“Thank you for the invite! I am taking a writing class on Tuesday nights, so I will not be there, but Chris will take them. The three boys would love to be there. It sounds fun! They all love the pool! Any thoughts for a gift for John?”
She responded with gift ideas and said many people were going to be at the pool party for John’s fourteenth birthday. She was thrilled. I was sorry I couldn’t be there. There’s nothing better than seeing John with a big smile on his face. It doesn’t happen often.
We first met John when he was a kindergartner. Noah was in the same classroom, where everything was different and anxiety provoking. The school, the teacher, the bus, the bathroom – it was all new. The day before school started we were there to check out the school and ease into what we assumed might be a difficult transition. Back then Noah was overwhelmed by the loud sound of flushing toilets. He plugged his ears whenever a toilet flushed. It is almost impossible to cover your ears and flush a toilet at the same time, if you don’t have enough coordination to flush with your elbow or foot. (If you don’t believe me, try it.) Listening to industrial-strength toilets was absolutely horrifying for Noah. These weren’t the toilets where you flush and stand nervously as you watch the toilet paper circle endlessly and pray it eventually goes down. Nope, these were the loud toilets that startle adults. Noah wasn’t potty trained when he went to kindergarten, but it was a concern nonetheless. The toilet would be flushed at school several times per day, and the bathroom wasn’t down the hall – it was in the classroom.
John came into the bathroom to become familiar with the automatic paper towel dispenser. I recall him crying while his mom stood by, attempting to desensitize him to the whole experience. It was a moment I’ll never forget. We introduced ourselves amidst the toilet flushing and paper towel dispensing. We both laughed and said something about bathrooms being stressful for our boys. I knew we’d be friends. After all, we needed to stick together. Our sons had autism.
Over the years John and my three boys have participated in activities together: therapeutic horseback riding, Kindermusik, Spectrum Theatre, Spectrum Music, Sturgis Youth Theatre, and swimming lessons for kids on the spectrum. Noah and John were in the same elementary school classroom for years. If one of our sons had a birthday party, John was the first person we invited. If John’s family went bowling, his mom asked if we wanted to join them. As much as we can, our families try to provide positive social experiences for our kids.
Last week I purchased John’s gift. After everyone signed the card, I asked my son Isaac to write John’s name on the envelope, and he did so willingly. He has a fine motor delay, which makes handwriting difficult. This is quite common for kids on the autism spectrum.
“J-O-H-N,” I said, as Isaac listened and wrote the letters with a marker. (The marker is much easier for him to hold than a pencil, plus it doesn’t take as much hand strength.) I was proud of him for following my directions so easily.
Then I looked at the envelope. Isaac didn’t hear “H.” Instead, he heard “A.” The letters sounds similar. I said aloud quickly, “H-A-H-A-H-A.” Yep, for someone who might have a slight auditory processing disorder, I understand the confusion. I looked closely at the envelope. It said “Joan” instead of “John.”
I couldn’t take the chance of this misspelling causing a meltdown, especially on his birthday. This party needed to go as smoothly as possible. He doesn’t have a party with friends every year. I pulled out an envelope and wrote his name myself. Crisis averted, I thought.
After class ended last night, I pulled out my phone and noticed a text message from Chris. I knew the kids were at the birthday party. Did something happen? I had shut off my phone during class. Seeing the message made me uneasy.
“Isaac packed your swimsuit for the birthday party. He had no plans to take along his own trunks. Luckily I checked his bag before we left,” the message said.
“OMG!” I texted.
Why do these things happen? Isaac (another teenager with autism) goes to John’s party with the intention of wearing his mother’s swimming suit. Isaac was determined to change into his swimming gear at the pool. I imagined Isaac walking out of the boy’s locker room modeling my black swimming suit – the one with thin shoulder straps, post-pregnancy tummy control, and the built-in bra. I imagined him climbing up the high dive, waiting for a second, and sprinting off the board. He has no fear. With the big empty bra cups and the speed at which he jumps into the water, he might have set sail. I was relieved that mishap didn’t ruin John’s party – and was glad Chris had saved the day.
I raced home from class. A few minutes later the boys entered the house, wearing their trunks and holding their bags. “It was such a great party,” Noah said. “John looked so happy. He had a great time, and we did, too.”
“Did he like his gift?” I asked.
“Well, when he opened it up, he didn’t know for sure what it was until he read the label on the package,” Henry said. “A huge smile spread across his face when he realized it was an electric pencil sharpener. It was the best!” Henry was beaming. “His sister said one time she gave him a pencil to sharpen at home, and it was pretty long, and when he gave it back to her, it was only this big,” he said, as he moved his hands closer together to indicate a small size.
“But I bet it was sharpened,” I said with a laugh. “I’m so glad we included some extra batteries.”
“We ate cupcakes, and Milo was there, and so were Joey and Kylie and Kendall and all of these people we know,” Noah rattled on. “John was talking about an inside joke with a classmate. He was having the time of his life!”
I recognized the names of some of those kids, the ones who came to the party. Some of them have disabilities, and some of them don’t. The thought of everyone gathering for this boy’s birthday made me a little teary-eyed.
“What other presents did he get?” I asked.
“Oh, he got a fan,” Noah answered.
“Apparently John loves fans.”
“That’s wonderful,” I replied.
I contacted John’s mom later that evening and thanked her for inviting my boys. I told her how much fun they had. She responded and said John had a blast. She mentioned John had asked for a used Oreck vacuum he found on eBay in July. He talked about it non-stop, so she bought it. He loves it, of course.
I replied that John must like practical gifts, and she said you’d think the house would be spotless since he likes the vacuum. It’s not as much about vacuuming as it is about the vacuum, she said.
I knew exactly what she was talking about. John loves the sound the vacuum makes.
Isaac has a new obsession, which just started this week. He opens one of our kitchen cupboards, reaches to the top shelf, slightly moves a ceramic mug, and shuts the door. I don’t know why he’s doing it, but I know it makes him happy. I am certain that’s how John feels about the pencil sharpener, fan, and the vacuum.
It’s interesting to me how some people with autism react to sound. Some sounds like the toilet are terrifying. Others like the vacuum are calming. Some become an obsession.
It reminded me of the day we were all standing in the kindergarten bathroom. That was a long time ago. We had no idea then how life would unfold. I think about how far they have all come in different ways. What was once a terrifying sound may now be a soothing one. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone has made progress these past nine years, even the adults. We’ve all come a long way.
John’s mom sent me a picture of some of the partygoers sitting on the bleachers at the pool. It is a beautiful picture, a perfect moment captured on film. I can’t stop looking at it, perhaps because I wasn’t there. It’s a picture that tells a long story of friendship and camaraderie. Noah looks cold and wet but happy. Henry is sitting to the right holding a chocolate cupcake and has leaned in a bit to get into the picture. Sitting between my boys is a junior high student who participated in theatre this summer with John and my boys. He has kind eyes. He’s holding a cupcake topped with vanilla frosting. John, the fourteen-year-old birthday boy, is sitting in front of Henry wearing blue trunks and a red swim shirt. He’s clutching a chocolate cupcake with both hands and balancing a paper plate on his lap. His dark hair is wet, he’s sitting up straight, and he’s wearing the biggest smile I have ever seen.