This story is by Renette Steele and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“The meltdown started this morning with the snowsuit. I promised Janessa if she’d talk to you, Dr. Parker, we’d go to the park, build a snowman, make snow angels, and maybe sled. She can dress herself, although she does seem to fight with her clothes. This morning was no exception. I’ve tried to tell her legs first. She got the arms in and one leg. While trying to put the other foot in, the fight ensued. The snowsuit won. Janessa did a face-plant on the floor, splitting her lip. That was bad enough, but the blood freaked her out.” Molly said.
“I understand Mrs. Bryant, Molly, if I may. Tell me Janessa’s history. When was she diagnosed?” Dr. Parker asked as he glanced at the file.
“Janessa was a bright, happy girl, developing on schedule, even early on somethings. I found her walking, at nine months, across the room to get to a dog. Her first word was water.
I didn’t want Janessa to be afraid of water as I am, so when she was two, we did mommy tot swim lessons. Janessa spent the whole two weeks asking to go off the diving board. The last day her instructor told Janessa she would swim to the deep end and catch her. By the time the teacher swam over and got ready to tell Janessa, she could climb the ladder. Janessa was at the top of the high dive. We tried to convince her to come down, go from the low one. She wouldn’t hear of it. She jumped. Thankfully the coach was able to get to her.” Molly recalled.
“A couple of weeks later we were visiting friends, for a picnic and backyard swim party. I should have made her sit on my lap or take a nap. Then maybe…” Molly sniffled.
“My husband, Tom, was in the pool catching the kids, helping them get to the side of the pool as they jumped off a small diving board. They all took a break, or so we thought. I guess Janessa wanted one more turn. She jumped. We all heard the splash. She must have bumped her head, swallowed to much water. By the time Tom reached her, her lips were turning blue. Tom rolled her on her tummy and started pumping her arms. She threw up and seemed okay, but kept wanting to go to sleep. Once the paramedics arrived, they insisted she go to Children’s Hospital, for a twenty-four-hour monitoring, in case of a second drowning. Tom was the one who thought to ask if there would be any brain damage. They told us time would tell.
Janessa is smart, talking a blue streak to the family. However, we started noticing little things changing. I thought her refusing to speak to strangers, whispering to me instead, was the crazy threes and fours. Her being shy. If only I’d known.” Molly said.
“Getting her shots, before Kindergarten, was a bit traumatic. After the shots, we went to the store for milk. That is the first full-blown meltdown we had seen. Oh, there were little ones here and there. But this was like none I’d ever dreamed possible from our sweet girl. I’d missed the cues.” Molly sighed before continuing.
“School seemed to make things worse. Janessa did her work. But she didn’t talk all day at school. When Janessa came home, the rattling of a potato chip bag or even the lights would cause her to explode in a fit. Nothing seemed to calm her down.
During her second grade year, the school insisted on testing her. We home-school now, using a strict routine. It helps her stress level but adds to mine.” Molly explained.
“I see. Anything else I should know?” asked Dr. Parker.
“I want my beautiful, normal girl back, I think that about covers it,” Molly said.
“Let’s have my assistant, Melody, take Janessa to the other room and get her ready. Don’t worry she will do fine with Melody. Now, if you will follow me, we will get you hooked up as well.” Dr. Parker walks out the door and down the hall, Molly following.
“This Virtual Reality headset will help you understand Janessa’s world better. Simulating what Janessa sees and feels as we maneuver through a few things.” Dr. Parker adjusts the equipment to fit Molly.
“Comfortable? Good. Tell me what you observe and experience. We will start with a short walk.” Dr. Parker keys a mic, “Go ahead, Melody.”
Molly looks through the lenses. “The street seems pretty ordinary. Like any, we’d walk to downtown.” Wondering what this was going to prove, she looks on.
Molly takes a minute to calm her heart down. “Oh, wow, what was that? That car was within inches of hitting me. The lights are too bright, blinding me, I can’t look up. I only see the ground around my feet. Noises are coming from everywhere, hurting my ears. It’s too loud; like being in a dark echoing tunnel, yet, with a spotlight in my eyes. It makes me dizzy.” Drawing in a few more breaths, “Are you saying, this is what Janessa sees and feels when we are outside?”
“When there is lots of traffic – yes. Did you notice you had to pause before you could speak? Janessa’s senses are super heightened. Because eighty-five percent of her communication is nonverbal, it takes her even longer to recover. She often doesn’t know how to express what’s happening. She suppresses it until she can’t hold it any longer, which can result in a meltdown. Don’t take them personally.” Dr. Parker watches Molly carefully as she absorbs this information.
“This has to be scary for her; it is for me. I should check on Janessa.” Molly states.
“This is for your benefit. I assure you, Janessa is fine. Melody’s training is in handling children like Janessa.” Dr. Parker asks over the intercom. “Melody, how is Janessa doing?”
“Like a trooper, she is handling things just fine.” Melody answers.
“Shall we continue?” Dr. Parker asks.
Molly hesitates a moment, “Yes.”
This time Molly hears water, like a shower. Molly rips the glasses off. “Dr. Parker you can’t be serious. Janessa freaks out around running water. A swimming pool is okay, but a shower or bath, forget it. Where is Janessa?”
“Janessa is in the next room working on different testing with Melody. Trust me, Molly. Again, this simulation is for you. I need you to be aware of the fear that drives Janessa. Concentrate on what you witness and any sensations.” Dr. Parker instructs.
Dr. Parker’s soothing voice relaxes Molly. She slips the V. R. headset back on. The running water causes Molly’s skin to tingle with little pin pricks, which soon become a thousand bee stings. Even the buzzing of the bees sounds like jet engines roaring in her ears.
“Make it stop. Please make it stop!” Molly takes the contraption off dancing around as though the bees are chasing her. “I can’t stand it, my poor baby. How do we make it stop for her?”
“Don’t confine her to a box. You can’t discipline it out of her; you’re not going to change Janessa, Molly; she can change you. You can teach each other and those around you. Janessa is a rule follower, seeing things as black or white. She likes things to remain the same. Preparing her ahead of time for change will make the struggles easier. Don’t tell her; show her thoughtful ways to express her bluntness and directness by using filters. We will be here helping you, giving you the tools for coping. Janessa will feel more in control of her environment when using earplugs, a weighted vest, and dark glasses outside, a fiddle cube in her pocket for nervous movements. Consider getting her a dog or cat.
We are all different, Molly, and deserve to be treated so. Being wired differently isn’t wrong, abnormal or the end of the world. Many on the autism spectrum bring some amazing skills to the world. Look at Mozart, Darryl Hannah, Jason Zimmerman and Susan Boyle. Have faith you’ll get through. You always have.” Dr. Parker guided Molly back to Janessa.
Janessa sat at a small table, wearing the vest Dr. Parker mentioned. She and Melody were having a tea party with some dolls.
“She seems more like my happy girl,” Molly said, tears running down her cheeks.
“Remember she hasn’t changed. These things won’t stop what she encounters. They are just tools to help soothe. She will still have meltdowns.
I think we should see you both weekly over the next year. For now, have some fun. Melody will help with the snowsuit.”
Janessa spotted a dog the minute they got to the park, squealing with delight, Molly thought; we have a lot to learn about each other. Maybe a companion might be something to bond us together.