Hot Summer in the… in the… Suburbs

Autumn temperatures have descended upon New York. Finally. Summertime is better now that we live outside the City, but even so, I’m no fan. I don’t like heat. I don’t like air conditioning. I don’t like feeling pressure to fill long evenings. I don’t like the months without the New York Rangers, although the near back-to-back scheduling of the French Open and Wimbledon, followed later by the U.S. Open, eases my Rangers-related anxiety.

Let’s celebrate the opening of hockey season with a look back at what Adrian is calling the “summer of changes”:

  • At the beginning of summer, Martin liked to spend time in our pool but refused to jump in, put his head under water, or do any actual swimming. He insisted on wearing a full life vest, and he panicked if approached, because he feared someone might try to dunk him.

During an August visit to Texas, he spent hours lounging in my parents’ pool with Grandpa. I’m not sure exactly what changed, but one day Martin and Grandpa were dipping their heads under water together. Soon thereafter, Martin was going under water alone (and, in Martin fashion, demanding applause when he surfaced). He was also, with Grandpa’s help, pushing off the poolside and making rudimentary attempts at swimming.

Back home, Martin’s cousin Mandy, who can already turn somersaults and do handstands under water, came to stay with us for a few days. Martin hates to be outdone by Mandy. He started going deeper under water, sometimes headfirst, and kicking his way back to the surface. After Mandy left, we had a visit from a 10-year-old family friend who is afraid to jump in the water. Martin seized the chance to outdo an older child and made his first voluntary, if hesitant, leap into our pool. The very same afternoon, Martin was allowing Adrian to toss him—“one, two, three!”—from the deck into the pool, plunging under water, swimming five or six feet before surfacing, and immediately demanding, “Do it again, Daddy! Throw me in the pool again!”

  • The theme of Martin not wanting his head under water has been constant for years, since before we knew he had autism. When he was a baby, Martin and I took a “Mommy & Me” swim class. The exercises included tipping baby backwards until he was floating on his back and, with the instructor’s help, having baby dog paddle a short distance to his mommy. The tipping exercise terrified baby Martin; as soon as the back of his head touched the water’s surface, he would scream. (“Don’t worry,” said the instructor. “Some kids just take longer to enjoy the sensation.”) The dog paddling never worked, either; Martin panicked when released into the water and flailed instead of making the paddling motions.

Later, through HANDLE therapy and Anat Baniel Method, I learned about Martin’s primitive reflexes and why they might not have developed properly. Those infantile pool shortcomings were warning signs.

Until this summer, Martin retained the fear of lying on his back in water, including in the bathtub, where he would insist on sitting up or, at most, lying on his side with his head propped on a crooked elbow. Not long after he started swimming under water, I found him lying on his back in the bathtub, his head submerged up to his ears. “What are you doing there, Martin?” I asked. He lifted his ears out of the water and responded, “Oh, I’m just relaxing, Mommy.”

  • Of course, a kid who doesn’t like his head under water doesn’t like to shower. We have a full-spectrum infrared sauna at home. A key part of the sauna routine is showering upon exiting, to prevent the skin from reabsorbing toxins that may have been excreted through sweat. Until this summer, the shower was such a chore that I dreaded using the sauna with Martin. As Martin’s pool confidence increased, Adrian started dragging him into the shower after swimming (which I didn’t love, because I prefer to give Martin an Epsom-salt-and-baking-soda bath to detox after swimming, but sometimes you have to let father and son have their time). Showering got easier and easier, and correspondingly so did using the sauna. It’s a kind of trade-off: fewer detox baths for more sauna time.
  • Early in the springtime, we bought Martin a new bicycle. He’d grown so much over the winter that his old bicycle, which had training wheels, looked like a circus toy underneath him. We decided to be bold and optimistic with the new bicycle and not pay to have training wheels installed. For a few months it seemed like maybe we’d been too bold and optimistic. Adrian and I made almost no progress trying to teach Martin to ride. It was frustrating. By mid-July, we were ready to throw in the towel.

Martin participates in a terrific sports-and-training program for special-needs kids, which focuses on playground skills like shooting baskets and playing kickball. When I found out that that the head trainer was also running a bicycle-riding clinic, I signed Martin up immediately. The professionals possess magic skills that Adrian and I lack; within the first hour-long lesson, they had Martin up and riding. It took a few more lessons before Martin could push himself off and pedal together, or stop without tipping over the bicycle, and it took practice with Adrian before he could successfully use the hand brake to slow himself down instead of stopping suddenly. As of today, Martin still can’t stand up and pedal, as to power himself uphill. But that will come. Meanwhile, he rides four- and even six-mile journeys with Adrian.

Monday evening, as we pulled in the garage, late for dinner, with homework yet to be done, Martin said, “I’m just going to do some bicycling riding now.” I couldn’t allow that. But it was nice that he wanted to.

  • Shoe tying. This is another area where Martin didn’t want to be outdone by Cousin Mandy, and where we sought professional assistance. Cousin Mandy can tie her shoes already. During a car trip together in August, she decided to try teaching Martin. That didn’t go well. Eventually tears were involved. Nonetheless, it put the idea in Martin’s head, and after Mandy was gone, he asked me to help him learn. I tried. I failed. (It’s a good thing I don’t homeschool. One day Martin will agree.) The first week of school, I wrote a note to Martin’s occupational therapist listing shoe tying as one of our goals for the year. You guessed it: Within a week, the OT had him tying his shoes. Within two weeks, he’d mastered the double knot. Now Martin is concerned with learning to tighten laces sequentially and also tie “big laces,” because he wants to be able to—lace up his hockey skates.
  • That’s right. Martin is learning to play ice hockey. We had planned to try him this fall in a Mites league, or even down one age group on a Mini-Mites team. But he had no skating experience, and many of the kids on those teams have already been skating since age two or three, and suiting up for hockey for at least a full season, if not two. Adrian and I weren’t even sure whether Martin would like playing hockey. We didn’t want to frustrate him on the ice with kids much, much more skilled than he is. So instead we signed him up for private lessons. He loves the skating so much that now he wants to take an extra lesson each week, in order to reach stick-handling skills sooner.

I doubt that Martin is destined for hockey greatness. I was satisfactorily athletic as a child, competing in swimming, soccer, softball. Adrian, by his own reporting, was an utter flop at everything except skiing. We are hardly the type of world-class athletes that tend to produce other world-class athletes, and Martin is getting a later start, both in age and skill development, than most players.

Nevertheless, please take a minute to contemplate what it means to me to see my son on skates. If you read this blog, you know I love hockey. When Martin, my only child, was diagnosed at age two with mild-to-moderate autism, my dreams of raising a hockey player flickered, and maybe fizzled. Five years later, with the help of biomed and therapies, Martin is tying skates, wearing hockey gear, and getting ready to start learning stick-handling skills. Yes, he is.

Having a summer of changes is a beautiful thing, because “change” is not usually a development that sits well with a child on the spectrum.

And now, the summer of changes has drawn closed. Halloween is nearly upon us. Martin wants to be Donald Duck this year, which is a real problem; the duckier costumes are made for infants, small children, and (not sure what this is about) adults. Apparently no one between age five and age 18 is supposed to be Donald Duck. For my tall seven-year-old, I’ve had to resort to a “pajama costume.”

Maybe next year we’ll have the “autumn of more-grown-up costume ideas.”

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