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Teaching My Son To Go Outside of His Comfort Zone

The post below is by Lisa Smith, the mother of seven children, two with special needs. Her son Tate has autism. Lisa blogs about her experiences and can be found on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos or at quirks-and-chaos.blogspot.com.

Tonight we went to a restaurant. Ten feet from where Tate was sitting was a crying baby. Now, Tate doesn’t dislike babies but Tate was miserable. He squirmed. He complained. He whispered about babies who cry (whispering to himself is one of his stims). He stuck his fingers deep into his ears. He asked me if I had any headphones. (They use headphones at school to help with the noise level sometimes.) The screaming went on for about ten minutes. I love babies; but I honestly was beginning to squirm a little myself. Finally, the baby went to sleep and we were able to enjoy our meal.

I have a friend who has a son with autism who probably couldn’t have handled it at all. They would have had to leave after just the first cries. I have another friend who has a son with autism and when he goes to a restaurant he, himself, makes a lot of noise. He is non-verbal and one of his stims is to make loud noises. (Remember, autism is a spectrum and people are all over that spectrum.) The same young man who likes to make loud noises? When his baby brother cries he puts his hands over his ears! My theory on this is that he does not like his baby brother’s noises because they are totally out of his control and unpredictable. He needs to be in control of the noise to be able to tolerate it.

Recently, Tate’s sister and I were in the living room watching a movie that Tate loves. I told him I wanted him to watch it with us. He watched it but he could not relax and really enjoy it. He sat in a hard backed chair behind the couch, instead of on the couch with us, and watched from the dinning room. He could not relax because he was not in control. He was not alone to enjoy the movie and he was not going to be able to pause it if he wanted to, or rewind to watch his favorite parts more than once, or fast forward through the song he did not like. He would have enjoyed the movie so much more if he’d been alone to watch it. When given the choice he will almost always choose to be alone.

Tonight when the baby was crying, I was not only feeling a little stressed from hearing it myself, but I was watching Tate squirm and I was feeling stressed because he was stressed. I try hard to make his world “autism friendly” while at the same time challenging him to step out of his comfort zone and make his world a little bit bigger. It’s a fine line. I am usually guilty of staying far inside his boundaries to keep him happy, but once in a while I drag him too far across the line and feel terrible about the stress it causes him. Sometimes it does pay off though. Sometimes, instead of a meltdown and huge amounts of anxiety, we get growth.

Going through a carwash was out of the question a few years ago. The noise terrified Tate. Now they are very doable. Tate still becomes a little nervous, probably because of the noise, but he loves watching the soapsuds cascade down the windshield. Smoke detectors at home and fire drills at school are no longer things that send him into a panic. Fireworks are another example of progress made. When Tate was young, a fireworks show would drive him over the edge. On the 4th of July, his siblings would have a great time with their dad out in the yard lighting fireworks. Tate would be inside hiding under blankets while I tried to soothe him. We did not stop celebrating the 4th or make our older kids go somewhere else to light their fireworks.

Although we are very considerate of Tate’s disability and his sensory issues, it cannot ALWAYS be about Tate. We do have six other kids who need parents too. Surprise! Somewhere around age six or seven, Tate decided fireworks were pretty cool. Now he looks very forward each year to those loud pops and booms. He still watches and listens with his fingers in his ears but he enjoys the lights and noise quite a bit. He’s really livin’ on the edge now, huh?

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.