Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Car Wash

“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one's self...
And to venture in the highest is precisely to be conscious of one's self.” 
-Soren Kierkegaard

Today's story is about kicking Haydn out of his comfort zone.


When Haydn is presented with a situation that he is not comfortable with, his anxiety activates immediately. His brain is wired differently than most folks and his initial reaction to the unknown (or the unseen) is usually negative. Add to that, the influence of his Aspergian perspective (that damn autism spectrum is pain sometimes), it can be a lethal and crippling combination. It took years of work and is a constant, almost daily battle for him, but now when the negative creeps into his mind, Haydn has a fighting chance to overcome the anxiety and get on with his life.
Usually we give him a little kick in the ass to get him out the door and his mood and attitude often shifts to the positive (and more often now... Haydn initiates the kick). That simple change of scenery (stepping out the front door), removing him from the environment where the news (words that stressed him, not experiences) was shared is all he needs to get himself on track.

Sometimes it takes a little more work...


Haydn brought home a flyer a few weeks ago for the 5th grade car wash. He immediately told Mommy and me he did not want to go, which meant...

All together now:


Haydn's anxiety hit him like a slap to the face. There was no warning and there was no time to think or reason. Haydn reacted. And this type of situation the reaction is almost always negative.

"I don't want to go."
"I'm not really into that kind of thing."
"Not going to happen."

When the anxiety takes over, Haydn does not take into account even the slightest possibility that there could be a positive outcome. His brain tells him that trouble is on the horizon and does not consider any other possible outcome.
A change to the status quo, or the the possibility of the unknown/unpredictable scrambles his thought process and drives him to avoidance and negativity that, if left unchecked will cripple him and prevent him from having new experiences.
This particular situation was exacerbated by his Aspergian instinctive reaction to unique, unstructured social situations... They are nothing but trouble.
We have several tricks that we use to get Haydn to stop thinking and worrying, but the simplest way (for us and Haydn) to handle the initial negativity is to close up the topic as quickly as we can and move on. It prevents his brain from stoking the embers of his anxiety and building it into a full blown anxiety dragon. If we close the topic, at the very least he will stop talking about it. I can not stop him from thinking about things, but if he does not talk about it, the source will kept in the back ground for now (hopefully reducing the perceived importance of the topic), and we can work on a strategy.

And that is how we handled the car wash flyer.

The car wash was getting closer and Haydn still did not want to go.
"I don't think I should go the car wash on Saturday. I'm not into it."
"Well, I think that it will be something that is a lot of fun and you should go."
"Definitely not a good idea."
"Not something we need to discuss now. Let's move onto something else."
"OK. But I'm not going."

End of discussion.

We closed the topic, ending all conversation until a later date. Mommy hung the flyer on the wall in the kitchen. It stayed on the wall where Haydn could see it every day, but was not discussed in any way. If Haydn brought it up, we ignored him and redirected the conversation in another direction. If we engaged in any extra discussion, we would be validating his anxiety with our attention.

So the topic stayed closed.


The week of the car wash arrived and Haydn's anxiety picked up momentum.
Every day (multiple times a day) he brought up the car wash and every day we redirected him and ignored his attempts to engage us in any anxiety-fueled conversation.
He knew that he was going to have to go the car wash and was not happy about it.
And he was getting pretty twitchy about it.
Everything was lining up for a potential social disaster.
He could not stop worrying and the anxiety was consuming him.
I needed to get involved and give him a nudge in the right direction so he could get his head clear and begin the process of self-motivation.

But he was going to have to ask for help...

Mommy and I do not tell him how he should feel and we do not tell him how to react.
We make suggestions when he asks for help, but ultimately Haydn will determine his fate.
He might ask for help and we will try to work as a team to get through this next challenge.
He might keep his feeling bottled up inside and let the anxiety build.
He might try to figure things out on his own.
He might let his anxiety rule the day and make the week leading up to, and the car wash itself, a living hell.
He might go to the car wash and have fun.
He might go to the car wash and just endure...
The course of action and ultimate result will be determined by Haydn.

Haydn's initial course of action was to tune us out and let the anxiety stew in his brain, slowly driving him crazy. Things were not looking good.
And then two days before the car wash, right before bed, I asked him how he was feeling.
And he let it all out.
We talked for an hour about preconceived notions and the dangers of a powerful mind left untethered. We talked about anxiety and the power it had, and how he was not the only person in the family (or anywhere else) who had to deal with it.
I don't know if it worked or not, but he passed out and slept in a little later than normal the next morning.


Saturday arrived. The day of the car wash.

Haydn woke up in a good mood, and while we walked to the car wash I watched his body language, looking for signs of stress.
And they were all there.
Twitchy hands.
Rapid fire speech.
Wild, stressed out eyes.
Questions and more questions.
Haydn was not in a good head space, but we were going to the car wash, and we were going to make it awesome.
We walked around to the back parking lot of The Borough Hall and when Haydn saw all the cars, and all the kids and all the parents...
He froze.
For about thirty seconds.
Then he ran to the drying station, grabbed a towel and started drying a car.

Pretty great, right?


Haydn ran to the drying station because the people drying the cars were adults and little kids. The family members of the fifth grade students were drying and the kids were washing. So Haydn took the path of least resistance and went to hang with the adults. Adults are easy. They can carry conversations, fill in the blanks when he gets lost or confused...
It was the easiest way to hang at the car wash.
However, here in Haydn's World, the easy way is almost never the right way to go. Haydn has to learn to hang out with his friends without all that stress. I do not care if he wants to have a BFF, or a crew of kids that he hangs with everyday, he will decide what makes him happy. But Haydn has to get into that situation and make those decisions for himself based on experience, not preconceived, anxiety-fueled notions.
And that is never going to happen if he spends his time drying cars with a bunch of grownups and little kids.
So, I decided to shake things up and ruin his day (temporarily).


I let Haydn settle in for a few minutes and then I called him over to me.
We walked around the corner of the building and I made my pitch.
"Haydn. I want you to go to the washing station and help your friends wash the car."
"I think I should stay here and dry. This is a good spot for me."
"Perhaps, but I think you need to get over with your friends."
"Those are my school friends, I don't want to go over with them today."

Of course... School friends are for school. School was out for the weekend.

"Well school friends or not, I think you need to get over and shake things up around here."
"I don't understand."
"Look at your friends. Is anyone having fun over there."
"It looks boring."
"You're right. It is boring. They need a some of that Haydn influence to make things more fun over there. This thing is too mellow for a car wash. I'm going to grab the hose and rinse the cars. You go over and show those kids how to have fun."
He threw me a rather pissed off look at me and turned away. He paused for a moment and stared at the other kids, squared up his shoulders and walked away.
I could tell by the his body language that Haydn was not happy with me, and that is exactly what I wanted to accomplish.
When Haydn gets mad at me, he thinks about me and not the source of his stress. He gets so annoyed that the only thing on his mind is his a**hole dad, and it removes the anxious thoughts from the equation for a little while and gives him a chance to think clearly about his next move.
It's always been an effective way to get things moving toward the positive.
Haydn was pissed, but he walked right over into the crowd.
And he was greeted by high fives and hellos and smiles from everyone.
Did I mention that the kids in my town are amazing?
Haydn said something to the crowd, got a big laugh, and Anxiety-Haydn left the building...
And Crazy-Haydn took over.

I grabbed the hose and rinsed the cars. I wasn't kidding when I told Haydn the car wash needed a little shaking up. There was way too much structure. Those things are supposed to be fun. So a few times while rinsing the cars, I overshot the car and 'accidentally' sprayed water at the kids. While I was behaving like a knucklehead, I looked over at Haydn and I saw him using sponge mitts to high-five his friends. He started soap fights and splash fights. He ran around laughing, and it caught on. The energy and the whole mood of the car wash changed.

One thing I can say about my son is he loves to stir up some silly sh*t...

Haydn and his friends laughed and threw soap, suds, and buckets of water all over the cars and each other. I let Haydn use the hose to rinse a car, and (of course) he turned it on me and a major water fight broke out. A few other kids took turns with the hose and before long most of them were wet, soapy, and laughing.
And right in the middle of the chaos and the laughter...
Right in the middle of the crowd, stirring up trouble and adding to the zaniness...
Was Haydn.
And Haydn was happy.


The car wash was an important day.
It was important because because Haydn overcame his anxiety and had a fun time with his friends.
It was important because Haydn entered new world of socializing that never interested him:

Hanging with friends after school.

Trust me, this is a BIG DEAL.

Not long after the car wash, Haydn went to a party before his fifth grade social.
He started getting text messages from friends.
He had a birthday party with only school friends - no family this year.
During the summer, he invited friends (from school) to the swim club to hang out for the day.
He went to a big birthday party with his friends (and walked there and back on his own).

After the car wash everything changed.

Life is not always easy for Haydn.
But Haydn's life is the only life he has ever known.
And Haydn has more good days than bad.
Haydn has an interesting and exciting life.
Haydn is accepted.
Haydn is loved.
And more important than anything...
Haydn is happy.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Night At The Beacon (Haydn's First Concert)

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. 
But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, 
and think how different its course would have been. 
Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, 
of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, 
but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” 
- Charles Dickens

Haydn sat next to me, hands gripping the armrests, toes tapping on the floor, his eyes locked on the stage in front of him. The theater was almost full and the air was buzzing with anticipation. The houselights dimmed for a second, then shut off, leaving us and the rest of the crowd in darkness. Streaks of white light flared out from the back of the stage and Haydn's newest adventure began.

For those of you new to the program, this story (as are the rest down the rabbit hole we call Haydn's World) is about my son Haydn. Haydn is 11 years-old, wicked smart, has perfect pitch, is way too good-looking to be my kid and lives with an autism spectrum diagnosis know as Asperger Syndrome. A life influenced by Asperger Syndrome is often challenging, and Haydn's life is no exception. Asperger Syndrome affects every single aspect of Haydn's living experience, every day, everywhere he goes. His ears, his mind, his emotions, even the way he moves his body are all affected by Asperger Syndrome. The way the world touches him can lead to anxiety and fear which leads to (among other things) idiosyncratic behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms that, if left unchecked, can disrupt his life. 

Twitchy, snapping fingers. 
Wild, unfocused eyes. 
Repetitive body movements. 
Repetitive conversation patterns (often questions).
Even more 'typical' behaviors like frequent trips to the bathroom. 
All are indicators of high stress and if left unchecked can evolve into ritualistic, crippling behaviors that are difficult to eliminate and have the potential to rule and ruin Haydn's life.
For years, external forces and the internal forces that reacted to them caused nothing but trouble for Haydn, and for years Haydn developed ways to cope with, and eventually eliminate many of the anxiety sources in his life. But Asperger Syndrome is the gift that keeps on giving, and it always seems that when Haydn gets the major problems under control, new problems pop up in their absence (sometimes new, sometimes an old one that boomerangs back on him). 

There are no days off from Asperger Syndrome. It doesn't go away. You don't grow out of it. Asperger Syndrome is forever.
And Asperger Syndrome is a part of who Haydn is... And while it can be challenging, it has helped Haydn develop a strong character and fighting spirit that never lets up. 


For our purposes the Asperger-influenced challenges we must consider today are extreme anxiety (fueled by anticipation, the unknown and social situations) and sensory processing disorder (super-sensitive ears, which leads to physical, emotional and psychological discomfort). 

These details must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
Sorry Mr. Dickens...

Haydn's 11th birthday was last month and since he is almost a man now, I decided to take him on an adventure way outside of his comfort zone. Haydn loves music, and his two favorite bands are The Beatles and Alice in Chains. 

It just so happened that one week after his birthday one of those bands was playing a show nearby.

So, I bought two tickets to an Alice in Chains concert.

At The Beacon Theater.

In New York City.

Did I mention we were going waaaaay out of his comfort zone?

I bought the tickets months in advance and surprised him two weeks before the show. His response:

"I'm not sure I want to do that."
Not unexpected...
Haydn's knee-jerk reaction may often be a negative one if the potential situation appears (to him) to be challenging and this was no exception. He never participated in anything even remotely close to the challenge of going to a concert. 

There is always a secondary reason for many of the things we do. Haydn may not be aware, but I try to find a challenge or teaching point in every adventure. 

A potential triumph lurks around every corner.

His initial statement was not great, but it was not a NO. 

It was not I CAN'T do it, it was I DON'T WANT TO...
And we can work with that.

"All things are ready, if our mind be so" - William 

Mommy and I spent the majority of the last eight years helping Haydn learn to handle the challenges life throws his way. His neurological toolbox is well stocked with techniques and coping mechanisms, tools that he can use to face down anyone and anything that troubles him. 

His response to the challenge of the concert, the tool he chose to use: 
It can be helpful to prepare for a potential challenge, and there is no such thing as too much knowledge, but there also has to be a limit to the amount of prep Haydn is allowed to do. I don't always let him do research (remember those ritualistic behaviors I mentioned earlier?), life is full of surprises and Haydn has to learn to deal with the unexpected, but if the situation warrants it, I will allow a little prep. The Alice in Chains concert was a situation potentially rife with challenges (and a whole new experience unlike any other for him), so I had no problem with his getting himself ready. 
He checked out the Beacon Theater website and watched a documentary about the renovation of the theater. He also had the good fortune of having gone to another venue, the Count Basie Theater, on a field trip last year and had a collection of positive memories and experiences from the trip to build off. It took him about an hour, and he managed to get himself at least open to the possibility that this could be awesome.
My only contribution to the preparation was to find a way to protect his ears from the amplifiers. I ordered a variety of ear protection online and Haydn and I tested them out (my bass amp cranked in the bathroom) until he settled on an earmuff style set that he felt comfortable with.
Then we closed the topic (no conversations) until the night before the show.

I waited until the night before the show to open the topic and Haydn and I had a brief conversation about the upcoming adventure. I asked him if there was anything he thought he might need to make our adventure as awesome as possible, and after a few moments thought he asked;
"Can we drink a lot of Dr. Pepper?"
"Haydn, we can drink all the Dr. Pepper you want."
"OK. I'm good"

The next night, Haydn and I drove east toward the city. Haydn sat in the seat next to me. We had a couple of Dr. Peppers in the cup holders and Haydn had a gummy lifesaver on every finger. We cruised down route 4 and listened to his favorite Alice in Chains songs. He looked calm and composed.

"What do you think kiddo? You ready to do this? The brain nice and quiet?"

A noisy brain is a stressed brain, a quiet brain can handle anything
He looked out the window, tapped his fingers to the soothing chords of 'Don't Follow' and said:
"I did the Count Basie Theater... I can do the Beacon Theatre."

And that was that.

Anxiety gone... 

And that was also the last mellow moment of the night.
Things got louder and rowdier the closer we got to the theater and by the time we parked the car, Haydn was amped up and ready to rock.
We walked across Broadway toward the theater and Haydn stopped for a second to take a picture:

We walked into the crowded, noisy lobby, Haydn stopped, put on his ear protection, and strode right into the crowd. I watched him strut (and believe me he did strut) into the middle of the lobby and pointed out the beautiful light fixtures and the awesome concert shirts hanging behind the counter. I watched and listened and laughed at his observations and marveled at the fact that I could not detect any of his anxiety indicators. He did not rub his nose, twitch his fingers or flap his hands. 
Not once.
He stood in the middle of the chaos with a huge smile on his face and pointed out all of the details that I should remember (lights, paintings, everything), grabbed my hand and led me to the concession stand. We bought a few water bottles and headed to our seats.
And they were great seats. 
We sat in the orchestra pit about ten rows from the stage (thanks Matt) and watched the weirdest opening act I have ever seen.

Puddle's Pity Party.

Google it. The less I write about it, the easier it will be to flush it out of my memory.

Opening Act over, a quick bathroom break, and then back to the theater. 

Which brings us back to the beginning of this story.
Houselights off, stage lights on, and the opening chords to 'Hollow' filled the theater...
Haydn jumped out of his seat and threw his fists in the air. 
Locked in from the first chord, Haydn was one with music.
The show just began and I could not have been happier. The night could not get any better.
And then it did.
Halfway through the first song, Matt (the fine fellow who go the tickets for us) came over to our seats and said:

"Hey guys. I have two empty seats that will be even better for Haydn. Follow me." 

From there to here, from here to there...

In Haydn's World there be nice people everywhere.

We followed Matt up the aisle and the second song kicked in...

"Holy sh*t Daddy! Them Bones! We gotta get to our seats!"

You gotta let that kind of language go when you're at a rock concert...

Haydn took his ticket, ran to our new, more awesome seats and set up in the aisle. He jumped and sang and banged his head like a maniac right from the get-go. 
Haydn was locked in on every note, every movement of the band. And to be honest, for the first song or two, I was so locked in (the boys sounded great that night) I did not notice what was happening two feet to my right. After a couple of songs I pulled myself back into my own head and there in the aisle next to me was Haydn, jumping and bouncing with the music. 

The theater was filled with people, singing and rocking out... and there, right in the middle of it all was one little guy, standing in the aisle, winning the battle with himself and the room.
One little guy having one of the best nights of his life.

Small in stature, mighty in spirit... that's my pal Haydn.

I was excited and surprised at his reaction to the madness around him. I knew he would figure out a way to make things work out for him (he always does), but I did not expect it come so easily. But as surprised as I was at the way he immersed himself in the music and the entire concert experience, the most startling thing was the look on his face.

The music was loud, the room was total chaos, and Haydn had a serene, peaceful expression that I can't recall ever seeing before. He was so connected with the music that none of his usual anxiety triggers (which would be EVERYTHING around him) could touch him.  

Anxiety, Fear, Autism, Asperger Syndrome...

All that tests and tries him. 
All the forces internal and external that challenge and frustrate him were nowhere to be found.
None of that could touch him.
His was an expression of pure joy that I have never seen before.
A calmness in the midst of a storm of energy and excitement.
For one of the few times in his life, Haydn had no anxiety, no fear, and no stress. Asperger Syndrome and the autism spectrum would not and could not have a negative influence on his state of being. 
There was nothing hiding behind that smile.
He was locked into the moment. The music, the band, and nothing else. 
Nothing in the future or the past mattered. 

This may not seem like that big of a deal, but for Haydn it can be an almost impossible state of mind to attain.

“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with." - Mark Twain

Haydn, his mind and heart girded with the power of music, spread his unique and joyous way of living with everyone around him.
I looked to my right and saw three gentlemen in their seats across the aisle behind us drinking, singing along with the band, and smiling at Haydn.
The first gentleman in the aisle seat yelled over to me, "How old is your kid?"
"He's eleven!" 
"No f**king way!" shouted gentleman number two.
"It's true."
"That kid f**king rocks!" declared gentleman number three.
"Thanks. I'll be sure to tell him."

I had to smile. The one person in the room who probably should have been feeling the most uncomfortable was spreading nothing but joy and happiness all around him.

If they only knew...

A woman across the aisle danced like a maniac to every song and Haydn kept looking over at her. She caught him checking her out and flashed him a thumbs up and a big smile. 

Haydn's reaction:  He threw his right fist in the air, jumped up high, and threw it back down. He looked over at her and raised his fist in the air and she did the same. And, of course, for the rest of the night, every time he looked over, she threw him the fist salute and smiled. 
During another song Haydn jumped and thrashed and drove his elbow into the stomach of what had to be the biggest guy in the whole damn theater, almost knocking his beer out of his hand.
I looked over, ready to apologize (and possible catch a forearm to the face) when he said, 
"Is that kid trying to start a pit over here?"
"It's definitely possible."
He looked at Haydn, still locked in the zone, oblivious to all around him and banging his head like a madman, smiled and said, "Well, I don't want to f**k with that kid. I'm outta here."
He gave me a thumbs up and continued on to his seat.
Haydn, oblivious to my exchange with the heavy metal hulk, asked for my phone for a moment, held it over his head and snapped a picture:
"I just need to get one picture Daddy."

He handed the phone back to me and moved back to his rock spot. While Haydn rocked the aisle, some other fans walked by and quite a few of them stopped. They listened and watched the band with him and some talked for a few seconds. Others stayed and tried to show him a thing or two about killing it at a rock show. Every single person looked over at me before they interacted with Haydn, and every one of them smiled the whole time. One guy stayed a little longer and tried to teach Haydn how to give the heavy metal 'horns up' hand signal. Unfortunately Haydn's hands don't ways cooperate with his mind, and try as he might, he could not get his hand in the proper position. The best he could do was a somewhat corrupted peace sign, or just the middle finger raised high for all to see (perhaps we can amend his I.E.P. next year and set some new o.t. goals). 

And remember those three gentlemen seated a few rows behind us?

They found their way up the aisle and stood right behind Haydn. They mirrored his moves and he copied theirs. Between songs they talked about favorite songs and the band in general. After a few numbers, they went back to their seats, but before they left, gentleman number two looked at me and said, "This kid really knows his sh*t. He's f**king amazing. Don't let him forget that."

Fists were bumped, high fives flew all over and Haydn kept the rock going all night long.

Nothing could stop Haydn from having a great night. 
Every single thing about the concert was awesome to him. He loved the stage lights and effects. He was swept up in the energy of the crowd and the music lifted him to extraordinary heights of pure joy and happiness.
And when the band spontaneously broke into the opening riff from the Van Halen song D.O.A., he looked at me and said, "Hey Dad, that's song number 8 from Van Halen 2! D.O.A. That is totally sick!"

After a long set, the band left the stage and Haydn turned to me with a look of serious concern on his face.

"Dad. They better not be done. They didn't play 'Rooster' yet."
"Haydn, do you think there is any chance Alice in Chains will give a show and not play 'Rooster'?"
"They better not. And they should play 'Would' and "All Secrets Known' and 'No Excuses' and 'Voices'."
"Let's wait and see kiddo."

Well, the band did come back out. And they played four out of his six choices (left out 'All Secrets Known' and 'Voices') and Haydn turned the crazy up a notch. Foot stomping to every downbeat, singing every song, Haydn kicked out the jams all the way to the end. 

The last song, 'Would,' brought the house down. Every fist in the air, everyone (Haydn denies it, but I saw him singing every word) singing until the finally note rang out in the darkened theater. 
The crowd erupted in a raucous round of applause, the houselights came up, and just like that...

It was over.

Haydn and I joined the exiting crowd and walked through the lobby out into the cool summer night. 
We stood outside the theater and I put my arm on Haydn's shoulder. 
Haydn smiled and looked up at me. 
He looked exhausted, but happy. 

"It's late. I need to get home and get to bed."

"Did you enjoy yourself tonight kiddo?"
"Yes. That was an awesome concert Daddy. We should go to another one soon."

I'm Youth, I'm Joy. I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg."
 - Peter Pan