Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fire Alarms and Emergency Lights

"Mamma, I have a quiz for you."

We are shopping in a big box store (BJ's, to be exact) and I just want to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Ethan continues. I know what's coming before he asks. "Somewhere in this store is a fire alarm. You have to tell me where it is." I dutifully look around for a little red box affixed to the wall. Never before have I gone to so many different stores or eating establishments and searched for fire alarms.

But then, several week ago, Ethan had a fire drill at school.

I've noticed this trend, with almost any person I've met on the spectrum. Something happens, something significant to them in a certain way, and the event imprints something into their brains in a way that does not occur with a typical person. The memory, for whatever reason, triggers various obsessions. It can lead to, to use a fancy autism word, certain perseverations or fixations.

We had this happen with butter, of all things. One day at Big Y I bought two boxes of Big Y generic butter because we were going to be doing a lot of baking. Ethan enjoyed picking the yellow boxes off the shelf and putting them in the cart, and loved that we were getting two, not one. Now, for almost a year, every time we go grocery shopping he asks to get butter. And it has to be that brand. Thankfully, he doesn't melt down when I say no, but he's always disappointed, and he always tries to take the boxes off the shelf and "help me out" by placing them in the cart.

Then we have the fire alarms, and I'll add to that "emergency lights." I have to be thankful here. The fire drill on the second day of school could have been disastrous. Ethan could have come home petrified, afraid to go back to school because of the noise and flashing lights. But over time he's learned to adapt fairly well.

He just now wants to chat about fire alarms. A lot.

And so, from day one following the fire drill, we've talked about many things. We've discussed the way the fire alarms in the gym at school echo. We've pondered whether or not the principal has a big secret button to trigger the fire alarms. We've awed at the fact that, when Anna's school had a brief power outage, she got to see the emergency lights go on, and they were yellow. We've talked about why our house does not have emergency lights. This troubles Ethan greatly, because he wants to know how we'll see if there's a fire and the power goes out. We also touched briefly on the fire extinguisher in our kitchen (and how, most importantly, it's for mom and dad to use).

In McDonalds last week, Ethan's eyes darted around the restaurant the moment we walked through the doors.

"There's only one problem," he announced while we were waiting in line. That's his new phrase. Ethan's always finding one problem, always discovering the one thing that has disrupted life from it's usual order. "The problem is, I don't see a fire alarm in here."

"Ethan, I'm sure there's one in here. You just can't see it."

"Well, where is it?" I didn't have an answer, but of course I scanned around. Autism has a way of catching you doing things you never thought you'd do: like driving around the town looking for cul-de-sacs, finding all of the local churches that have steeples with bells inside, and drawing pictures of  the signs for men's and women's bathrooms (all prior Ethan obsessions).

Thankfully, the food and tunnels were attractive enough to lure Ethan from searching for awhile, but when we stopped in the bathrooms, he came over to me with a big smile on his face.

"I have good news!" I knew just what this was about, of course. "The fire alarm and lights are right above the bathroom doors." You would not believe the smile and relief on his face. The things that give him pleasure both bring me pause and make me smile.

Then we were off. Today we may search for new fire alarms. Tomorrow the obsession may be gone...only to be replaced by another. And since Ethan is learning not to let these fixations rule his life (but only quietly occupy a portion of his brain part of the time), I can only be grateful, while wondering what's coming next.

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