19 January 2008

One More Week

There's only just over a week remaining in the summer school holidays here in Queensland Australia. The summer vacation here does have Christmas as a major activity, even if, as a former northern hemispherean, I think it's too hot, muggy, and weird. Never mind. The children love it; the over-abundance of sweets and the swags of loot. They are normal in that respect.

Anyway, that is all behind us now. The summer school holidays are the most challenging time of the year for us. My sons seem to need the routine that school provides, but also the stimulus of new things. At home it's difficult to recreate that. I run out of ideas in the first couple of weeks. Nevertheless, we've nearly made it! I wish I had one of those countdown clocks such as I imagine NASA has. A nice big digital readout ticking the milliseconds down until the moment at the end of January that I can deliver them to the school gate. After easing the car to a complete stop first, of course.

When I was a child in North America, Labor Day represented the official end of summer, and the start of the new school year. Here in Australia the gateway long weekend, with parties and barbecues, is Australia Day. Many parents celebrate with unseemly gusto.

As school holidays tend to go, this one hasn't been too bad. The weather has been merciful, and that has been a huge help. Usually the heat and humidity combine in a way that makes everyone irritable and drained of energy. This time there have been weeks of cool air and much needed rain. The heat is bound to return. It could suddenly revert to miserably hot, but hey, my clock is ticking down with ten days to go. Until then I'll continue trying to keep them busy.

One thing we are not doing to pass the time is going shopping together. They can't deal with it. My youngest son goes entirely to pieces. He's sensitive to noise, so his difficulties begin in the car park. The echoes of tires, doors closing, and engines running invariably makes him clamp his sweetly chubby little hands over his ears and hum frantically to drown it out.

Once inside the shopping center the conditions provoke a meltdown within minutes. I understand this, because I'm just as vulnerable to the distractions of modern marketing strategy as the children. I hypnotize easily, and if I don't have a list to keep me focused, I can have be swiftly side-tracked by the bright colors and the wall of sound. This goes double for little kids, and not just the autistic ones. The displays are intended to produce sensory overload, and children can only take so much before they get overexcited and/or distressed. Grown ups too.

The visual assault is especially intense in a grocery store. Products have to compete for every inch of shelf space. They have only seconds to grab a shopper's attention, and so they do it with loud colors and big letters. You might notice that the colors predominating are some combination of red and/or yellow? Red lettering, yellow background, vice versa. Aesthetically a shopper is being shouted at from all sides.

As an adult fully aware of that, I can still be diverted and confused by it. My favorite autistics have no chance. For them, it's a painful sensory overload. The elder son, Ben, can now tolerate quick shopping trips, but longer than about ten minutes will be pushing everyone's luck. He will start to spool out, and before you know it, he'll be loud and peculiar in that way that invites stares.

Poor Linus becomes grabby in the presence of so many goodies. Because he can't have all, or even many, of the things he's bound to reach for, he will scream. Like an expert opera singer, he'll quickly move through his entire vocal range, starting with a low wail to warm up, and quickly rising to a piercing high note. Because he's eight, and large for his age, and because his arias of protest are high pitched and penetrating, this also wins us plenty of stares. People expect that kind of behavior from a toddler, not a child who is half grown. Meanwhile Ben will have taken to wandering off down the aisles, 'to help find things to buy 'and meet new people. If I'm shepherding an infuriated Linus there is nothing I can do to stop him.

Ben likes to greet people whether he knows them or not. He'll grin and throw out his hand to shake. "G'day! How're you doing?" Like a campaigning politician, only cuter. Then, as I am catching up with him, he might be launching into one of his non-sequitur conversations, bewildering to the uninitiated. Some shoppers, usually elderly ones, are charmed by this performance. Others seem puzzled, but will be guardedly polite just in case it turns out they know us from somewhere. So far I have had limited success in getting Ben to understand what strangers even are, and that there is a difference between people we know ( like friends and family) and those we don't. To him it's all pretty much the same, which is an admirable outlook in principle, but in the real world a few precautions need to be explained to him. Repeatedly.

Seasonal difficulties only add to the challenge of shopping with the boys. The creeping invasion of Christmas junk from late August causes long term trouble. My baby loves Christmas. Linus' birthday is in early December, and so for him the mention or appearance of tinselly accessories give the impression that the holidays are nigh. He starts searching for presents. The mall becomes off limits for Linus. His nervous system simply can't take it. Mine can't take it either. The silly season which kicks off with Linus' birthday finishes up with Ben's birthday in early January. It is a riotous time of year during which all of their significant adults haemmorhage money, while keeping the boys away from the teeming shops.

Actually, come to think of it, the consumer spending doesn't stop there, because the back to school items, clothing, equipment and stationary, then fill quite a big ticket. Somehow this spending feels satisfying and virtuous, because it is furthering the children's education, while also managing to be an occasion of joy. With every purchase, the school bell is drawing closer. It's hard to muster to much complaint about that.

However, so help me, the retailers brought out all the Easter stuff right after New Year's Day. The Christmas stuff isn't gone, just sort of bunched and jumbled up and marked down to half price, while up go the soaring displays of eggs, chocolate rabbits, marshmallow chicks, and particular to the Commonwealth nations, Hot Cross Buns. Easter is 12 weeks away. I've heard a lot of dismayed remarks about this, from people who are indifferent to the religious significance as well as the more devout. It appears to be equally offensive to both groups, if for different reasons. I simply don't want Easter trappings occupying my head space for so long. Nor a fight with Linus because he wants an out-sized chocolate rodent whenever we go out.

Who am I kidding? I can run, but not hide. Full color advertising is delivered straight to my door, and Ben can read. It is the second week of January, and his birthday was only a week ago, with Christmas just before that, but Ben is already absorbed with compiling his wish list for Easter, and making certain I know about it. He has a mercenary view of the major holidays that he doesn't even attempt to conceal.

I go shopping on the few days during the holiday period when I have respite. It has to be carefully planned, and I have to get enough of everything to last until the next time I can get out. Then I don't need to take my boys into the kind of situation they can't cope with. To be honest, I don't always do well with it either. I'm not equipped with saintly patience, or even insight, until often well after the time when it would have been most useful.

So unless we've run out of everything, (and during this set of holidays I've managed to prevent that happening) we just don't go there.

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