Recently a friend of mine threw a birthday party for her neuro-typical ten year-old son.
I decided to take Zion.
As we pulled up to the party, I could see what looked like a thousand little boys bouncing off the walls inside the house.
It was like walking into a giant air-popper.
Only instead of popcorn it was 25 little boys hopped up on sugar and red dye #40.
As soon as Zion and I walked in, I clipped lapel microphones on every single little boy. I placed Zion in a locked cage, right in the middle of the room. I hooked up four Bose speakers, turned them up to full blast, and pointed them directly at him so that he could hear all 25 of those little boys in full surround sound.
I handed our gift to the birthday boy, and insisted that Zion focus on him and hold still.
Okay, by now you have probably figured out that I’m being ridiculous, and that this didn’t actually happen.
Let me tell you the real story.
Zion was 3 years old. We were at a birthday party for a family member. It was summertime, so the party was outside and the kids were having a ball.
He was standing at the side of the house, by himself, playing with some landscaping rocks and the downspout.
I don’t know what hurt worse, watching him play with those rocks, or watching the other kids squeal and play and have fun.
Zion had been diagnosed with autism only a year earlier, and I had no idea how to handle situations like that.
I wasn’t the cool, polished mom-machine I am today.
So it comes time for the birthday cake, and the family files into the house. Everyone is calling for Zion to come in, but he ignores them. I decide it’s best to leave him alone. He is quiet, so I am fine with that.
Then a family member decides to go out and scoop him up and force him to come in.
(You can already hear the theme from Jaws in your head, cantcha?)
Zion loses it.
In a split second he goes from calm and quiet, to a wild and flailing beastie.
Then when I go to calm him down, he head-butts me….WWF style.
We leave the party, and I cry hot, quiet tears all the way home.
It took me a while, but what I’ve learned over the years is that Zion is not most kids.
He is Zion.
We are who we are.
Just because my family and friends want him to participate, doesn’t mean he has to.
It took me several birthday party attempts to learn that Zion just cannot handle social situations the way that neuro-typical kids can.
I tried many times to make him wear the birthday hats, and sit at the tables, and play the games, and engage with the other children.
This futility only created havoc and violent tantrums which resulted in us leaving in tears….every single time.
What I had to do for my child, (and for my own sanity) was try to achieve a level of understanding, and do my best to see the world how he sees it.
Once I really started paying attention, I realized that his worst tantrums came from over-stimulation caused by noises, colors and lights.
And what is a child’s birthday party?
A hellacious smattering of all of the above.
Imagine how the Zions of the world must feel in a room full of people and noise.
I imagine it is much like the cage I described earlier.
So…these days if we absolutely must attend a large social gathering, we go prepared.
I pack the iPad and the good-quality headphones.
And a big bag of apple slices, applesauce, and apple juice. (P.S. This kid has some regular bowels. See last week’s post here.)
I don’t ask him to engage or involve in what we are doing.
I just let him be.
When people try to get him to participate, I speak up.
This isn’t being rude or uncooperative. This is called advocating for my child. I keep it short and sweet.
“He is happy, please leave him be.”
Let me tell you what happened at my uncle’s house this past Christmas.
There were 25 people coming for the holiday. As soon as we arrived, Zion picked out a movie and watched it with the other kids for about an hour. Once he’d had enough socializing, he came and asked me for the iPad. He put the headphones on, and proceeded to sit right in the middle of the room for the remainder of the evening.
Did you read that right?
Oh yes you did.
He sat right in the middle of the room.
See, it isn’t that he’s trying to avoid people. I think he loves being with people.
It is the over-stimulation of 25 voices that he can’t process.
It’s overwhelming to him.
But when he can shut that out with some high-quality headphones, he can sit in the middle of a room for 3 hours.
I understand that family and friends don’t want him to feel left out.
But he doesn’t feel left out. If he wants to engage, he will do it on his own.
Even better, is that every little bit, Zion will emerge from iPad world, and take the headphones off. He will come over to me, say “Oh hi dare, Mama,” sniff my arm, and ask for a snack. Then once he has had enough stimulation, noise, and well…reality, he submerges again into the iPad.
Is this escapism?
And that’s okay.
It’s called compromise.
If you look at the photo at the top of this post, there is a little boy in the background looking into a BBQ grill.
That little boy represents the Zions of the world.
We could force him to leave the grill, sit with the kids at the table, and pose for the Pinterest-esque photo.
Or we can just leave him be.
He is marching to his own drum.
Same with my Zion.
I could lock him inside a cage and force him to stay there, kicking and flailing.
Or I can unlock the door, leave it open, and allow him to come out at his own pace.
The choice is mine.