notes from an Open Sensory Gym afternoon…

The boy sat in the giant red swing.  It was in the center of the room, swaying back and forth on the rope attached to the high ceiling. His mother (grandmother? caregiver?) pushed him back and forth.

This is a leap year,” he said. “There are 366 days in this year. Every four years is a leap year. Do you know what this year is? It’s a leap year. How many Wednesdays are in this month? Did you know that this is a leap year? There are 29 days in February this year. It’s a leap year.”

The boy jumped out of the swing and went up to each adult in the room.

This is a leap year,” he said. “There are 366 days in this year. Every four years is a leap year. Do you know what this year is? It’s a leap year. How many Wednesdays are in this month? Did you know that this is a leap year? There are 29 days in February this year. It’s a leap year.”

An hour passed.  He went from swing to trampoline to scooter board to crash pad.

This is a leap year,” he said. “There are 366 days in this year. Every four years is a leap year. Do you know what this year is? It’s a leap year. How many Wednesdays are in this month? Did you know that this is a leap year? There are 29 days in February this year. It’s a leap year.”

My friend and I answered him each time.  Of course we did.

His mother (grandmother? caregiver?) started to yell at him.  “STOP Adam STOP!” she yelled from across the room. She looked embarrassed.  Or weary.  Or both.

It made me sad.  If there was any place that this would be fine – and understood – it would be in this gym.  He wasn’t bothering anyone.  Why tell him to stop?

Was it out of habit?  Or was she truly worried about what we thought?

I wanted to tell her it was okay.  That he could just “be” here.  But I didn’t. I don’t know why.

**********

After checking out most of the equipment in the gym, Howie gravitated towards a large purple therapy swing that was full of balls.  He climbed right in, zipped himself up and asked me to swing him around.  “Faster! Faster!” he yelled to me.  In a place like this, I could give in to his need to spin, spin, spin.

A little boy came over and helped me push Howie around.  Howie squealed with delight.  The boy introduced himself as Zachary and they ran off to play together.  Really play.  They climbed up on the crash pad and pretended they were jumping out of airplanes.  They sat together in the giant tires and pretended they were in spaceships.  As they ran from thing to thing I struck up a conversation with his dad.

“How old is he?” I asked.

“Five and a half.” he replied

Oh, Howie is too.  Well, he’ll be six in March.”

The dad paused for a moment, looking intently at Howie.  “He’s not autistic, is he?”

I was totally taken aback.  Isn’t that why we’re all here?  “Yes, yes he is.” I say.

“Oh, wow.  But…he talks so well! I assumed he was here with a sibling, like Zachary is here with his younger brothers.  His twin brothers are four.  They aren’t talking…yet.” His voice trailed off.

I told him Howie had a diagnosis of PDD-NOS.  He looked at me like I had three heads.  “It’s part of the autism spectrum.” I replied.

It struck me that even within our own community not everyone understands that it’s a spectrum.

We talked some more about how tough it is for Zachary to be at home with his brothers.  They come to the sensory gym so that all three boys have a place that’s safe for them to play together.

“It’s so hard for him,” the dad said. “I guess he’ll grow up faster and learn more about life than other kids.”

We watched as the boys ran off together again laughing.

I had assumed that Zachary was on the spectrum.  His dad had assumed the opposite about Howie. 

I wanted to connect with this family of three boys.  I wanted help spread awareness of a different kind.  But I didn’t. I don’t know why.

**********

Someday, I will buy a “squeeze machine”.  So I can see this happy face all. the. time.

**********

I am very grateful to our local Autism Alliance center that opens its hearts and pockets to provide these sensory gyms during the winter months.   This is how we’ve spent our last two Sundays.  The equipment is familiar to my son from school.  But most importantly, he is free to choose what he wants to do and what he needs to do in that moment.  And both weekends, he has made new friends.

Can I say that again?  My five-year-old kid with deficits in social skills and pragmatic language made new friends.  You don’t have to have your degree in special education to understand why.

He’s comfortable.  He’s happy.  He’s safe.  He’s around people who are letting him be.

He’s free to be himself.

If only we adults could learn from that.

“Every boy in this land grows to be his own man
In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman
Take my hand, come with me where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll run

To a land where the river runs free
To a land through the green country
To a land to a shining sea
To a land where the horses run free
To a land where the children are free
And you and me are free to be
And you and me are free to be
And you and me are free to be you and me” – Free To Be You And Me soundtrack

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