There is an old wife’s tale, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Well in Joey’s case, it was a candle a day. Like many autistic children Joey was highly sensitive and tactile defensive to many things: sand, certain articles of clothing, the slight jolting of the car when I stepped on the brakes, and candles. Never a fire witnessed, Joey unknowingly feared candles. I recall going to my niece’s christening in a large church, the altar twenty yards away. There stood one lit baptismal candle on the altar, barely visible to me. The only blessing it was late spring, and the front door to the church had been latched open. And that’s where I stood—Joey up in my arms, as far away from the candle as possible in hopes to avoid a meltdown.
Doctors suggested anxiety medication for Joey. Joey, only three-years-old at the time, left me searching for a better option. How would he ever learn to deal with these vulnerable feelings?
Joey’s speech therapist at Boston Children’s suggested desensitization. Desensitization is the process of slowly, subtly introducing articles, textures, events that currently startle your child and leave him feeling anxious—to helping him become virtually unaffected by submitting him to this continued, subtle, nonintrusive exposure.
Initially, I began by placing an unlit candle on the kitchen table. The appearance, even unlit, made Joey uneasy, so I started in small segments. First day I left it there for five minutes, next day ten, to eventually, at the end of a month the candle sat on the table like a permanent fixture. Joey would walk through the room, watching the candle’s every move, as he’d pass by as quickly as possible. It took two months for Joey to be comfortable with the unlit candle on the table. From there, I started the process of lighting the candle, first for a second, a minute, five minutes—never calling attention to it, making it a natural part of his day.
From there I move to the car brakes, driving up and down the driveway, with Joey in the back seat, ever so lightly stepping on the brakes. The rough texture of sand on his feet came a couple of years later, but worth all the vacuuming and sweeping that came will providing a sandy shore in our home. Desensitization, a lengthy, tedious process to some—the anti-drug to me.
Joey turns twenty-one in July. I hope he gets what he wishes for when he blows out his twenty-one candles…I got mine.