Tag Archives: facing fears

Autism and Fears

For several of Nigel’s early years, both before and after his autism diagnosis, his dad and I thought that he was afraid of the vacuum cleaner. It wasn’t until we learned about sensory issues – and noticed that Nigel had the same “fear” of leaf blowers, blenders, food processors, and air hand driers in public restrooms – that we began to realize that he didn’t fear these objects. He could not filter the loud, invasive sounds they made. The sounds were so painful to him that he learned to run to a different room if he saw the things that produced them. And when he couldn’t run to a different room, he would scream. He wouldn’t even cover his ears because he didn’t know how. It actually took him a couple of years to learn that he could do that when he heard a loud sound.

As the years went by, covering his ears became second nature to him. And slowly he learned how to filter the sounds that were previously so agonizing for him. But as his sensory issues became more manageable, he developed real fears to take their place. I’ve mentioned before that he is afraid of bees and other flying insects, and a close second, also in the flying category, are bats. Yes, my son, the zombie movie aficionado, is afraid of bats. And this, in addition to Aidan’s mild claustrophobia, has prevented us for years from going as a family to nearby Oregon Caves National Monument, which I enjoyed as a child. But I am nothing if not determined. Every year for the past five years I’ve tried to chip away a little at the bat fear. One year I bought Stellaluna. Last year for homeschooling we studied bats on Wikipedia, something that Nigel likes to refer to. This year I found my old Oregon Caves pamphlet which distinctly says that the bat population “peaks in the fall when bats swarm to breed,” and told him that both times I had been to Oregon Caves, I had not seen a single bat. So this year, in the spring, he was finally ready. And Aidan decided that since Nigel was going to stare down a fear, he was game to do the same.

We arrived early so that we wouldn’t have to wait long for our tour, and started off with our Ranger tour guide and a group of fifteen other people. We spent over an hour inside the cave of amazing calcite formations, and both boys did really well. At one point, Nigel got a little nervous because the Ranger mentioned that there might be a bat in one of the rooms up ahead, and Nigel growled at another visitor to shut off his camera so that the flash would not upset the bat, causing it to fly into his face. But Nigel quickly regained his composure and proceeded into the room, and I was so proud of him that he went ahead in spite of his fear. Much to our relief, there were no visible bats, and Aidan was fine until the very end, when the cave started to get to him. But he stayed calm, and they both completed the tour. Yes, you read that correctly – they both completed the tour! No panic attacks! No screaming, yelling, or bolting! No whining even! I guess it was like teaching Nigel to cover his ears when he was little – it just took a few years of teaching and preparation. When he was ready, he was fine.

As a treat, I took them to get burgers for dinner at a restaurant. Right after our food arrived and we started digging in, the opening lyrics of a Queen song began. Nigel stopped and listened. “Hey – what’s this song?” he asked.

“‘Bohemian Rhapsody,'” Aidan answered.

“No,” Nigel said, still listening. Then he remembered. “It’s ‘We Are the Champions.'”

“Oh, yeah,” Aidan agreed. (I just discovered while writing this post that last week this song was performed on the season finale of American Idol. The boys and I do not watch this show, so they were trying to remember from hearing one of my old CDs years ago.)

Then Nigel looked at me, making full eye contact. “This is the perfect song for us to hear tonight. You know – because we are the champions of the cave.”

I just gazed into his gorgeous medium brown eyes that I seldom see directly and tried to choke down my burger. “Yes,” I said. “You guys are the champions of that cave.”

Then Nigel quietly sang, “We are the champions . . . of the cave.” And my heart swelled with pride.

 “Paradise Lost” – the room where the bat was supposed to be.

Nigel and a new friend!

End of the tour – jacket and hood completely off!

Reflections at a Higher Elevation

Here’s a riddle:

What’s both beautiful and exhausting at the same time?

Answer: autism and climbing mountains

I suppose that giving birth could also be a fitting answer to the riddle, running a marathon and stuff like that. But autism is a part of my daily life, and I just climbed a mountain yesterday, so that is what I’m going to write about.

Early Saturday morning, my sister Macrina and I met up with my friend and excellent guide, Tom Prescott (a big shout-out to Tom, without whom we couldn’t have done this), and drove an hour and a half to the trailhead for Mt. Shasta in northern California. We then strapped on our 50-pound frame packs and proceeded to hike five miles to base camp at 10,400 feet. It was brutal! I can hike forever, but I hadn’t thought to train with a heavy pack on, and I wish I had! We got up at 3 AM on Sunday and put on lots of warm layers, crampons, helmets, and smaller day packs with water, our camera, and Power Bars. Then we started up the remaining two miles to the summit. Parts were very scary, like when we were climbing up a crazy-steep (about 60-degree) slope of snow and ice, literally clinging to the mountain with crampons and ice axes. For someone with a fear of falling (me), it required an intense amount of focus and trust. In what do you trust? Your equipment, your technique (I did some mountaineering research last week, but it was my first time trying it out!), and whatever higher power works for you.

At 11:11 AM we reached the summit! Most sources list the elevation as 14,162 feet, but according to Wikipedia, the most current and accurate height per the National Geodetic Survey is 14,179. Here I am with my slightly shorter (but hardier) sister:

Mt. Shasta Summit

As I marveled at our accomplishment, I thought about how often the difficulties we face in life are likened to climbing a mountain (“Climb every mountain . . .” from the Sound of Music, “I have climbed highest mountains . . .” from “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2). Raising an autistic child has often been like climbing a mountain for me. I don’t know if a summit even exists, but I will keep climbing, I will focus, and I will trust. Life with autism, though sometimes daunting, is not insurmountable.

Upon returning home, I went to Climbingmtshasta.org to read the Summit Log (unfortunately it had to be disabled due to spam, so I was not able to contribute). I was moved by the number of entries from people who said that climbing it changed their lives, and that the spirit of Mt. Shasta will always be with them. I find myself in that category as well. It is a mystical mountain, majestically standing alone, one that I have loved since first seeing it at age seven. Now, exactly thirty years later, I faced my fear and made it to the top.