When My Son With Autism Wore Bright Orange Headphones at a Play Area


We slid the headphones on, and his whole body relaxed.

Tension we didn’t even realize he had vanished. He looked up, alert and interested with shoulders pushed back instead of hunched. He seemed taller, stronger. He was also the only kid wearing bright orange headphones in the play area.

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Kitty’s son.

I hadn’t realized how much the noise had bothered him and how much he’d endured. The edginess he usually had in crowded, noisy spaces was gone. He was swimming through the crowd and heading towards the climbing equipment. He threw a quick smile back at us before he commenced climbing. He was determined and he looked happy.

We were in shock.

He loved play areas. He loved climbing, spinning and hurling himself into ball pits to be buried over and over. But there was always a cost. We always watched for the moment when the scales tipped from engaged to overwhelmed, so we hovered around him like dragonflies.

Not on this day.

He’d mentioned noise a few times but in different contexts. Sometimes he wanted things louder, sometimes softer. We couldn’t find the sweet spot, and he’d get frustrated trying to articulate it. We bought the headphones as a shot in the dark. They were fluro orange because that was his favorite color. Plus, it had overtones of construction sites, another plus for a 5-year-old boy.

He didn’t see the stares and the eyes following him around. We were proud of him — this boy who’d found a way to negotiate his circumstances and turn a world that he loved into one he could take part in without pain. For now, at least.

He gracefully moved through crowds of children, skipped around belongings scattered on the floor and took his place in line for the giant slide. He waited peacefully, occasionally guarding his position from opportunists and sometimes hurrying to catch up when the line moved. He waved me over to “come down the big slide!” The girl in front of him spoke to me when I showed up: “Why is he wearing those?”

“Why don’t you ask him?” I redirected.

She took a breath and looked in his eyes. He was just a boy wearing headphones. “Why are you wearing those?” she asked him.

He pointed to his shirt, eyebrows lifted. She shook her head, giggling. “The headphones!” she said. “Why are you wearing headphones?”

“It’s noisy,” he replied in a loud voice due to the headphones. “I hear all the noises. And now I don’t.”

I never knew he heard all of them. Maybe he couldn’t concentrate enough to tell us.

The girl nodded, “Wow, you’re like a superhero!”

He, of course, enthusiastically agreed. They went down the slide together. My boy took this very seriously and made her wait while he counted to three. They whooshed down the slide and then he’s gone, disappearing into a field of primary colors and giant balloons. He’s busy.

He has superhero things to do.

Follow this journey on Playing With Fireworks.

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