There are few sights more joyous, few things more all-encompassingly buoyant, than watching my son Richie at the beach. This child, who works so hard everyday to “act normal” so he can fit in with his classmates, lets himself relax – and we let him relax – and the result is a display of wonder and elation like no other.
One of the things Autistic people like Richie battle daily is sensory overstimulation. When we eat out, I hear the shrieks of the baby at the next table as annoying; to Richie they are frighteningly shrill. Fluorescent lights are, to the neurotypical (non-Autistic) person, well…lights. But for Richie and others like him, the same lights flicker, distract, and annoy incessantly. The list goes on and on, and I won’t pretend to know them all.
For many Autistic people, one way to cope with these overwhelming feelings and sensations is to engage in self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming. For my Richie, this includes flapping his hands, spinning his body, contracting his muscles, and doing what our family calls “chattering:” releasing a verbal burst of words & sounds. In our everyday life, we discourage these behaviors. If Richie wants to chatter or flap or spin, has to wait until he is at home in his room. We have this rule because we believe it is in Richie’s best interest, both now and as an adult. He has a lot to offer the world, but some people won’t be able to see past the flapping. These behaviors also make him vulnerable to being mocked or bullied by classmates. So the rule exists. Some behaviors (like nose picking and others I’d rather not name) just belong in private.
And my hat is off to him; Richie works hard every day to keep these behaviors under control. So if he comes home after a day of “holding it together” at school and needs to go in his room to flap and spin to decompress, more power to him.
There is something about the beach that brings out his stimming behaviors in spades. And the difference is striking: whereas at home, the stimming seems to be a coping mechanism, at the beach, it seems to be a joy-filled celebration of all the stimulation that in other circumstances would be difficult to process: the pull of the waves, the push of the wind, the suck of the sand, the chill of the water. He takes it all in, and his face is luminous. His eyes twinkle. His smile grows to bursting. If Autism makes life harder for Richie 99% of the time, then this is the 1% to treasure.
So the rule is suspended. Here under the big blue sky, we smile at each other and enjoy Richie enjoying himself. He flaps, he chatters, he jumps, he paces. On and on for hours. And it is beautiful.