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Why a Shower Is a Big Deal for My Son With Special Needs

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My son is brave.

He took a shower tonight.

A full shower. Head wet. With water coming out of the shower head. Warm water, not cold. A full body, hair washed, under the water, traditional shower.

He’s 8.

Imagine being on The Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls. The Falls are deafening as you near them, so you plug your ears. The pressure, like an airplane, makes your eardrums feel like they will explode. The beads of water are rushing at you so quickly they feels like “stingers” on your skin. Your adrenaline is pumping — it’s amazing to be this close to something so deadly, so powerful.  You’re scared but excited.

The boat keeps getting closer, and suddenly you realize it’s out of control. You’re heading right for the falls — how will you survive? Surely it will kill you. It will make the boat crack apart like toothpicks — “panic” is putting this emotion mildly. The fear is overwhelming. What do you do? Jump and try to swim? You’ll be caught in a current and pulled under. Is there anything you can do? There are seconds left until your boat hits the falls and you die. Now what?

Dramatic? Maybe. But that is what a shower seems like to my 8-year-old boy with autism, sensory processing disorder and a few other diagnoses. The beads of water feel
like “stingers” piercing his skin. He’s never been able to get near it until today. Baths only.

As a toddler, his fear of water was relentless and came out of nowhere. Without going into excruciating detail, this is a huge moment for him. He doesn’t like sprinklers or swimming — he can only handle it for a short period of time, if at all. And never, ever gets his head wet.

All this changed tonight.

I’m not sharing these details to embarrass him one day, or right now. This is personal. For us and many other families.

He wants the world to know he “is just like” his big brother.

He wants other autistic kids, like him (because there is a huge spectrum), to know
they can do it too. When and if they are ready, “they can be brave too.”

He wants them to know he “did it!”

He is proud of himself, and he should be — I am afraid of a lot of things and don’t face them daily like he does.

Every time I think he has reached the end of possibility, the reality that maybe this is the most he will continue to develop, he breaks through his fears and goes further than we ever expected. He pushes his boundaries and exceeds expectations, not only ours but his own.  He never stops amazing us. He never quits, not in the long run. Even through the: “I’m scared, Mom! I’m a little afraid. OK, I’m a lot afraid! But I can do it!”

Not only did he conquer one of his biggest fears, he recognized his feelings about it (both before and after), and verbalized them. We adapted his experience: neon pink ear plugs, I helped wash his hair, towel nearby for water in his eyes, and his big brother was right there for support as needed.

So you see, my son is brave.

He’s scared doing most everything, every day, but does it. He beats the odds. He lives in a neurotypical world that is not friendly towards him, at all really. He is full of love and spirit and courage.

I told my son how brave he was and how proud we are of him, and he is proud of himself: “I did it! I took a shower like [my big brother]!” He jumped up and down, screeching, neon pink earplugs still in his ears. Right now, he is excitedly flapping so hard in his bedroom I can hear him in the living room while I write this.

A shower may not seem like a big deal to most people. But to us, it’s not just a shower. It’s endless possibility.

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Originally published: March 18, 2016
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