By Hal Walter
I’m not sure when winter began in earnest but probably back in January. I knew I was in trouble when I bought a 25-pound bag of wild bird seed at the feed store. I grew even more troubled when I realized the wind chill was such that I was feeding only two juncos and one chickadee. The rest of the birds had wisely flown the coop apparently along with my own sanity.
Some snow arrived, along with consistently cold temperatures. Attempts at cross-country skiing ended in frustration of sugar snow and cold hands and feet. This soon dissolved into a daily struggle to just get outside to do battle with the cold wind, typically alternating walking and jogging, while being careful to not fall on the thick ice.
I really needed something to warm my heart if not my numb toes and fingers.
It had been announced my son Harrison’s classmates selected him to be freshman class prince for the annual Winter Festival. The weeklong schedule of activities included several “dress-up” days, introduction at a pep rally on Thursday and the basketball games on Friday, and concluded with a dance on Saturday night.
Throughout the week, as he was delivered to the school as, among other things, a poor-fashion statement, a lumberjack in an old plaid Filson wool jacket, and a superhero wearing a cape, I fretted over the pep rally. Last fall when he was introduced with the cross-country team during the homecoming rally he had short-circuited and had to be removed from the gym by school staff. Now for the Winter Festival he would be a center of attention. And if he made it through this, there was always another chance for him to lose it at the basketball ceremony the next day.
We talked it through. I would not be present at the pep rally. He would wear a sash. They would announce his name, along with the class princess, Andrea, and the two of them would march out onto the gym floor. Sounds simple, right? But one never knows what might trigger the autistic brain, especially when combined with undue extra attention, noise and stress.
For the pep rally the staff at the school provided Harrison with a pair of headphones, and by late morning I’d been emailed photos of him standing along with all the rest of the royalty in the gym. It all went fine.
The next day for the basketball game we arrived early for the JV girls game. Most of the kids on this team are girls he’s grown up with. Some of them he’s known since he was three years old. During this I realized that I’d made a mistake in not bringing along some sort of hearing protection. When the buzzer sounded he reacted by jumping and yelling. This quickly escalated into a tantrum of screaming and gesturing whenever there was cheering, and soon he was lying on the hardwood floor at half-court thrashing about and yelling. The game was nearly over and I was able to talk him into sitting back down and struggling through the final minutes.
He was truly in an elevated state, that place from which it can be difficult to bring him back. With the help of our athletic director he was able to calm somewhat, and we were able to find a pair of earplugs in the resource room. I still had serious doubts about what would happen when they introduced him with the royalty between the girls and boys varsity games.
This all brought into focus the effects of noise and whether they are real or imagined. In cross-country this past year, Harrison ran with music headphones but it was clear to me the positive effects were more about calming his brain with music than drowning out noise.
Is Harrison really sensitive to loud sounds, or does he only think he is because he’s been told he should be? Are the headphones and earplugs merely a security blanket? He’s attended rock concerts without hearing protection. Why is a basketball game any different?
This also brings up the puzzle of whether Harrison is actually “autistic,” but that’s another discussion entirely. For our purposes, he merely is who he is, and in this moment he was the class prince trying to rein in his mind and actions.
Thanks to his teachers, friends and other parents, he regained his composure during the girls varsity game, and between the contests was introduced to the large gym crowd wearing a huge smile to match the sash. I was particularly impressed by the confidence of Andrea as she helped guide him through this ceremony with a sense of grace well beyond her years.
The next evening he danced the night away to really loud music in a gym without wearing any headphones or ear plugs. I breathed a sigh of relief and reflected back upon the week’s events, which really amounted to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You have to figure there are maybe 15 boys in Harrison’s class and maybe eight “royalty” events (homecoming and winter festival) in four years of high school. His classmates know as well as anybody his unpredictability – over the years they’ve seen and experienced just about every outrageous behavior imaginable. That they were willing to risk turning Winter Fest into a slushy meltdown just to afford him this experience and opportunity for growth says more than I am able to write here.
While winter itself continues to drag on outside and the birds have yet to flock to the feeder, I am warmed within by the simple courage of youth. Spring, it seems, cannot be that far away.
Hal Walter is the author of “Endurance and Selected Essays on Autism, Neurodiversity and Deep Sport,” available at the Book Haven in Salida and online at amazon.com.