another person’s week-long “whoopie!”.

Cumulative capacity is the hidden experience, the secret menu to your neurology. Because it’s never just one thing — it’s usually hundreds of little moments that define your tolerance for Life.

I think of cumulative capacity as an internal beaker. In this visual metaphor, our beakers are all different. The size of the beaker tells me a lot about how much input/stimulus (even the good stuff!) you can handle before you’re full. Are you full in 30 minutes — or a week? The shape of your beaker tells me how you prefer or tolerate your input. If you’re a slim test tube shape, you fill up quickly no matter your size. Or perhaps you’re an Erlenmeyer type! Your enthusiasm can quickly turn into intolerance if you fill too fast. (That’s me!) You may feel like one type of beaker at home, but another in the grocery store.

The point of this is not to offer you more jargon, but to invite you to play with a mental schema that assumes that we can describe our experiences in life — even the good ones, like my joy in teaching — without judging our tolerance for Life. In the context of cumulative capacity, you don’t have to hunt down each offending moment and analyze it. You can recognize when your beaker is telling you “enough”. And you can choose how, when, and with what you wish to fill it.