On a recent Sunday my husband and I were enjoying a quiet brunch at home when we heard the unmistakable sound of water running. We looked at each other and I asked, “Did you turn the washing machine on?” “No,” he replied, and took off up the stairs. Jeremy, our 23 year old, was upstairs and we wondered what was going on, as this water noise was definitely not coming from the faucet of the washbasin in his bathroom.
My husband found Jeremy’s clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor, and Jeremy in the shower. He had turned on the water but it was coming through the faucet and not the showerhead. Turns out, Jeremy had managed to get hold of some air freshner (natural orange), sprayed it near his eye and was trying to wash it off.
My first reaction was to feel elated: this is the first time my son ever attempted to take a shower unsupervised and had gotten the sequence right: first the clothes come off, THEN you step into the shower and turn the water on.
My second and almost immediate reaction was about all the safety concerns that surrounded this incident. Like every parent of an individual who has autism and is severely impacted by sensory processing and motor challenges, I thought : What was the air freshner doing out? He could have really hurt himself! Did he ‘feel’ the water temperature? Did he attempt to put the water mixer at the blue line we have placed there at the right temperature so he won’t burn himself ?
It’s unlikely that any parent of a person with autism was surprised when a study published in late 2009 stated that mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress comparable to that experienced by combat soldiers. Even while focusing on the strengths of our children (no matter their age) we are always alert for the next possible disaster and hoping we can teach them to avoid it or handle it.
Yes, the air freshner should not have been out. But as it were, this was a growth opportunity for my son: he had to use his problem solving skills. Perhaps the necessity of needing to get that burning sensation off his skin precipitated him to follow the right order for taking a shower.
The learning points from our Sunday experience was first that there is always hope – people continue to learn all their lives and people severely impacted by autism are no different. Secondly, as parents we need to allow them opportunities to make mistakes or get in a pickle for them to grow into more independent adults. We can’t always be there to protect them.