Spring is hands down my favorite season. After the grey, cold, dreary days of winter, feeling the warm sunshine on my face (after applying SPF 100, putting on a large sun hat and big Jackie O sunglasses to reduce my risk of skin cancer, of course) is like a new awakening. As someone who suffers greatly with seasonal affective disorder, along with many other mental health disorders, when spring arrives, I just feel....happier. Ryan loves many things about spring time too. He loves wearing his feel good silk shorts both inside the house and outside, he loves no coats, hats or mittens, he loves sitting on our front porch for popsicle sunsets, and he loves that Rita's Italian Ice has "FINALLY" opened. Unfortunately, spring is also a time of great anxiety for my super sensitive boy. When April showers bring May flowers, it's not the pilgrims that worry Ryan (by the way, he thought that old Mayflower joke was a "ridiculous pun"), it's the bugs that wake and rise up out of the ground along with those nectar filled May flowers. Yep, bugs are Public Enemy #1 and if they have wings, regardless of their size, stingability or gentleness, they are as ferocious and deadly as a pterodactyl. You can imagine my joy when I heard it was time for the 17 Year Cicadas to return to the East Coast. I have a sister in California...it's a real possibility....as long as she knows how to cook his Velveeta Shells and Cheese "just right" and serves them while they are "fresh".
This could AWEnestly be the worst summer of Ryan's life...until 2030 that is (yes, he's done the math). For those of us who are not entomophobes, a big sciency word for bug haters, the thought of billions, yes, billions, that was not a typo, emerging up out of the ground is just down right horror film creepy. For my son, the King of Entomophobes, this could be life altering. According to one figure, when these creepy, red eyed guys pop up out of the ground (and by the way, Ryan will not care that this popping up thing is great for the soil), there will be approximately 1 million per acre. That equates to about 600-700,000 in our backyard alone. Wish Ryan well folks, you won't see him until about mid-October. Needless to say, the sheer volume of these bugs makes them loud...very loud. Some sciencey dude on The Today Show said this morning that the noise the males make (of course it's the males) equals 90-100 decibals. That noise level is comparable to a 1987 Bon Jovi and Cinderella concert (yeah, I was there wearing a scrunchie in my perm) and needless to say, Jon Bon Jovi is much, much more enjoyable to look at than these ugly critters. Insectophobia + 100 Decibals of BILLIONS of large cicadas = The 2013 Summer from Hell. Please start praying now.
Many kids, whether or not they have an autism spectrum diagnosis have anxieties. It could be the monsters in the closet, the stupid bullies, who will amount to nothing as adults, holding court in the school hallway or strangers lurking in the darkness. The difference is that kids on the spectrum may have trouble verbally communicating their anxieties so many of these fears manifest themselves in behavior or in physical symptoms. The irony of this is that a kid with autism may sing or recite (script) a funny, silly Spongebob episode in an anxious situation while wearing a huge smile. This "comfort zone" behavior is an autistic child's coping mechanism and although it does bring them some level of comfort and they may look happy, they are by no means "happy". Even for parents, who know their child better than anyone and can often sense their child's anxiousness, at times it's difficult to decipher the exact cause of the scripting, hand flapping or spinning. This is both heartbreaking and frustrating.
Needless to say, I have always been aware of Ryan's bug fear, most of the time his anxiety is apparent. For example, when your child prefers to risk oncoming traffic on a busy city street versus the slight chance that the small flying insect that just blew past may land on him, it is obvious this is really a genuine fear. Or when he asks me to carry all 92 pounds of him up our front sidewalk, regardless of who is looking and the condition of my old lady back, in order to protect him from the gnats that fly around our bushes I literally feel his fear. When you get a lecture from your child that makes you feel horrible shame because you forgot to open the garage door the minute the temperature reaches 50 degrees or higher in order to avoid said bushes on front sidewalk, you know this fear may be reaching phobic proportions. When he looks out every window where there is a flowering plant to check the bee activity before deciding which door is safest to exist from (it is always the garage where the car is parked INSIDE) and when landscaping around your pool and playground you must take into account when and if the plants flower, one would think the degree of anxiety that a butterfly, wasp, or stinkbug brings upon my boy would finally sting me in the face. Nope, it took a can't be seen with the human eye stomach bug to make me realize just how serious this fear had become.
A few years ago poor Kyle got hit with a stomach bug on Christmas morning, every kid's worse nightmare (well, every hypochondriac kid's). Ryan stopped using the downstairs bathroom where Kyle threw up so I assumed it was a germ phob thing. I kept reassuring him days, week, months later that the germs were gone. I showed him the Lysol can and the Clorox Wipes that proclaimed their ability to kill 99% of bacteria and viruses that cause illness, to no avail. I'm not kidding you, he did not use that downstairs bathroom for well over a year. I finally gave up, after all we have three other bathrooms so if he needed to run up a flight of stairs in an emergency not only would it provide him with much needed exercise, it would enhance his bowel and bladder control. Finally, after over a year I once again reminded him that the germs were long gone and it was totally safe to use the bathroom. "It's not safe to use that bathroom until you get that stupid plant out of there!" Hello, what? "That stupid plant that gets flowers on it and attracts killer bees." AWEnestly, I was speechless. It wasn't the stomach bug after all, it was the Christmas Cactus that gets flowers on it....when? You guessed it, at Christmas time, the same time of year when Kyle was hanging his head in the bowl right next to the plant. I didn't even know where to begin. Trying to recognize that although Ryan loves me to the sun and back, I am just a dumb, old mom with no real knowledge of anything besides how to microwave a meatless cheeseburgers for 15 seconds, so I knew anything I told him would be ignored. So we consulted good ole Wiki and discovered lo and behold no "killer bees" sticking around for the holidays in the Northeast so chances were good he would survive a quick potty break with the plant. He peed in the bathroom the next week.
We have tried many different avenues to help Ryan with his insectophobia. He worked with a therapist for awhile to work on bugs and weather. It may have helped some, but cognitive behavioral therapy is designed to basically change the way a person thinks about whatever it is that is causing their distress, therefore, changing their behavior or reaction to the trigger. When autism has a hold on a child's brain it makes this type of therapy more challenging. So then I tried to think like Ryan who sees the world in pictures and loves numbers. We pulled up the calculator on my phone and figured out how many days I have been alive (approximately 16,000...how depressing it that?) and then I told him in all of those 16,000 days I have only been stung three times so the probability of him getting stung every time he steps foot outside is really, really low. Of course, my husband quickly points out that there is a direct correlation between how little time I spend outside and the number of bee stings I have had in my life. Apple. Tree. By the way, bees do occasionally happen to buzz by our porch where I sit sipping margaritas and reading People Magazine. Regardless if I was an optimal candidate for the bee sting analogy, it didn't work. Ryan's bug fear is pervasive and at times, consuming and although it seems extreme to you and me, to him it's as real as the stranger in the shadows.
These extreme examples are what goes on inside my beautiful boy's head on a regular basis. You can see why the thought of 600,000 cicadas coming up out of his backyard might feel like a scene from Amityville Horror to Ryan and why as his mother the thought of shipping him off to California for 4-6 weeks has crossed my mind. Getting him on a "deadly plane" might actually be easier than the ensuing battle that will take place between Ryan and his father over keeping the windows open on a beautiful summer night. If the decibals of the cicadas really resembles a rock concert Ryan is not going to start headbanging and dancing, he is going to lock himself in the mostly windowless, underground (where these stupid bugs came from in the first place) basement. And of course, I won't send him to California or anywhere for that matter regardless of how tempting that may be. As his mama, just like it's my job to assure him that there are no monsters under the bed or strangers in the bushes, it is my job to repeatedly show him websites that assure him cicadas aren't killer, deadly,or toxic. It is my job to mark off the days on the calendar until the billions of cicadas go back under ground leaving only their dried up carcass shells as proof they were here and ruined our summer. And just like it is my job to always provide a "squeezy tight" when the fear of all those bugs, bullys, strangers, tornadoes, or whatever, gets to be too much. I love my job.
Yes, I will certainly earn my bug slayer award this summer. When Ryan goes with all the fifth graders on a two day field trip to an OUTDOOR camp, I will be right beside him wearing my bee keeper's suit and standing guard with my butterfly net. If we happen to be outside when hundreds of thousands of cicadas start popping up out of the ground I will try not to run screaming into the house leaving Ryan and Emma alone on the swings. And although I know I won't always be standing beside Ryan to shoo away the stinkbugs, bumblebees and bullies, hopefully my love that encircles his heart will act as a protective barrier to all the things that go bump in the night and buzz in the day. Regardless of how scary, loud and confusing the world is, Ryan knows there is one place he is always safe from harm and he jumps into that place every day after school when he bounds through the door...the garage door, of course, if the temperature is hovering around 50 degrees.
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touched by Autism.
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