When Thomas was six years old, my Mom and I took all three kids to see the Circus. Thomas was wary, but interested, and the other two were as excited as preschoolers can be when faced with elephants and cotton candy. It wasn’t until the lights went down and the booming voice of the ring master filled Rupp Arena that I realized this was not going to work. I glanced at Thomas and saw him cringe, and then plug his ears and squeeze his eyes shut. By the time the laser lights began to swing across the vast arena and the bass of the music began to thump steadily, he was rocking and crying in his seat, begging me to leave. And then the rings of fire lit up and the cannon went off.
The thing about kids who have sensory processing issues, is that if you don’t catch it in time, the effects take much, much longer to subside. So by the time I made it out to the hallway with Thomas, he was inconsolable and his motor tics were in full force. A kind security guard offered to let us watch from an enclosed space where it would not be as loud, but at this point Thomas was not going to be consoled until we left the arena. We ended up sitting outside on the curb, in the cold, while my Mom and the other two kids finished watching the show. I felt like a terrible mother for not realizing sooner that a Circus is the last place I should have brought Thomas.
Since that day, long ago, Thomas has grown and adapted and learned to deal with all sorts of situations similar to a Circus. He lives with us, after all.
In general, now that he’s old enough to take care of himself, if a situation seems too over-stimulating, he can make the decision to stay away. He picks his battles and I try to encourage him, without pushing him. For example, he chooses to brave the middle school lunchroom each day, rather than eat alone, but he also chooses to avoid school dances. When we made the last minute decision to go the beach for New Years, he expressed to me how difficult it was for him to process the sudden schedule shift, but he also agreed to try, saying, “I’ll do this if it means so much to you.”
The fact that he has to constantly evaluate situations and make internal (and external) accommodations to deal with things that seem normal to his peers, but are in fact extremely intense to his senses, just makes me realize how much more intelligent he must be than I am even aware. He processes all of this while still maintaining straight A’s and he rarely complains (except when we run out of organic yogurt or his siblings get too loud), or asks for help (except when he needs uniform shirts washed at the last minute).
Which is why I cried when I dropped him at the bus stop today. Because even though he’s doing so well these days, sometimes life seems a little bit unfair.
Today is supposed to be a reward day for good behavior. All the seventh graders are going to Champs to roller skate, eat cheese fries, play laser tag and tease each other about who has a crush on whom. As you can imagine, Champs is the seventh gate of hell to a child like Thomas. I tried to take him there last year (because I clearly learned nothing from the Circus incident) and we couldn’t get our skates off fast enough and get out of there.
So today, my perfectly well behaved child with good grades and no reason not to be rewarded, will sit with the kids who did not deserve to go on the “field trip.” I actually offered to let him stay home. It only seemed reasonable, since he’s just going to be sitting in what I perceive to be a “detention” of sorts. But he didn’t want to stay here; he wanted to go and read his book and get his photo made for Orchestra club. And it breaks my heart just as much as it did that day sitting on the curb in the quiet sunlight while we waited for the Circus show to end.
I guess my point in all this rambling is that I think many times we forget that people are walking around us all day long with internal struggles that you can not see. And while another parent may not understand why I set aside my work each afternoon to drive up to the bus stop to pick up my able bodied teenage son, the fact is: I’m not trying to train him to be lazy. I’m merely trying to lighten his load, even just a little bit, because he’s just spent 8 hours navigating the overly bright, overly loud and overly stimulating hallways, classrooms and bus rides of middle school. And he just doesn’t need to wait one more moment to escape the circus.