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Home Is Where The Hat Is

31 Mar

I cannot say for sure when my firstborn son decided that he had to wear a hat at all times. Looking back at old pictures, it seems apparent that he spent most of his toddlerhood in a hatless state. I don’t remember him ever being resistant to wearing a hat, although from the get-go he was picky about the style of hat that he would allow onto his head.

All I know is that at some point – I’m pretty sure it was during one summer or another, the hat became a permanent fixture. It wasn’t even a gradual progression, like his preference for insistence on striped shirts was. It was an overnight thing. One day, he could take his hat or leave it. The next day, it had to go everywhere with him, even into the bathtub. Even to bed. The absence of the hat became an instant source of extreme distress for him. Taking it away from him would make him scream as if the world was ending. One day, when we forcibly removed the hat to throw it into the washing machine, a complete stranger called us from New Zealand and said that the noise had woken him from his slumber, and had we just removed our child’s kidney?

OK, I made that last bit up, but you get the picture. George will defend to the very last his right to have his hat with him no matter what.

On the surface of it, this may not seem like a big problem, but it is amazing how the full-time presence of a hat can encroach on real life. And so we had to work with George’s teachers and therapists to wean him from the hat, or at least get him to the point where he could do without it for brief periods of time.

Several years later, George is still into the hat. Whenever he outgrows a hat, my mother sends a bigger one from South Africa. We do have hats in Canada, of course, but the ones provided by my mom are so cool, so she is in charge of upgrading the hats.

We are able to persuade him to remove the hat at certain times. At bathtime it comes off his head, and remains out of his reach but always in a place where he can see it. When he is at school, he takes it off and hangs it on the hook in his cubby, only putting it on for lunch and recess. And at bedtime, the hat sleeps on the pillow beside him. To our eternal relief, he now consents (with just a little bit of protest) to having his hat taken  away for the purpose of being washed.

Although he takes it off when he absolutely has to, George still loves his hat and he always has to know where it is.

So if you’re ever in my neighbourhood and come across a shy, sweet boy who doesn’t say much and wears a striped shirt and a hat from Africa, chances are that you’re looking at my beautiful son.

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George’s New Hat

14 May

When my Mom came from South Africa for my wedding, she came bearing gifts for the boys. Among other things, each of them got a new hat. James wears his because it’s cool, and because none of his friends at school has an “Africa hat”. George wears his because he’s weird about hats. For George, a hat is not just a hat. It’s an essential part of his routine, one that he feels completely lost without.

George’s previous hat was provided by my Mom as well. She mailed it over to me about a year ago, and since then it’s been practically glued to his head (except for the times when I sneak it into the washing machine while he is sleeping). The new hat is identical to the old hat. It’s got the same “South Africa” lettering on it, and it has the same animal pictures in the same pattern. The only difference is that while the old hat was cream-coloured, the new hat is blue.

For George, switching hats is a big deal. Imagine what it would be like if someone decided to remove your head and replace it with a new one. It may seem like an extreme example, but that is, for George, what switching hats is like. He got so comfortable with the old one, and so used to it, that getting rid of it was an unbearable prospect, one that resulted in meltdowns and anxiety attacks (mostly on George’s part, but a little bit on mine too).

There were house guests galore for a couple of weeks leading up to the wedding, and that in itself was a lot for my routine-dependent child with autism. Gerard suggested that maybe this was not the time to switch hats on George, and I had to agree. So we left it for a while. By last weekend, things had quietened down considerably. The wedding was a week in the past, and the only guest remaining was my Mom.

During a rough-and-tumble moment of play, George’s hat fell off. On a whim, I grabbed it and shoved it into the washing machine (it was starting to smell a little gamey). I took out the new hat and put it on George’s head. Predictably, he went ballistic. Screaming, kicking, tossing the hat away from him, crying with utter distress.

Fortunately, the old hat was not an option. At that moment, it was wet and sudsy and being tossed around in the washing machine.  So there was no choice but to persevere with the new hat.

As George tossed himself screaming around the floor, I maneuvered him onto his back and sat on his legs, leaving his arms free. The hat was on the floor behind him, but within his reach. I looked into his eyes and started throwing out sums at him.

What’s four times five?

What’s three plus four?

What’s twenty minus six?

And so on. Each time I tossed out a question, George answered it. He seems to have a genuine love for numbers, and this technique is proving to be a surefire way of distracting him when he’s upset.

Sure enough, he gradually calmed down. When he started reciting times tables, I knew we were close. And then, slowly but surely, while he was still reciting his times tables, he reached behind him and casually put the new hat on his head.

It was a minor battle, but it was a battle nonetheless. And we won it, me and my boy.