Dinosaur themed parties are weird. Who in their right mind wants a party based on a lot of dead animals, right? Pirate parties are also ridiculous. Why celebrate a child’s birthday surrounded by reminders of the barbaric thieves who used to rule the sea? Don’t get me started on princess parties. I’ve never been a frilly girl and I have three boys so the whole idea is beyond me. This, of course, is the mantra I chanted as we planned my son’s 9th birthday…at the Laundromat.
Aiden has autism, and for as long as I can remember, he has been in love with washing machines. Dryers are pretty good, but the washing machines are the ones most near and dear to his heart. Even before I ever heard the word ‘autism’, I knew to keep the laundry room door shut because once Aiden started walking he would go straight to the washer and try to climb in.
Washing machines played a role in Aiden’s speech development. He only had a few words at two, but at three we saw a language burst. He would walk around and say, “washerwasherwasherwasher”. Say it fast, just like that. Can you hear it through the ears of a child with autism? If you say it long enough, you will hear the sound of the motor whirring and the steady beat of laundry spinning. This was the gateway to other laundry themed words and eventually, non-laundry themed words.
Aiden started collecting Sunday circulars from any appliance store that had pictures of washers. We cut out the pictures and made him a little book that he could look through when he got anxious or the world became too big. As he got older, he started watching washers “clonk” on YouTube (AidenSpeak for when the washer is spinning and the load becomes uneven). He worked for trips to appliance stores. We would spend hours walking through Lowes and staring at washing machines when he had a good day. Aiden would inspect each and every one diligently turning dials, opening and shutting doors, comparing and contrasting the top loaders from the front loaders. The first time he saw the bright red front loader display, you would have thought he found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He was complete.
I did not think that moment could be topped until one day when I found myself with a broken washing machine and not enough money for repairs. I loaded up the kids and headed to the Laundromat for the first time. It was by far the lousiest one I had ever been to. It was musty, had cracked tiles, there was no TV, and a few machines were out of order. Aiden threw his arms up in the air and said, “I love this place! I love all of the washers!!!” He spent the entire time inspecting each one, listening to the motors, laughing, helping load and unload the laundry and really looked to be in his element. Until that moment, it had not ever crossed my mind to take him to one. Not once. It was one of my greatest “Duh!” moments of momdom. From then on, working washing machine or not, we made special trips to Laundromats all over town.
This year has been a struggle for Aiden. I think he has become much more aware of the fact that he is different from the other kids. He skips words when he talks, school work is harder for him than his peers, and playing takes a lot of effort. Aiden’s autism makes overgrown grass look like an endless jungle, and the soft buzz of a dull motor or overhead light most of us don’t hear sound like a drill against his ear. Anxiety is constantly trying to be managed and it usually resorts into tears and hugs away from “the friends” he so desperately wants to interact with – it’s just so hard! The little boy who has never known a stranger and always has a hug for an upset classmate suddenly started becoming withdrawn and moody. He was giving up on this whole “social interaction” gig.
So when Aiden said he didn’t want a birthday party, my mama-heart sank and my mama-brain went into full distress mode. How could I fix this for him? How could I make him comfortable again? The Laundromat! My husband talked to the manager at a local Laundromat and after many reassurances that no-we-are-not-crazy, she gladly agreed to let us have a party in there. There was a lounge area, video games, vending machines, a tv, and of course, washers & dryers.
I worried what our friends and family would think when they got a birthday invitation to a Laundromat party. I prefaced it with, “Aiden is constantly pushed to adhere to “our rules”, you know, those of us who don’t have autism. For his birthday, we’re inviting you guys to jump feet first into his.” The reaction was amazing.
About 30 people showed up for the party: family members, family friends, kids with autism, kids without autism; they all had a blast. When Aiden walked in, his whole Self lit up. He started dancing and singing. Every time someone else would walk in, he didn’t necessarily go say hi, but he would grin and say, “More friends!” He was showered with gifts ranging from toys to a book on Laundromats, to laundry detergent and laundry kits, to quarters for future Laundromat adventures. For that hour and a half, he didn’t have to worry about anything. We followed his lead, and saw the beauty in his passion. In his world.
Aiden has taught me so much about life, patience, and washing machines. He is Exactly Aiden, and the hard part for him is being Aiden plus Your Comfort Zone. He is sincere in life the way many strive for, but never get to because of imposed norms. While many people try to enjoy being someone or something that they’re not, he enjoys being exactly himself. I believe he taught everyone a little something at the Laundromat party. “Different” is in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t hurt to stop and see the world from another perspective every now and again.