Doesn’t a nice dip in the hot tub sound great? My back is stiff and aching and I find the hot water and strong jets are just what I need when the weather turns cool. I ask Matt if he wants to get in with Tom and me. Sometimes the answer is “yes”, but more often than not the answer is “no”. Matt loves water – always has. So why would he not want to get in the hot tub? Very simply, Matt is very sensitive to environmental stimuli. Included in this category are bright lights, loud sounds, strong odors, certain textures,certain tastes, and drastic temperature changes. At one point, when he was very young, all of these stimuli played a major role in his everyday life. Over the years he became more interactive with his environment and slowly some environmental factors became acceptable. This was an area of learning that Matt decided to tackle in his own time with only gentle encouragement from the sidelines. The hot tub has been a real challenge for him.
We have had our hot tub for many, many years. He was always asked to join us and we got use to the same reply of “no thanks” over the years. Then one day, much to our surprise, Matt replied “yes”. He hunted for his swimsuit and grabbed a towel. As we walked the deck toward the hot tub I noticed Matt’s gait. He was marching – a man on a mission. I could see the determination on his face. He really wanted to tackle this obstacle. Tom took the cover off and as he did we could see the trapped steam roll upward. Matt’s face changed. He looked worried. I got in knowing he was watching my every move – watching for signs of burning and pain. “Oh, this feels good” as stated as I sunk into the water. “It’s OK, Matt” I coaxed, “Just take itslow”. Matt stepped a foot in and simultaneously emitted a hiss. He sat on the side struggling with the idea of submitting another foot to the heat. He had gotten this far before in previous attempts. In each of those attempts the heat was too much and he had to call it quits, retreating to house. I waited. If Matt were to back out it would show on his face. The look of failure in his eyes was always heartbreaking. This time I could see his face was a mixture of emotion. Yes, I could see fear, but I also saw determination. Matt brought his other foot over the side and into the water. Another hiss as he breathed in. Matt had just gone further than any previous attempt. “If you wait a few seconds you’ll get used to the temperature and then it will feel good.” I said as I moved closer to him. He waited.
Tom coached Matt from behind, I coached Matt from the front, but it was Matt who made the decision to slide in a bit more. He managed to get both thighs in the water. Would he sit? Would he declare he was done? Tom and I watched on, both of us holding our breath. Matt slowly slid into the water and sat on the seat. “It’s hot” Matt stated matter-of-fact. Tom got in behind him, making the same hissing sounds and facial expressions Matt had just performed. Tom wasn’t trying to mimic Matt – he actually felt the same body-shock as Matt. It’s interesting to note that Matt glanced at Tom for just a second. Matt’s focus was intently on his own body and maintaining his position in the water. I could see he was still forcing himself to stay beneath the surface.
Matt was in. We were in. We all sat for a moment and then asked Matt if he would like us to turn on the water jets. “Yes!” he replied as he nodded his head. Matt was beginning to feel confident. His body was getting use to the water. The expression on his face was more relaxed. We turned on the jets. Matt first experimented with the feel of the current on his hands, and then positioned his body so the water would hit his back. He was actually beginning to enjoy the experience. We talked a while – about little things mostly; the trees, the clouds, the cat coming to join us (walking the perimeter on the rim of the tub). When we got out Matt hurriedly grabbed his towel and headed for the house. His walk said it all – he was now a Master Hot-tubber!
It’s such a slow process to overcome the challenges of autism. Each simple move forward isn’t just a happy day for parents; it’s a joyous day for the autistic individual too. Don’t think for one moment that an autistic person doesn’t know when they have beaten one of the challenges. I’m betting Matt keeps a mental list of simple challenges to be met head on. I can see it on his face, in his body language, and hear it in his speech. A simple thing like getting into a hot tub is not a simple thing to the autistic individual with hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli. Matt had to force himself to feel the pain of hot water. He had to resist the overwhelming urge to pull out. He subjected himself to this environment because not getting in made him different. Matt hates being looked upon as different. So he took up the challenge, faced it head on, and walked away a champion. How can anyone not admire the fortitude it takes to do what he does almost every day of his life?