There’s been a change in Buddy that’s been going on too long now to be a phase. Used to be Buddy was so sensory seeking we had to get him outside, and often. Six hours a day was not unheard of (three hours in the morning, three in the evening). When most people talk about raising children with autism, they talk about how they have to stay in the house a lot and embarrassing temper tantrums in public. This was not my experience. Buddy needed to be outside, and often, and the only time I had problems with public tantruming was when he had a bad and persistent ear infection (and it happened at the ENT’s office, so everyone figured out what was happening and was sympathetic). Staying indoors led to problems because he’d have so much energy and would get bored and would start destroying the house. Our couches are trashed, for instance. The covers are ripped and there are holes in the couch where he would hide his toys. But we’re not replacing them until we’re 100% sure Buddy has completely out grown his Wreck It phase (even though we really would like nice things to sit on in the living room again).
With Buddy, I really subscribed to the Nature Deficit Disorder camp and, when he would act aggressively or become destructive, I took that as a signal I needed to get him outdoors. After all, “you can’t bounce off the walls when there are no walls.”
Ten minutes away from our house is a huge park with three playgrounds and a splash pad and a disc golf course. And in the space between our house and the park is a little nature preserve with trails that connects to the disc golf course that lines a creek. Sometimes Buddy would want to go play on the playgrounds. Other times he would want to go into the woods. I do not exaggerate when I say that Buddy has been hiking since he could walk at 10 months. He loved going over rugged, uneven surfaces and would pace up and down one surface before moving to a different one (grass versus gravel versus mud, etc). He loves climbing up and down hills and forging the creek. These excursions would often last for at least an hour, sometimes as long as three, once in the morning, once in the evening.
We loved summer time, with long evenings that allowed us to stay out late, and we’d dread winter, when the sun would set at 5. Andy and I started noticing a pattern with Buddy’s behavior, and that it definitely got worse after day light savings time would end and it would get dark very early in the evening and we could no longer spend so much time outdoors. We’d try to make up for it over the weekend as much as we could, but it never seemed to be enough. Weeks where it was storming or icy were similarly difficult and we noticed a change in his behavior. We’d take him to the indoor playground at McDonald’s or the local bounce house until it closed, which were decent substitutes.
It took a lot of energy on Andy and mine’s part. I love being outdoors, but Buddy would push me even to my limits. Overall, it was worth it to help him manage his behavior.
Lately he’s gone through a mellowing phase. And while he’s still good when we take him out, he’s gotten better at entertaining himself in non-destructive ways when we’re at home. Namely trains. He has a lot of wooden tracks and he lays them out in complex patterns in the dining room (under the table, through the chairs, etc). Then he takes blocks and other random objects and sets them up like buildings around the tracks. And of course, he takes his toys trains on them. Naturally, this being in the well trod dining room, the tracks get messed up a lot, especially when we pull the chairs out to eat, but he doesn’t get upset about it, he’s rather happy to rebuild (Buddy has always taken things in stride).
The flip side of this is that he no longer wants to spend a lot of time outside the house. The change happened so fast it was jarring. And, considering what used to happen when we didn’t get him outside enough, I was worried about this being a catalyst for bad behavior. But when we would get home from therapy or from our morning trip to the park, he would strip his clothes off and play with this trains, and no amount of coaxing on my part could convince him to put his clothes on and go outside.
One afternoon I even set up supplies for blowing bubbles and some water on the front porch before I picked him up from therapy. I figured this way we could avoid going into the house and I’d get him hooked on the bubble activity (something he usually loves) and get his outdoor quota time. Buddy was not interested in bubbles though. He walked to the door and told me he wanted to go inside. I asked him to wait a minute, so he grabbed my keys and attempted to unlock the door. After that I let him in, and he undressed and started playing with his trains.
Turns out that now, when he gets home, he just wants to play with his trains. And he has no interest in going out again, not even to go to the park. Even more amazing, he’s not bouncing off the walls anymore. He leaves Sissy alone, or plays nicely with her for the most part, and is no longer a walking force of destruction.
I still have to get him out once in the morning to ensure good behavior. On days he doesn’t have therapy we either spend a few hours at the park by our house or go to a new park in the area. On days he has therapy, that seems to wear him out enough that he doesn’t need anymore help.
I think for me the lesson is that kids who have a lot of energy just need a lot (hours!) of time outside to burn it off, but they will eventually outgrow it and gain the skills to manage their behavior so that when they are indoors they aren’t the proverbial bull in a china shop. And trust me, I know how modern life is not structured to allow kids to have this time that they need outdoors. I would often lament about how neighborhoods no longer having gangs of young kids running around that I could send Buddy out to play with. It really falls on the parents to figure out how to cram this outdoor time in with work (I have always worked, but I have also always worked non-traditional hours, which in some ways helped, in other ways made it more difficult), adverse weather, days where there is little light, and just being ill, injured (I sprained my ankle badly on one of those hiking trips), and at one time, pregnant (yes, I was 8 months pregnant and going on three hours hikes with a 3 year old, including times where I would put him on my shoulders to carry him. At nine months I threw in the towel, and suffered being very pregnant with a very hyper three year old. Andy can’t hike with him because he has mild cerebral palsy and can’t navigate uneven terrain).
Three was definitely the worse year that required the most outdoor time. And then when we couldn’t manage it we just had to understand that he was going to act out and he likely couldn’t control himself.
But now at five it’s getting better. He still needs his outdoor time, but thankfully nowhere near six hours a day anymore. And I’m more than happy to encourage a model train hobby, though, might have to see if I can get him to build in a place where we aren’t pulling chairs in and out all of the time and tripping over (the dining room leads to the master bedroom, and he does a lot of building right outside the door).
In some ways it seems he is changing to become more of what people consider typical when they think of autism, narrow interests and prefers to be indoors. But I see it as a maturity thing. He still does well when we take him out, but now he also tolerates being at home better and entertains himself while playing appropriately. I think it will be interesting to see if he develops a life long love of trains and builds model train tracks when he grows up or, who knows, he may follow in his great-great grandfather’s footsteps and become a conductor! Or if could just be a passing thing. But overall it signals to me that he is growing.