It is the second day of school for Nikhil. After six months at home and online classes in the summer, Nikhil is perplexed to find himself still attending online classes. Each night, he has been asking hopefully (via his iPad) “School tomorrow?” only to be told, “Sorry, Nikhil, no school”. Even though Nikhil’s school has opened and his teachers and staff are taking extraordinary precautions, we have opted for online classes. He goes through the motions the first day at home, clearly not happy.
The second day, he seems resigned to his fate. After one of his online therapy sessions, he signs “Outside” on his iPad. Usually, this is a sign that he wants to go out for a drive in the van. We reflexively reply, “Not now, Nikhil, in the evening”. His therapist, who is still on the Zoom call then tells us that after each session, Nikhil is taken for a short walk outside his classroom. He brightens up perceptibly as I open the sunroom door and we step outside. Thus starts a new routine that has been going strong for the last month.
“Going out” for Nikhil has always meant a ride in the van. He has always resisted efforts to take him out for a walk in the neighborhood or in the backyard. On a couple of occasions when we put on his shoes and stepped out with him, he refused to walk and adopted the Gandhian strategy of plonking himself down and staging a satyagraha (passive non-cooperation) of sorts. He is fine if we drive him in the van to a trail or the park and then go for a walk. In his book, every trip begins with a van ride. Hence, his new-found enthusiasm for walks in the backyard was a pleasant surprise.
Now, after each class, if I am not in a meeting, I take him out for a short walk in the backyard. It’s getting a little too cold for my wife’s liking and I welcome the break. Nikhil being a creature of habit, follows a predictable routine. Even as he holds my hand and steps out into the patio, he keeps pointing towards the yard. I assure him that we are going for a walk. However, as he takes a few steps, he stops and turns, and points back towards the sunroom door. In the past, I used to tell him a couple of times that he could go back in after the walk and I would then propel him forward. I’ve realized now that Nikhil has to be given choices and not orders. Now I ask him whether he wants to go for a walk or go back inside. He then points towards the yard. We continue walking and Nikhil taps his shoulder asking me to tell him his favorite story.
The story starts with us getting Nikhil ready to go out. We have to step through each article of clothing as we dress him (always starting with his diaper) and continue in the exact sequence of strapping him in his car-seat, reversing the van on the driveway, and going to the trash dump. Recycling station first followed by throwing the trash and then taking the freeway to the Mall. By this time, we have completed the first loop in the backyard. Nikhil listens intently to the story and if I have missed anything, he stops and refuses to move till I get the sequence right.
He also pauses if he hears a plane and points to the sky. As we pass the edge of the house, if he sees a truck on the street, it’s an additional bonus. We have to stop and appreciate the truck. The larger the better. The ones from the tree service companies are his favorite. If not, UPS trucks or even pickups will do. After the truck has passed, we resume our walk. I then have to describe reaching the mall, taking the escalator up, and reaching the food court. At this point, he has a large grin on his face and he is excited.
I reach the climax of the story. “And while mummy and akku (older sister) look for a table to sit in the food court, Nikhil and papa go to the restroom at the back of the food court. We go to the sink and Nikhil rolls up his sleeves. Nikhil then places his hand under the faucet and we turn the faucet on.” Nikhil is positively giddy with excitement. He stims excitedly and I hold both his hands and guide them to simulate the motions of him washing his hands and rubbing them together after placing his hands under the soap dispenser. It’s time to rinse his hands again and dry them using the paper towels. The story ends with Nikhil and papa joining mummy and akku for lunch – fried rice and spicy chicken, of course! I have to calibrate the story so we get four or five loops in the backyard.
No matter how many times I tell this story, for Nikhil, this is exciting stuff. For someone who is a creature of habit and thrives on a routine, the last few months have been puzzling for him. He does not get to go to school, yet he sees his teachers and some of his classmates in his classroom during the Zoom sessions. The first time he noticed this, he asked my wife wistfully “School tomorrow? Van tomorrow?” Besides school, his next two favorite activities involve going to Costco and inspecting all the appliances in the appliance aisle and then going to the Mall and washing his hands in the restroom. I can’t explain his fascination for the last activity but I guess in Nikhil’s opinion it sure beats shopping. And washing hands during these times is a good thing!
In many ways, I think Nikhil is trying to recreate his familiar routines as much as he can. The walks after the therapy sessions are a reminder of his walks at school and even though he can’t go to school, he can still go outside after a therapy session just as he did at school. The stories I tell him lets him visualize his trips to the mall and to Costco. It’s fall now and the ground is a carpet of pine needles and yellowed leaves. It’s getting chilly but it’s still pleasant and the walk is a welcome break from work. However, Nikhil is a stickler for his routine, and the way things are going, I think I will have to get my snowshoes out for the winter!