Have you ever been bombarded by sounds that made your skin crawl? Are there sounds that make your guts clench and your ears ring?
Could you imagine being locked in a room with somebody raking fingernails over a chalkboard while somebody else dragged a fork over a plate?
What if that room had flashing disco lights and techno music that wouldn’t stop?
What if this were your reality 24/7?
As a human, you would develop coping techniques. You would cover your ears, you would get your body moving to quell the gut clenching and skin crawling. You might start humming to yourself to use the vibration of the humming to drown out the other sounds.
My friend H does all these things. When things get too hard, he slams his fist into his head in an attempt to re-direct the pain somewhere tangible and controllable.
We’ve worked together for years. He’s a young man now and he’s got a dimpled smile that would land him a leading role in a Hollywood movie were it not for his assaulted sensory system which goes along with his autism diagnosis.
H can’t tolerate much eye contact. He’s already working hard to deal with the sensory load. He gets real relief on a horse with the regular rolling motion and he’s very appreciative if you can keep your body, your voice and your horse quiet for him. I check in with him every few minutes and when he grants me a fleeting bit of eye contact, I know it’s a gift and I try not to abuse the gift by asking for more than he can give.
But he is after all, a young man and he started to get bored walking circles in the arena.
Last week, I had an idea. I asked his caregiver permission to take him out onto our kayak.
The next week I enlisted Becca to help. We put H on Tado, a tall and steady horse, and headed up the hill toward the pond. I worried that an airplane would fly over and send H into fits of auditory pain, I worried that the unfamiliar feeling of riding up a steep hill would cause him to jump off the horse in a panic and run to the safe quiet space of his caregiver’s car.
H rode up to the pond, hopped off Tado and he and I loaded onto the kayak while Becca held Tado. H sat squarely in the middle of the kayak, which meant I was sitting on the upper third of the front of the boat – not ideal from a balance and buoyancy standpoint, but you roll with these things.
Pushing out onto the pond, I second guessed myself. If his rocking got more intense, could I keep us safe? Especially since he was not going to scoot back and I was sitting very close to the front of the boat.
I turned my body around so that H and I were back to back. This got my weight off the front of the boat and stabilized us a bit. However, H is not eager to be touched and I didn’t know how that would go. I hoped that human touch would be accepted back to back where there would be no chance of a terrifying frontal gaze. I was more than right.
I rowed the boat and H’s vocal stimming, his rocking and gasping began to slow. On a whim I quit rowing and the boat drifted soundlessly across the dark pond. We drifted into some tulle reeds and I breathed out slowly and quietly and……..
Everything went silent.
All the rocking. All the humming. All the ear covering.
He leaned into my back – and we just sat there.
Not rowing, not talking. No agenda. Just two people leaning into each other on a pond on a beautiful day.
We listened to the birds in the tulles – the wind in the eucalyptus trees. We enjoyed the smell of the pennyroyal that started blooming in the fields last week. We could hear the sound of the horse quietly chomping grass as he and Becca waited for us.
After 20 minutes, my heart was overflowing with serenity and the knowledge that I’d helped a young man find a beautiful stillness. I knew I needed to break this sacred silence soon and head back to reality.
I exhaled softly. H echoed my sigh. I handed him the paddle and he began to paddle us back to the horse.
We got out of the boat with Becca and I looking at each other with tears. I wasn’t making this up – Becca saw it and heard it too.
We held the horse next to a bench and H hopped on, the dog joined us and everyone walked down the hill together absorbed in silent thoughts.