My newly 5 year old is on the “mild to moderate” end of the autism spectrum. That seems promising, right? No. It really only means that is the way the doctors describe what they see during an evaluation and what I tell them that I see. It’s really no description of what he experiences. At this point, no one knows what the world feels like for him.
There’s no way to understand what is happening. Imagine, trying to grocery shop and your child goes from being excited, looking around, taking it all in. He starts by covering his ears. Maybe mentioning that he wants to go home. Sometimes he doesn’t. Then slowly laying himself down in the shopping cart. It looks innocent enough. To most people, it’s a tired pre-schooler wanting to take a nap.
In our world, this means that my child is slowly being overstimulated by everything around him. When it’s not enough to limit what he hears, he lays down to limit his movements. Then he closes his eyes to reduce what he sees. His little body just melts to the shopping cart. He’s unable to respond or function. This is in a grocery store, one of the every day trips that most people take for granted.
We’re currently on vacation with all three of our children. Our “Little A” is our middle child. So he has one older brother, and a younger brother. He and his sibilings were very excited to go to the aquarium. It’s an amazing place, but it’s also full of sounds, sights, smells, touching, people bumping into one another and MASSES OF PEOPLE.
The day started great! He was loving all of the fish, he thought the sting ray touch tank was the best thing ever. He walked through calmly, appearing to be in control. Then, about halfway through the aquarium, the “melting child” began. He wasn’t really melting, that’s just what it looks like.
First, he’d hold my leg and close his eyes. He wasn’t able to focus on any one thing, from what I could tell. Next came “mommy, can I have hugs please.” So I started to carry him. My husband and I took turns holding and hugging our precious boy, taking him into areas that seemed to be more quiet. We’d use one hand to hold him, and the other to cover his ear and press the other side of his head to our chest. Then, we hum to drain out the background sounds.
At the final exhibit in the museum, was a ten minute wait, and no benches. After an hour and a half of carrying our melting child, I was exhausted. But we don’t get to choose how our child feels. There’s no distracting him with cool fish, or telling him that he’s a “big boy”. But we also have two other children, and all three had talked about this presentation FOR WEEKS.
Our family has to find the balance, to provide a safe place for our “Little A”, as well as allowing our other children as much of a “normal” experience as possible. So ALL of us sat down. We sat on the filthy floor, near the glass so his siblings could see, but he could be in a “safe” place, ears covered and able to take in what he could handle. As his brothers would move or make noises, he’d open his eyes momentarily, because he wanted to see too.
From the time I saw him starting to feel overwhelmed, I wanted to rush my baby from the building. I felt helpless, unable to take what he was feeling away. But I also knew that he wanted to see this final presentation, more than anything. Through carrying him, humming and sitting somewhere that made everyone else roll their eyes at us, our little guy was able to see the scuba divers inside the tank with “the biggest sea turtle ever (his words).” Little boy, I will sit anywhere, if it means that you can experience something that you can’t on your own two feet.