Driving a Deeper Conversation

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By Alysia Butler

Editor’s Note: Alysia Butler is a stay-at-home mom living in Massachusetts with her husband and three boys, ages 10, 6 and 3. Her middle son has sensory processing disorder and was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in December 2009 at age 3 ½ and her youngest was diagnosed with autism at age 3. She currently writes at Defying Gravity, her personal blog recounting the joys and challenges of raising three boys. She is the editor of The Oxygen Mask Project site and the managing editor of The SPD Blogger Network. She steps on at least one Hot Wheels car a day.

“Mom!  Will you help me build a Hot Wheels City?”

My 6-year-old son yells this to me from our toy room, loud enough that I can hear it no matter where I am in the house.  That room was supposed to be our living room but it is now home to hundreds of Hot Wheels cars and orange track.

It’s a familiar question in our house although it’s more of a command than an actual request.  We probably hear it once a day, usually right before the bus is supposed to arrive or just before bed time.

My son Howie has been obsessed with Hot Wheels cars for over four years now.  I wish I could remember when it began, but I can’t.  It feels like those little metal cars have been a part of our family life forever.

Most kids’ obsessions come and go. My 10-year-old liked Hot Wheels cars, but then he moved on to other toys.  But Howie has always been all about the Hot Wheels.  Some kids sleep with blankies or stuffed animals. He slept with a green Hot Wheels car.  It had to be green.  When we travel, he only packs his cars.

It was also the way he played with his cars that signaled he was autistic. 

He would focus only on the wheels and how they turned, but not with actually playing with the car.  He would line them up on the floor in color order and would be upset for hours if one was out of place.  He didn’t like to race them or play cars with other kids. 

As parents, we didn’t know any different.  We thought this was how he played and that he was just very protective of his special toys.  But teachers and therapists were able to see things we couldn’t.  The more we read about autism, the more we realized that Howie had other indicators as well.  Two long doctor appointments with a developmental pediatrician and several months later, Howie was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

Four years and endless hours of specialized therapy later, things are very different. Howie is about to start first grade in a mainstream classroom with one-on-one support.  He now enjoys playing many different things with friends – tag, board games, and of course, racing cars.  That has been the constant through it all.

His teachers, aides, and therapists all know that the way to connect with him is through those cars.  In kindergarten, when he was asked to draw four of “something”, he’d draw four Hot Wheels cars.  Or when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, it was a “race car driver” with a picture of him in a Hot Wheels car.  For Halloween last year he was a Hot Wheels car, a costume custom-made for him by my husband, complete with the logo and flames on the side.

And when Howie is out of sorts – when the world around him is too overwhelming – he retreats back to building his “Hot Wheels City”.  He designs the track in his head.  Methodically, he pulls out each piece of orange track – loops, curves, boosters and straights – and fits them together just like the picture in his mind.  He calms himself.  He has a finished product that he can be proud of and share with others.

Hot Wheels changed our lives. It became the vehicle, if you will, for communicating with my son. It is how his dad connected with him, how his older and younger brothers play with him.

And I had to learn how to play with him too.

I get down on the floor. 

That may not mean much to other moms.

Howie chooses a car for me. 

But playing cars is the one way in to communicating with my boys.

My three-year-old drives his car over to me.

It’s how we connect.

He says “Hi, Mom’s car.”

It’s how we interact.

Howie says “Wanna race?” and whispers to me that he’ll let his brother win.

It’s how we healed as a family.

Ready…set…go!

Hot Wheels.  Beat that!

*This article is a sponsored post by Hot Wheels.

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