“Sir Top - Sir Topham Hatt, he's the head of the railway!
There is no doubt about that, controller of the line!”
- Song from Thomas the Tank Engine
He's Rolie Polie Olie
He's small and spurt and round
And in the land of curves and curls
He's the swellest kid around
- Theme song from Rolie Polie Olie
Those songs are a very small sample of the hundreds of children’s jingles and theme songs from PBS and Nickeleon that played constantly in our home in the early aughts. I still know those ditties by heart, and, for me at least, they remind me of cozy, snuggly times with my little guys.
However, if those tunes should inadvertently be played anywhere near Ian, he shrieks. A Wiggles song can make a nearly six-foot tall young man, who looks like he should be pledging a frat, cower and cover his hands over his ears. He shouts “NO!” to anyone who hums those tunes anywhere near him. I can't even say the names of Pixar’s early films -- Finding Nemo, Wall-E -- without an outburst from him.
When this first started happening a few years back, we chalked up his behavior as one of those unexplainable quirks of autism. Many autistic people have unusual fears. But when we talked about it more, he explained that those songs take him back to his youth. His youth must have been a very, very bad place indeed, because he said these songs trigger graphic memories - flashbacks. It sounds a whole lot like Ian is experiencing PTSD.
Ian’s young years were indeed rough. He couldn’t talk much until he was five, so he screamed a lot. He had all sorts of sensitivities to food textures, scratchy clothing, sunlight, loud noises, and temperature. Without guidance from a doctor or the school, I didn’t understand his issues and probably pushed him too far. He must have been miserable.
And other times, he was exposed to “bad stuff” at school or in therapy. At 2-½, the state gave him a few hours of speech therapy per week. That therapist tried to get Ian to talk by strapping into a high chair and shouting words in his face. Later, he was in classrooms at times with kids with severe behavior issues, who punched him. While most of his teachers were kind, there were one or two bad apples, including one asshole in seventh grade who threatened to break off his fingers.
Researchers are starting to see more connections between autism and PTSD. It may be so common an experience among people with autism that special education teachers should use trauma-informed curriculum and practices in their classrooms. (Here’s an article that I did for The Atlantic about trauma-informed education.)
Things are a lot better for Ian now. His sensitivities are now extremely mild to non-existent. On the rare occasion that we are in loud places, he manages the situation himself with a pair of ear plugs that he keeps in his backpack. His frustrations from lack of speech are long gone, too. He’s working with a therapist to conquer these fears, so hopefully, he’ll be able to react appropriately when faced with a Pixar theme song.
Yesterday, I ran a couple of miles with a buddy in town. Like many of my local friends, we met because her boy is on the spectrum, too. As we struggled through our “couch to 5K” workout, I told her that I was thinking about writing a short book for grandparents about autism, so they can better understand their grandkids with autism.
My buddy said that she could never write such a book, because it would take her back to a miserable time. She said that when her kids were little, she was overwhelmed with managing 40 hours per week of ABA therapy from the state, an unhappy autistic son, a new business, and a slightly older brother. Things are much better now, she said, so there’s no point in reliving all that trauma.
For me, those years were a mixed bag. They must have been good days, because Steve and I smile when we hear those old songs. But there’s no doubt that things sucked, too.
At that time, Steve had just reinvented himself as a Wall Street guy, after the PhD in history turned into an albatross, so was super busy. I was still teaching college classes, while managing Ian’s complicated therapy and meltdowns, parenting an older brother, and coping with a huge lack of daycare and support. I frequently drove to the college and gave five hours of lectures with only one or two hours of sleep.
There’s a picture of us on the porch of our house after Jonah’s First Communion, and I look so tired. Ian was three at the time and at the height of his unhappiness. I found time to cook dinner for 20 that day, too. Three years later, I was still struggling, because I had to strong arm the local church to let Ian get his First Communion. Yes, there were definitely bad times.
My family, and families like mine, have experienced deep trauma, similar to traumas from job loss, death of a loved one, or prolonged illness. It’s a club that no one wants to join, but once here, we take care of each other. Maybe trauma is a bullshit cleanser. It helps a person get their priorities in check and put aside crap that other people think is so important, like college names and varsity jerseys.
I guess the real challenge for Ian and for myself is what we are going to do with our traumas. Can we overcome them? Can we use those experiences to build better selves? Can trauma become our super power that helps us understand people better and helps us focus on priorities? I hope so.
Love the trailer to the Joel Coen’s MacBeth. Something wicked this way comes. Can’t wait for it.
From Elaine Godfrey in The Atlantic — “About six months ago, a colleague asked me to guess what percentage of Americans were still working from home. I was still spending eight hours a day making calls just a few feet from my fridge. So were most of my friends. Maybe 40 percent? I guessed. I was off by half. Twenty-one percent of employed Americans were still teleworking as of March 2021; the other 79 percent were leaving their home like the old days.”
Will Prince Andrew finally get served with legal papers? The suspense is KILLING me. I have to say that I’m really glad that BritTwit has taught me the word, “NONCE,” as in Andrew is a big, fat NONCE.
Lots of real life chatter about the Wall Street Journal article about how Instagram screws up teen girls. And the company (owned by Facebook) has known about this for ages. It’s like how cigarette companies knew about the connection between lung cancer and smoking, but covered it up for ages. Not only is Facebook evil, but they could be vulnerable to lawsuits in the future.
Derek Thompson at the Atlantic talks about why young men are giving up on college. Lots going on here and will have to write about it. But will say that there are a lot of things going on, including the issue that young men have a much harder time graduating at all or on time than girls.
You know you have OCD when you spend the first 30 minutes in a beach rental decluttering the space. (I’m at the beach part time this week.)
Loved this essay by Caitlin Flanagan about how she told her young children about her cancer.
The politics of kitchen design. (Still reading this. So interesting!)
“At some point in the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of dollars will be funneled to the son of the sitting American president—and none of us will know anything about who sent the money, or where it originally came from, or why anyone chose to send it.” Hunter Biden’s upcoming art show is a BAD IDEA.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. I usually love looking at the fancy dresses at fancy events, like the Met Gala and the VMA awards. But last week, I kinda just hated all of them and their face fillers.
Sunday’s Education edition of the New York Times Magazine was pretty much all about how kids are totally screwed over after missing 18 months of school. This should be a front page story, every day.