All of a Sudden, It Happens

Martin and I are on a flight to Chicago, to see Dr. Zelinsky. Two things happened in the airport:

First, the metal detector. I have my qualms about the effects of metal detectors, but I let Martin pass through them. It’s a nod to convenience, I suppose. Plus, at least it’s not one of those x-ray body-scan machines. I have even more qualms about them. Passing through the metal detector used to be a challenge for Martin. He might be scared, or refuse. When he agreed to pass through, he rarely succeeded without setting the machine off by touching its sides—either he clumsily bumped them, or his hands naturally flew apart for sensory input and balance. After one or two tries, the TSA agent would let me walk though with Martin, picking him up or holding his arms down and his body steady.

Today as we approached the metal detector, I lined Martin up and said, “Walk though carefully! Don’t touch the sides!” To my surprise, Martin stood ramrod straight, pasted his arms to his hips, and walked directly though the machine. Then he iced the cake: On the other side, instead of wandering away, he stopped and waited for me.

Second, the Windy City. As we sat at our gate, Martin watched the information screen and asked questions. “What does that number mean?” “Is that a picture of our airplane?” At some point, he looked at the destination name and said, “Chicago is the Windy City.” I couldn’t remember ever having told Martin that Chicago is called the Windy City, so I asked, “How do you know that?” Martin replied, “Because my daddy told me.”

What’s the breakdown? On and off for months, I have tried to get Martin to understand the question, “How do you know that?” If we are driving and he says, “That’s a hotel,” I ask, “How do you know that?”, trying to prompt him to say that he saw the sign or read H-O-T-E-L. Instead, he responds, “But-because it is.” If he makes an assertion beyond his experience, like, “All kids except me eat popcorn!”, I say, “How could you know that?” He responds, “But-because they do.”

This morning was no such exercise. I wondered how Martin knew Chicago’s nickname, and I asked without thinking about whether he could answer. His perfect response, missing even his trademark “but-because,” surprised me a second time.

Two big successes inside ten minutes! Still, you know me: I must always temper my enthusiasm. While we were waiting in the jet bridge, another passenger saw our seat numbers and remarked kindly, to Martin, that we were all sitting in the same row. This prompted Martin to ask me whether our row had three seats together, or two. When I told him that our row had three seats together, and that someone would sit next to us, he had a little meltdown and yelled, “I’m not ever going to sit in two seats again! Not ever!” He was crying as we entered the plane.

Did I mention the two successes?


When people ask me what treatment “helps Martin most,” I shrug and say, “Dunno. Some combination of what we’re doing, I guess.”

We’ve dragged ourselves through a rough couple months lately. Symptomatic, crabby, stagnated months. Regression. Over the last eight days Martin has improved, and I am praying the road is becoming firm again.

I ask myself, and others have asked me, what provoked this latest months-long slog. My first thought is, “Dunno,” followed by, “Viruses seem to be an issue. Also chronic internal inflammation. Unavoidable radio waves. Adrenal stress. Something environmental? The construction happening directly north, east, and south of our apartment right now? Our own bathroom renovations? Parasites, maybe. Or electromagnetic fields. Or an issue at school,” followed by, “Oh, hell. I dunno.”

Nevertheless, I have two recent incidents that either (1) put the lie to unmitigated “I dunnos,” or (2) demonstrate that I retain an active imagination.

Incident One: Evil Metal Detector?

Two weeks ago we traveled to Chicago for doctor appointments. Over the course of the three-day trip Martin’s symptoms ameliorated, somewhat, and by the time we arrived at O’Hare for an evening flight home, he was able to hold my hand and wait in the security line—without dancing, skipping, wresting his little wrist from my grip, wandering away, or staging a meltdown. He was doing well.

When we arrived at the front of the line, I asked the TSA agent on duty whether I could request that my son be hand-searched, or at least scanned with a security wand, instead of walking through the metal detector. He has a neurological condition, I explained, and I prefer not to expose him to the magnetic field.

The agent seemed bemused by my request but responded helpfully. Because they aren’t allowed to touch children under age 12, she said, my request would require calling a supervisor from another part of the airport. Fifteen or 20 minutes might elapse before he arrived. Should she summon him?

I hesitated. We had half an hour until boarding time, but who knows what “15 or 20 minutes” really means, and I still had to clear security myself (Martin’s drops and pills being hand-searched while I argue/bargain with agents, flashing prescriptions for special foods and liquids in larger-than-three-ounce containers), then move Martin a quarter-mile to the gate.

“It’s okay,” I said. “He can pass the metal detector.”

But it was not okay. Immediately after walking though the metal detector, Martin became unmanageable. He refused to sit while I completed the security check, ran away from the security area despite admonishments, and whined nonstop. When we tried walking to the gate, he could not hold my hand or focus enough to progress more than 20 feet without crying. The flight was delayed (and why would it not be, at a moment like that?), so I took Martin to the Admirals’ Club family lounge, where he spent 90 minutes alternately running circles around the room and collapsing on the floor. After half an hour I retreated into my own world, drinking wine and texting friends for support. Quality parenting, I know. I should mention that the family lounge has glass walls, so dozens of business travelers in the next room witnessed our mother-and-son performance, albeit without sound.

Why did Martin’s behavior change so radically when he passed through the metal detector? Did the magnetic field affect him, or was the decline coincidental, triggered instead to the onset of travel exhaustion or some other factor? The Health Physics Society’s webpage on security-screening safety concludes, “[B]ecause of its nonionizing properties, the magnetic field generated in a metal detector will not cause harm to persons even with routine and/or repeated scanning.” A post on the BabyCenter website states, “Anything that generates or uses electricity, such as power lines or household appliances, produces an electromagnetic field. At the low levels a metal detector emits, this exposure is considered safe for everyone, including pregnant women.”

I will never know for sure whether the metal detector provoked Martin’s symptoms that evening. But something happened around the time he passed through. That much I witnessed.

Incident Two: Precarious Home Library?

Some weeks ago a nice fellow from Healthy Dwellings came over and completed a “healthy home evaluation” for our apartment. He spent several hours taking meter readings, testing water, checking air quality, and so forth. The resulting report showed that we’re doing pretty well, in most aspects.

One exception was radio frequency (RF), those electromagnetic waves that send data wirelessly. Ideally, RF levels should hover below 10 mW/m2. The lowest reading in our home—in Martin’s bedroom, thank goodness for small favors—was 137 mW/m2. In our living room, the level was 540 mW/m2, and in the library, the level topped out at a whopping 3,600 mW/m2. Our home library is an alcove set within the rafters (we live on the top floor) with a large skylight absorbing all that New York City has to offer (windows are the most common entry point for external RF waves). Our home library, because it is farthest away from any other apartment, is also where we keep Martin’s drum set.

As averred, Martin’s behavior improved last week. One particularly unsymptomatic afternoon Samara (babysitter) picked Martin up from school and brought him home, where I was cooking. When they arrived I completed several HANDLE exercises with Martin, watched him play with Thomas trains, and discussed with Samara how calm Martin appeared, steady on his feet and content to play alone. Samara agreed.

Martin then declared his intent to play drums and headed upstairs to the library alcove. Samara followed him. I returned to the kitchen. By virtue of an open floor plan, the library is visible from our kitchen. That helps me keep an eye on Martin and, in this instance, let me observe that, within five minutes of his going upstairs, Martin transformed into a different kid: running back and forth, flailing his limbs, unfocused. I called for Martin and Samara to come back downstairs.

It was another metal-detector moment. What caused Martin’s behavior to change from “with it” to “restless and in his own world”? Part of me wants to blame the library and its RF hurricane—because RF levels, at least to some degree, are fixable. Part of me thinks that I’m blaming the RF levels because I just discovered they are high in the library, and I’m prone to grabbing hold of any factor I can blame when Martin tanks. All of me admits, “I dunno.”


These incidents raise a few possibilities.

First, I may actually have pinpointed some factors that affect Martin more than others. Brain-scrambling magnetic fields and RF waves!

Second, I may have seen connections that, in reality, don’t exist, and I may therefore explore yet more dead-end routes, like refusing to let Martin through metal detectors or blocking RF waves.

Third, the truth lies in some combination.

Doesn’t it always?