Most children on the autism spectrum suffer from a combination of anxiety and sensory integration disorder. Put the two together in various combinations and you often get a child who would rather stay home.
And that is what we have been dealing with in Ryan since he was born. It’s so much easier for him to stay home than to go out into the world and deal with the bright lights, loud sounds, and unexpected surprises of the world around him.
Just getting him out of the house and into the community has taken years of baby steps, breakthroughs, steps backwards, and leaps ahead. Mostly, we have been using what is known as exposure therapy without even knowing it. We have been slowly and steadily insisting that Ryan participate in the world around him.
Last Saturday, we took Ryan to a children’s museum for the first time. It’s the kind of museum that looks like a small town. There’s a supermarket where the children can shop for pretend food, a fire hall with a life-sized fire truck, and a doctor’s office with x-rays, scales and exam tables.
Of course, Ryan did not want to go to the museum. His anxiety is higher in the summer when the structure of school is gone. Knowing exactly what he’s doing everyday is calming for him. But we put him in the car anyway and drove to the museum, even though when we got there, his dad had to pull him out of the car and carry him into the museum.
Once inside, Ryan instantly put his hands on his ears and stood next to the wall near the exit. Now, this is actually an improvement for him. Two years ago, he would have bolted for the door and had a huge melt down. The visit to the museum would have been over in 5 minutes.But Ryan stood to the side and looked around him. As he got curious, he began walking around the museum, watching other children and looking at what was around him, with his hands still firmly planted on his ears.
I can’t pretend watching any of this was easy for me. I always hope that Ryan will walk right in and start to play. I was feeling frustrated and sad all at the same time, wanting my son to have fun and enjoy what all children get to enjoy. I second guessed myself and wondered if it was even a good idea to take Ryan to the museum in the first place. Why make him do something he doesn’t want to do?
And I wondered over and over if I was missing something. Could I be doing something to make this all easier for Ryan? Should I explore anti-anxiety medicine again? It does work for some children. Yet the FDA has not approved any of these medicines for children at this time. He’s not old enough for Cognitive Behavioral therapy, although it has proven to work really well for anxiety. And why won’t Ryan wear his ear plugs today? Sometimes he just refuses. I kept trying to interest Ryan in one of the play areas and he kept telling me to go away. So I stood back and watched him from afar.
Then, after 45 minutes of not playing, when Ryan thought I wasn’t looking, I saw him start to smile. He walked over to the pretend bank, got into the pretend car that was parked outside the pretend teller’s window, pushed a button, and made the capsule fly up through the pretend tube. I could not believe my eyes. I really thought we would end up leaving without Ryan playing at all. .
Next, after taking his hands off of his ears, he went inside the bank and sat at the tellers desk. He even turned the handle on the safe.
He also spent time at the pretend cafe, cooking food in the microwave and filling a customer’s glass with a pitcher. But his favorite part was the pretend airport, maybe because his daddy travels on airplanes a lot. He kept running through the scan to make it beep and playing on the pretend airplane.
About an hour into his play, they announced a dance party on the stage. They started playing loud music as the children danced to the rhythm. Ryan conveniently found that spot by the wall near the exit to take a time out. I never realized how loud things are until I had a son who was sensitive to it. But Ryan waited patiently until the dance party was over and then continued to play. In the past, he would have insisted on leaving.
Ryan’s ability to handle going out into the community varies from day-to-day. It depends on how familiar he is with a place. It depends on his mood and if he’s feeling more out of sorts or insecure due to changes in his life or a lack of structure. In general, Ryan’s ability to enjoy kid’s museums, malls, restaurants, is getting better. I think Ryan will always enjoy his alone time and will always be the keen observer. But for now, we’ll just keep plugging away and exposing him to everything in the outside world that we can.