Monday, May 3, 2010

Movies, Airplane and Meltdowns

In response to our discussion on @thecoffeeklatch I am reposting some blogs for your perusal.

A recent post by one of my Facebook friends reminded me of a time when collegeman was three-years old. My friend mentioned that her child had had a sensory meltdown at the movies and there was very little she could do to help her past the episode, so they ended up leaving the theater. With collegeman it started with a play. He loved watching Beauty and the Beast. It was a new Disney film at the time and we bought it on VHS (see how long ago that was). Well, in the way that children with autism do, he watched and he watched and he watched until he could replay the entire dialogue in his head and he knew every word to every song. (Also remember at this time we had no idea that he was dealing with an autism spectrum disorder)

So along came his baby brother. Now as anyone knows the important thing to do with a new sibling is to make sure you spoil the older child. So we decided to take collegeman to the new Broadway play Beauty and the Beast. It had just started and there was a tremendous amount of excitement. Never before had Broadway produced a play that was specifically geared towards children. Today it is matter of course, but back then, well it was a new phenomenon. So we bought Saturday matinee tickets, along with almost every other parent in Manhattan and hubby proceeded to take collegeman out for their very special daddy and first-born son afternoon.

All was well and good, hubby bought collegeman every piece of souvenir junk he wanted, and it was fine in the theater. In fact, when the lights went down and collegeman recognized the music he was in his three-year old glory. He was singing along with the songs and laughing and having a jolly good time. Then the idiots at Disney introduced the Beast. There was so much thunder, crashing noise, blaring lights imitating lightening when the Beast entered, collegeman made the quickest dash for the exit that anyone could ever imagine. Now, he was not the only crying child out in the lobby. A huge portion of the theater emptied at that moment. The only difference was that collegeman was the only one that refused to go back in. Ok, we didn’t really think much of it. We just chalked it up to him being a baby still. Then we tried to take him to see The Lion King.

It was playing at Radio City Music Hall. Now anyone who has ever been there knows that besides a movie theater, it is also a stage theater. Collegeman went into the theater with no problem. Got his souvenirs. Got his popcorn and his big Lion King bucket. He then sat down and seemed quite excited. But then he saw the stage and a panic came over him that he just could not control. He started to scream and climb over every person in his way in order to get out of that theater as fast as he could. Poor thing. It was years before he could go into a movie.

Airplanes were also a lot of fun. He had been flying actually since he was three months old. We would take him to my grandparents, his great-grandparents, because they were just too old to come north and travel. So we would go at least once a year to see them. He never had any problems flying. The reality is that I don’t think he actually understood what was happening. We kept him so busy during the flights that he never really paid attention to what the airplane was until one fateful day.

It just so happened that we were taking the shuttle back from seeing my parents and we were delayed because the then Vice President’s wife was boarding the plane. It was actually rather fascinating to see Mrs. Gore enter the plane with her secret service detail. She and the detail sat upfront and the doors closed. We took off. In the meantime collegeman had decided to look out the window. In retrospect, not really a good thing, we should have kept him busy. As the plane took off, it dawned on him that he was now leaving the ground apparently he had never known that that was what the airplane had been doing all these other times. It did not go over well. Not only did he jump out of his seatbelt, but he ran to the door midair and attempted to open it, right in front of the secret service. Hubby of course was quick on the draw and grabbed him, apologizing the entire time. (I wonder today though, if the pilot would have turned the plane around and someone would have had us arrested, or at the very least made us disembark. Oh yeah, it was areally bad scene.) After that we began to drive back and forth to my parents for awhile.

So what did we do to get him over his fears and past the sensory meltdowns? The truth is a lot of time past. We did have to go on a plane again and my wonderful college roommate, with whom I have been friends with for thirty years, said offer him something he wants but can’t have. At the time, he was four, he wanted gum, but we thought he wasn’t old enough. So we told him if he behaved on the airplane he could have gum because he was being a “big boy.” Oh yeah, it worked. Now of course, he is such a seasoned traveler, a spoiled one too by the way. He has the entire rhythm planned how the trip is going to go. He does stress a little, but that I think is just because of the change and the transitions. Some things will always be an issue I am afraid, but he is able to handle it without too much parental oversight.

Then how did we get him into the movies. The truth is eventually there was a movie he really wanted to see. Of course, a Disney or child’s adventure movie, the exact one escapes me. We let him buy candy and popcorn and a drink, sat of course by the door just in case, and held our breath. He did fine. The reality was that by this time we knew he had an autism spectrum disorder and the school had been working with him on sensory issues. He was able to assimilate the noise and the sensory output.

As I think about it now though, a few other ideas, may have helped and made it easier if we had tried them. Sensory integration therapy is a wonderful tool to help your child deal with the noises that they can’t filter on their own. So if your child’s school is not working on this with them, insist upon it. Ask the Occupational Therapist to also help with the sensory issues. OTs can do wonderful things. (Officially collegman never actually received sensory integration therapy) A good old fashioned social story about what happens in a movie theater would have come in handy too. Make it very simple and to the point. Even take it from buying the ticket on line, to the drive to the theater, to the line for junk, to the sitting in the seat and preparing your child for the noise. Looking back, I think we probably should have brought along earplugs or earmuffs to dull the sound, didn’t really think of it at the time. Routines help. Even to this day, there is a routine they follow when going to the theater. Collegeman laughs when Sheldon obsesses about his Icie at the movies. He understands just how important those rituals are to his enjoyment of the experience.

So what’s my point here? Just that it does get better. Just because there is a time when autism can usurp even the enjoyment of a movie from your child, doesn’t mean it will always be that way. You can help them learn to adjust to the situation and eventually they too will learn to relish the fun of the cinema or even be able to fly on an airplane and not catch the eye of a secret service agent.

Until next time,


BTW: Highschoolboy never had any of these issues. As with anything to do with autism spectrum disorders, every characteristic is not symptomatic in every person. Let's remember that.