Hot Wheels and Storyland.

For two and half years, that’s all we hear from Howie.   All he talks about are Hot Wheels cars and Storyland amusement park in New Hampshire.

I’ve been thinking a lot about his obsession with these two things lately.  Lewis, our two year old, is currently fascinated by monster trucks.  He carries them everywhere, even to sleep.  He races them around the house and smashes them into each other.  He begs Tim to play the Monster Jam game on the Wii, and then picks out the truck for him to use in the game.  It’s even helped him to start talking.  He knows all the trucks’ names and it has slowly evolved from something completely unintelligible to “brwn mo mutt” for the brown Monster Mutt truck and “Max D!” for Maximum Destruction.  When Tim is finished with the game, he’ll ask for “mo-monstr-jam?” (all one word).   Sometimes, those words are just music to my ears.

My kids have always had their “thing” that was their obsession.  With Lewis it’s the monster trucks, and with Gerry we’ve been through everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to Playmobils to Legos.  He’s currently stuck in all things Star Wars.  And in a sense we help feed into those obsessions.  We joke that every year there’s a theme for birthday presents for the boys – last year it was Curious George for Lewis and this year Monster Jam.  Same with Gerry.  Each year there’s an obsession, but each year it’s something different.

Not for Howie.  It has been Hot Wheels and Storyland.  Always.  Never changing.

It’s led me to have a love/hate relationship with those two things.  I’m pretty sure it’s because it’s how we first saw those red flags of autism.

Let me start with Storyland.  We’ve been going there for years, ever since Gerry was three and before Howie was born.  Yes, Gerry loved it there – the place is amazing and designed for kids ages 1-10.  But he didn’t talk about it all the time.  The year we went with Howie when he was two, it was all he could talk about.  He studied the map like it was the Bible.  He knew where every ride was and which ones he wanted to go on, and which ones he was going to avoid.  From June 2008 to now, he asks us constantly to go back.

I’ll admit I use it to my advantage.  I told him to read it on the toilet when we were toilet training because I knew he would sit longer.  When I needed him to calm down, I’d spread it out on the floor, point out the “Flying Shoes” ride on the map, and I knew I’d have a good 10 minutes to clean up, check my e-mail, or make some coffee.  I tried to use it as a way to show the changing seasons, as in “we can’t go to Storyland now because there’s snow on the ground, but when the snow is gone, we can go”. I didn’t bet on the lack of snow last year in New England, so the lesson then was lost.

The obsession with Storyland wouldn’t be enough of a red flag on its own if it wasn’t also accompanied by the Hot Wheels car craze.  With three boys, our house is covered in vehicles.  We have hundreds of Hot Wheels cars.  We first started collecting them when Gerry was little, used as a incentive for toilet training.  Somewhere around 18 months, Howie became attached to the cars and never let go.  It’s all he ever wanted to play with.  And because he would sit for long periods of time with them, lining them up and watching their wheels move back and forth, I let him.  Just like with the Storyland map, it was the only way I could get anything done.  I’d encourage it.

It wasn’t until our meeting with the developmental pediatrician last year that I realized this was a “sign”.  A flag.  Howie rolled a car back and forth on her desk for 10 minutes while she talked to me.  I didn’t even notice that he was doing it.  I did notice her eyes watching him the whole time.  When she told me later that this was his “stimming”, I was floored.

All of this is making me watch Lewis like a hawk with these monster trucks.  I panic slightly when he lines them up on the rug, then breathe when he pulls them out of line immediately to race around the rug.  I feel my stomach go into knots when I catch him lying on the floor watching the wheels move, then relax when he leaves the truck there to go play with something else.  I watch for the long extended meltdowns when he can’t find a truck, and wonder if he’ll get mired in all things Monster Jam.  So far, it’s not the same.  Lewis can easily move from playing with the monster trucks to serving me tea from his pretend kitchen to demanding to hear more music from the Glee soundtracks.  That last one I’ll indulge at any time.

But not Howie.  It’s still all about the Hot Wheels and Storyland.  Just yesterday he asked me if I could open up Storyland so we could go.   And for Hanukkah, we got him a special Hot Wheels backpack that opens up into a racetrack mat.  He packed it full of his favorite 50 or so cars to “save to race in the basement”.  We don’t have a finished basement.  It’s just something he says.

I don’t know if it’s right to continue to feed his obsession or not.  All I know is that he loves those cars.  And Storyland.  In a world that can be so difficult for him, is it wrong for us to deny him the things that make him feel…happy?

Time to go.  Two more nights of Hanukkah and I have a few more monster trucks, Hot Wheels cars and Star Wars figures to wrap.

You are an obsession
I cannot sleep
I am your possession
Unopened at your feet
There’s no balance
No equality
Be still I will not accept defeat” – Obsession by Animotion