Last weekend, we hosted Quentin’s birthday party at one of our favorite hang-outs: A non-profit sensory play gym called Extreme Kids & Crew. (This is the first year we are having separate birthday parties for the twins – a sort of milestone for the twins, which brings mixed emotions for me.) We had roughly 10 children join us, mostly a mixture of children on the Spectrum that we know from his school or other classes he has taken, along with a few neuro-typical kids such as Fiona and some cousins. A great time was had by all. Then, of course, it was time for the cake.
Two years ago, I wrote a post trying to unpack the reason why Quentin holds his ears when the “Happy Birthday” song is sung. I surmised that it had to be either the group singing, the candles, or the loudness. Two years later, he is still holding his ears when that song is sung, but I have concluded that it’s not actually for any of the reasons I first mentioned.
To prep Quentin for his party, I tried a new tack. I did not create a social story using Kid in Story on the iPad. I did not print out any photos. The day before the party, I simply took out some paper and crayons and drew. I wrote words like “Quentin’s 7th Birthday Party at Extreme Kids!” Then I wrote all the names of the kids who were coming, and drew little faces to resemble them. Then I drew my own kind of visual schedule of the day. He looked over my words and drawings eagerly, especially when it came to seeing that there would be cake. In true Quentin style, he let out a squeal and ran around the room.
I sat him down on the day of the party and told him that the cake would be chocolate. He smiled and squealed. I said, “Do you want us to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you?” He said, “YES!” I hummed the song. He hopped around the room. He was ready.
And yet… when the moment came, there was still ear-covering as we sang the song when the cake came out. This time, though, I did not seek to question it. Quentin was happy. When I thought more about it, he has been known to cover his ears at all sorts of happy, exciting moments. He often covers his ears when he sees family members who he has not seen in a long time, but really does love. Sometimes he covers his ears when a familiar musical segment appears on Nick Jr.
So what is this ear-covering about? I have concluded (at this point) that Quentin is covering his ears as a way to express a kind of sensory overload that he doesn’t know how to express in any other way. I would describe it as a feeling of “famiiar-excited-nervous-happy.” (I’m sure the Germans have a word for this, right?) His non-verbal fallback is always a physical expression, and he has learned that he cannot run away or jump around, so covering the ears it is. I no longer worry that he is not enjoying it; I know he is.
Let us all celebrate and not think twice about the boy who is covering his ears! He is happy! Let him eat cake!