Let’s start at the beginning, shall we.
A few short years ago, in Disney World of all places, I attempted to dress Miss Kate up in a sparkly Princess Jasmine costume (her sister was all decked out as Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog” and I figured I would parade my two little princesses around the parks like most obnoxious visitors. Kate had other ideas because as soon as the bedazzled material touched her skin, she reacted as if the cloth was on fire. This might seem like a tantrum of sorts to some. Some kind of, I don’t want to be Jasmine, I want to be Belle or Buzz Lightyear, or Frank Underwood, or some such shit. Well, a mama knows, and I knew that this wasn’t a costume preference tantrum (though we’ve had a few), this was a full-on sensory blowout and it told me what I had suspected for months before. Our little girl had autism and it had been cemented for me at the happiest place on earth.
Since then, we been through a lot. Many, many hours of therapy (with great success) and all the ups and downs that come with raising a child on the spectrum. She began to manage her sensory issues much better. Chewy tubes and body brushes, weighted blankets and pressure vests, a body swing and a sensory lamp to name a few of the things we’ve spent load of money on to help Kate learn to self-regulate. There is really nothing we haven’t tried to help soothe our girl. These things combined with some intense therapies helped Kate manage some of the sensory issues that would send her into the dreaded meltdowns. There were many times she was carried kicking and screaming from the grocery story because the giant den of sights and smells was just too much, and (like rugby, as my husband points out) I just didn’t get it. We are in a better place now, because she has learned to self-soothe in many constructive ways.
So, she found her way back to costumes, only this time it was in the form of her first love and hero, Buzz Lightyear. Buzz was cool, and he had phrases that could be repeated over and over and would almost always elicit a smile.
Soon she would find The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their ninja ways would give her great comfort.
Eventually, she would find a whole league of superheroes she could pretend to be and she hasn’t slowed down a bit.
Now, I’ll attempt to explain why autism seems to be synonymous with Superhero. Lofty goal, says you? Nah, this is gonna be so much easier than introducing a new food, bedtime after a routine change or ‘explaining rugby to your uninterested wife’.
I think there are a number of reasons dress-up play appeals to Kate. Firstly, she is playful at heart, and this is particular exciting for us because play can be an issue for children with autism. Repetitive and ridged play can often hamper social interaction with peers. While, her play can be very structured and a bit one-sided, and this is a nice way of saying: it’s Kate’s way or the highway, she does seek to play with her peers.
The dressing-up seems to appeal to both her sense of fantasy and the fact that she very much relates to the characters she impersonates. She tends towards superheroes for the most part, though her closet boasts some seriously princessy costumes as well. Here’s why I think she relates to the supers of the world.
Superheroes have an alter-ego:
Just like a child on the spectrum, superheroes live two distinct existences. The one inside their complex brains and the one for the outside world. I wish I could express that idea far more eloquently, but that’s what you get. Superheroes also live two distinct existences. Is it possible that our little girl and her spectrum friends, in some way, make that rather abstract connection? You bet your ass it is.
Superheroes can be solitary:
Superheroes tend to live a very solitary life. Few Supers can relate to the average person because of their vastly different lifestyles. For kiddos on the spectrum, peers are great, but can be quite difficult to relate to, at times. They can’t possible understand the logistics involved in the organizing your toys just right while the seam of your sock just isn’t right. How could they possible comprehend the herculean effort a day at school can be with its people and their incessant and unrealistic demands?
Superheroes have different/special abilities/downfalls:
This is key. Superheroes have super-sensitive hearing, sight or strength, among other powers. Children on the spectrum also report many of the same abilities, only the real world application of such powers can result in some painful sensory-overload. Do you think Superman ever had a meltdown? Surely, he has.
Superhero language is often scripted and therefore safe:
Sometimes it can so hard to know what to say or how to react. Catch phrases such as Buzz's “To Infinity and Beyond”, TMNT's “Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go Ninja Go” or Wolverine's "You know sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry" (okay, maybe that's a stretch for some) can often fill in when the right words just cannot be found. These phrases will often encourage a positive response from others (until they become a tad overused) and they are safe and reliable forms of communication.
Superheroes are freaking awesome:
Everyone loves a superhero. Except their nemeses (I had to look that plural up), of course. Why not adopt the persona of someone that evokes love and adoration from the masses. When it’s tough to fit it our little people have to find a way to stand out and still reach the rest of us.
As cheesy as it may sound to some, there are superheroes among us, and they live on a spectrum of which we can barely conceive. In fact, you might want to feel honored to be among them.