Captain America’s shield.
George Burns’ cigar.
Some things just become a part of someone over the years. It’s hard to imagine that person without their signature item. For Jake, it’s a pair of Winchester shooting headphones.
With autism, the amount of sensory information offered the body is often overwhelming. By this I mean that it’s really hard to filter out unnecessary information and focus on what you need to when there’s too much going on. It’s like when you turn down the radio while looking for a particular street sign.
Jake, we presume, gets bombarded by sensory input all the time. It’s the temperature of the room, the tightness of his sneakers, the whir of the computer’s fan, the dialogue from the kids in the other room, the coolness of the floor under his feet, etc., etc., etc.
Taking all of this information, and filtering out the sound and meaning of the question he was just asked is sometimes too much.
Like most great discoveries, this one happened much by accident. We were at a family camp, spending some quiet family time when Jake discovered the headphones. They were probably used for ear protection during shooting or chainsaw use. This camp was pretty rural. The ‘found’ headphones were yellow with black accents. Tre chic.
Beth and I were discussing it, and we don’t remember exactly why Jake had his fingers in his ears that day, but he did, and Beth thought of the headphones hanging on a nail in the bunk area. “Hey Bud, try these on!” she offered. He loved them almost right away, and wore them a lot for the remainder of our stay.
We had plans to take him and Liv to a Wiggles concert in the near future, and decided to pick up a pair to see if they’d work. They did! It wasn’t perfect, but we’d found something we could hang our hat on. The legend had begun.
What’s interesting for me is that he uses his headphones not just for sound, but as a generalized buffer. Actually, I think they do much more than that. If there’s too much visual information, or even touch or smell, he’ll put on his headphones. He won’t/can’t do his homework without first donning his headphones. I’ll dig out his spelling list, and he’ll get up and go find the nearest pair of headphones. They’re his version of a binky. They allow him to interact with his world with both hands. If he doesn’t have them, he’ll plug his ear with one hand, then shrug his shoulder up in an attempt to cover the other ear. It’s kind of funny to watch.
I used to think of them as a crutch; a sign of weakness. They’re certainly obvious. If autism is a non-obvious disability, this is one of those things that screams, “Hey everybody! Look at me!” I’ve since evolved. I tell my patients all the time not to think of their walkers as a sign of their age and debility, but rather as a tool to get a job done. Nobody thinks less of the person who uses a car for a ten mile trip, or a ladder to reach a second story window, so why should we look down upon a kid who needs headphones for math homework?
In our early days, we’d tried different styles. I wanted something slim-line, that fit close to the head with a less than obvious headband piece. Sadly, Jake wants what he wants. I’ve worn them myself, and they do a fair job of blocking out sound, but again, that’s not their only purpose. If it was sound, I’d have bought him a nice pair of Bose QC Noise Cancelling headphones, but it’s not.
In the end, we’re very fortunate that he’s chosen the pair he has. They’re only about $7 at Wal*Mart. We’ve got at least 6 pair at any given time. One in the van, one in the car, one for school (at least one for school), one in his backpack … you get the idea. Sometimes the pad that protects his head from the band falls off, sometimes its picked off, and sometimes the foam padding gets ripped or wet or falls out. It’s times like these I’m glad we don’t use $300 Bose models. We’ve even cut slits in them to allow for the wearing of earbuds WHILE wearing his headphones. I’ve used that pair to listen to audio-books while mowing the lawn.
Sure, he’s got weighted blankets, lap pads, special swings, chew toys, fidgets, compression vests, weighted pencils and body brushes, but it’s a pair of $7 headphones that are our saving grace.