It’s a warm sunny spring day…perfect day for the park. I pack up the car and we head off to the great outdoors. Addie and her brother love being outside. Addie is truly in her element and it is almost therapeutic for her. She loves bugs, dirt, sticks, the puddles…the ducks…the swings. She comes alive when we walk in the park.
When we arrive I carefully drive around the park to find the least populated playground. She easily tolerates a few kids but certainly not a crowd. So I find one with only 3-4 kids and mommies hanging out. Looks safe enough. I’m praying we don’t make a scene and that maybe we can make a friend?! So we make our way over. Along the way Addie is pointing out every butterfly and telling me all about the butterflies and caterpillars. How they turn into a chrysalis, etc… As we get closer I start to give her some “prompts” to say to the other kids. ”Can you say Hey, Addie?” “ok” she says.
We get to the playground and one of the other kids comes over “want to make a castle with us?” Addie stood frozen with her hands over her ears. I could tell we were headed for a possible melt-down. She didn’t know what to say so she was ready to scream and flap or jump around. So I quickly prompted Addie to “say hey, Addie” so she processed that for a few seconds. Meanwhile the other child had already ran away confused. Then all the sudden Addie screams across the playground: “say Hey Addie”.
The other little girl and her mom laughs, I guess thinking it’s a joke. Addie looks concerned and confused. She had taken my prompt very literally. She starts screaming and flailing because she doesn’t like the sound of laughing especially the louder laughs. ”Too loud…too loud…stop…stop…ahhhh”. Quickly the girl and her mom move to the other side of the playground. I finally get her to calm down taking her and her brother over to the swings. They love to swing. After a few minutes she is smiling as the swinging motion calms Addie and relaxes her.
By this time, there are several mommies sitting and chatting while their kids run and play together. I can see that they are stopping to notice Addie several times when she has some minor melt-downs. I am walking around with Addie prompting her trying to help her to engage the other kids: “ask her if she would like to swing with you?” “ask if they want to go down the slide.” I am constantly trying to give her the words to say while fending off an impending melt-down.
Finally Addie goes over to a girl and following my prompt says “do you want to go down the slide?” and the little girl says “yes”. YAY!!! I’m holding my breath so excited for Addie. The little girl and Addie go down the slide several times and they are both giggling and smiling. I am overjoyed by this accomplishment. Every time they get to the bottom Addie says in the exact same voice “do you want to go down the slide?” and the little girl says “yes”.
After a few trips down the little girl changes her answer…uh ohhh. I was waiting for it. ”Do you want to go down the slide?” “No, lets go to the sand box.” Addie begins screaming and flailing “no no no no…you say yes…you say yes…you say yes…ahhhhhh”.
Then I look up and realize everyone is staring. The little girl exclaims “what is wrong with her?”. In that moment my heart just broke for Addie. Although I was excited for her accomplishment in playing for a few minutes with another child, but I realized that she is getting to the age that other children are starting to notice that she is different and might start to make fun of her. That is a fear of any parent and especially if your child is a little different.
I tried to explain to the other mom and child that we are working on our social skills. The longer we stayed at the playground the more questions I get from other moms and kids. ”why is she licking that?”…”can she hear?”…”are her eyes ok? can she see ok?”…”she must be really tired today”…”boy, somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed”. All sorts of questions and comments that basically all say the same thing: “what is wrong with her? why is the acting different?” It’s like they couldn’t put their finger on it but I can see the wheels turning and they are wondering why. One brazen older woman remarked that “she just needs a good spanking…and I’ll take her home with me and get her straightened out”. In the moment I was too busy chasing Addie and helping her cope to even comment but looking back I can think of a million things I should have said.
After a few more dramatic outbursts and a few more comments and thoughtful parenting tips from some other moms I decided that Addie had about all she could handle of the small crowd and so had I. So we decide to go walk on the nature trails her favorite thing. A sort-of reward for her trying so hard to interact with her peers. Her sensory system was on overload and I could tell we were headed for the “BIG ONE” if we didn’t take a break soon. I was thinking “if you think these are tantrums…you haven’t seen a tantrum”
On the way to the trails Addie has to potty. OHHH the dreaded potty in public. Addie hates public bathrooms more than anything. ”ok Addie…this is the only bathroom here” I tell her trying to muster up the courage to take her in. ”SQUEEEEEEK” the bathroom door is rusty and VERY squeeky. This sends Addie into panic mode shrieking and laying on the VERY dirty floor. I am scrambling with the heavy door and Addie rolling on the floor as a crowd begins to look on. ”Can I help you?”…”Is she ok?” With every stranger that tries to help the more upset Addie gets.
I wanted to scream “just leave us alone so I can get her calmed down”. I quickly pull her “magic ears” out of the bag (these are her headphones). This calms her a little and we proceed. Then other people walk in the bathroom talking loudly…flushing….the flourescent lights are especially “buzzy” and one of the lights is flickering. She starts screaming “scary light…scary light….scary light”. Then it all comes to a head: “VROOOOOOMMMMMMM” the hand dryer goes off.
The headphones are not working today. Addie is shreiking, flapping, rolling. Oh my “Lord Jesus give me your strength” I’m praying to myself. After many moments where I didn’t know wether to cry or scream and trying to stay as calm as possible for Addie we finally escaped the bathroom. I was so excited that we made it …and she went potty in public. This was SUCH a HUGE accomplishment!! We were exhausted and sweating but smiling.
Now we can “just walk” I told her. I put on her “heavy” backpack that the OT suggested for calming the senses. We have her sunglasses on because “it’s too bright”. I watch her become more relaxed with every step. The farther we walk away from the people – away from the noises, the giggles and happy laughter of the playgrounds. – the more Addie calms and breaths. She finally stops trembling. I watch her shoulders lower – the tension is melting away with each step. The heavy weight on her back is grounding her sensory system and she seems to be beginning to enjoy herself again. We walk in silence so she can unwind and cope. I am so proud of her and so proud that we are actually able to help her calm down. The OT’s advice is working perfectly. I am bursting inside wanting to hug her and scream “YAY we made it!!”.
Going to the park with Addie brings new meaning to “a walk in the park”. Overall this was a good day at the park. She attempted to talk to some new “friends”, she used the bathroom, she used her words. I realize it may look like it was a terrible day to some folks watching us but these accomplishments are HUGE and I was so excited for her.
When you see a child acting out you never know what that child may have going on in their lives. This may be their “walk in the park”. These are experiences that may be hard for a child with autism but it is SO important for them to experience to aid in their development and growth.
There was a time when I would have gone home after the first meltdown I would never have stayed and tried to teach her how to cope and work through these situations. There was a time when I would have been too overwhelmed to take her into a public restroom. There was a time I would have crumbled at the stares and comments. But then Addie may have grown up and never learned to cope in these necessary situations.
Here’s to many more “walks in the park”…