My son, Jason, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome way back in first grade. So, by the sixth grade, we were well ingrained in all his routines—grilled cheese sandwiches and water for every meal (at school, he ate Ritz Bits with Cheese), no doors or windows left open in the house anywhere, the noise of a humidifier in his room at night to help him sleep, etc.
Perhaps the open doors and windows seem puzzling. Jason, you see, experiences inordinate discomfort or fear around two things—rain and flying insects.
As for the rain, he dislikes getting wet. During his elementary school years, if so much as a drop of water landed on his shirt, pants, or socks, he’d change the spoiled clothing immediately. Needless to say, an umbrella was every bit as important as his backpack for at least half of the school year. Imagine our challenge at getting him to enter the waters of baptism when he turned eight. (We succeeded, by the way, but only barely.)
Flying insects of any size—from the miniscule gnat to the dragonfly—have always set off his panic mode. (Birds, he can handle.) I’m not sure if their buzzing, generally inaudible to our ears, drives him nuts or if it’s the unexpected zooming around they do in mid-air.
In any case, because of these flying creatures and the inevitable possibility of being drenched by unexpected rainstorms, we had pretty much become an indoor family by the time he entered sixth grade.
Then came Science Camp.
All the sixth graders looked forward to these three days spent up in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California. All, except Jason. Was he interested in hiking outdoors, examining pond scum, learning about insects, riding horses, learning to use a compass, paddling a canoe, and sleeping in a dorm room full of noisy classmates? Of course not.
Despite my husband’s best efforts to coddle our son and let him have his way, I joined forces with Jason’s teacher, Mrs. Parks, to cajole and plead and even bribe Jason to give this outdoor adventure a chance. (I believe the bribe involved several videos he had long been wanting.) I promised to go along and cook his grilled cheese sandwiches the very same way I did at home. Mrs. Parks promised that, rather than writing a big long report about his experience, Jason could make a video. Finally, I agreed to take his humidifier along, as well, and if he absolutely couldn’t stand it, we would leave after at least 24 hours.
Grumbling and cranky, Jason got in the car on the appointed day and together we set off for Pathfinder Ranch. Nearing our destination, I stopped at a good lookout spot to take some footage of the valley far below for the video, inviting Jason to step out of the car and see for himself. Nothing doing. He was anxious to get to the camp and see if our accommodations would be suitable. They were. And we beat the school buses there by half an hour, so we were able to film their arrival.
Fortunately, the camp director was most agreeable and I had free access to the cafeteria kitchen to set up my griddle. I also got my own bedroom in the nurse’s cabin, so that I wouldn’t have Jason at my door in the middle of the night. That was a good thing, because it forced him to deal with his situation the best he could.
We had our challenges over the next three days (yes, we stayed the full time). First, one of the introductory games linked the kids together in teams and then had them chasing each other. Jason, on the tail end of one of those links, freaked out because he had no clue why everyone was grabbing for him. On the second day, he panicked on his afternoon hike up into the mountains when we came to an especially “buggy” spot and I had to chase him back down the trail for a good half mile before I caught up with him. He nearly gagged on the third day when he tried to collect the smelly pond scum.
Overall, though, there were a dozen major and minor triumphs. While he didn’t sleep well, he slept enough. He attempted most of the games and activities. He made some new friends. He took an active part in the lessons. When one camp instructor asked what the three parts of an insect were, Jason spied the huge model of an ant behind her and guessed, “The head, the body, and . . . the butt?” She admitted he was close then went on to teach about the thorax and the abdomen. While he refused to go near the horses (due, no doubt, to the horse flies), he tried archery and even got in a canoe. On the night of the Talent Show, despite my qualms that he might embarrass himself, he drew generous applause with his spot-on imitations of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger in the scene where the three meet up for the first time on the train.
The greatest victory came on the morning of the second day at the end of his first hike up one of the trails. Two female instructors were waiting by a rocky wall to teach the campers how to rock climb with harnesses. I never would have thought he’d try it, but he did, getting halfway up before rappelling down again. And he loved it! Afterward, when we got back home and he was unpacking, he admitted that Science Camp was a lot more fun than he’d thought it would be.
Now, seven years later, my son is getting ready to graduate from high school. He still doesn’t care for the outdoors, but he knows he can handle it. I have a video to prove it.
What has helped your child with Autism deal with sensory issues or things that stress them out?