James LOVES traffic lights. He's loved them since he was 4. He has them all over the house, he writes stories about them, sings songs about them while doing his laps, draws millions of pictures of them and prints any photos he can find off the internet to create books. We have a hundred hours of FLIP film footage of traffic lights on my computer. James would film each light we drove through, then watch the videos when he got home.
When he first became obsessed with them, I assumed it would be a passing phase, but 4 years and 3 halloween costumes later, he loves them even more. Last year, a 5 way intersection was completed near our house. It wasn't on the way to school, but James knew they were putting up some new lights, so we would change our route to go through it each day. The day it was completed, it was pouring. I had to drive through the intersection every possible way that morning during rush hour so he could film it. Imagine going through a hellish light in Boston traffic in pouring rain, only to turn around and go through it again, and again, and again and so on...
I didn't try to convince him not to do it, because I knew how important it was for him (and I knew how bad the meltdown would be if I didn't!). He filmed the entire time, keeping track and saying "last one" when we were about to go through the last possible way. I know it is probably silly of me to have done this- it took over an hour, but I think it was one of the happiest times of his life.
I think he is drawn to the lights because the are so predictable. He can't handle not knowing what is coming up next, he won't even flip a coin for turn taking - not because he is afraid he might lose, but because he doesn't know which side is going to turn up, and that troubles him. He's always been fixated with patterns and colors, so it totally made sense to me when he started obsessing about the lights. His interest goes deeper than that, though- he notices and appreciates the differences in the lights. He notices the (I'm so out of my league here I don't even know what to call them) specifics of the frame, and whether they are installed above the intersection or next to it.
A few weeks ago when we visited the pharmacologist for the first time, the Dr. asked James what he liked, and no surprise, James answered traffic lights. Dr. then asked the reasonably obvious question of a young child who loves traffic lights: "what is your favorite color?" and I laughed, because I knew what was going to happen next, having heard this question and James's answer about a trillion times. James answered "blue". Dr. assumed James didn't know his colors and tried to correct him to green instead of blue, but all of a sudden James cut him off mid-question to say "most traffic lights have black backgrounds, and some yellow. Some have gray. I like the blue ones best. I've never seen a blue background, but have pictures of it from Mom's computer. I want to see a blue traffic light most of all because I think it would be beautiful." Dr. was floored, and I was thrilled to hear him actually explain his rationale. That, to me, was the best thing ever, to hear James explain his feelings to someone else, something he could never do until this past year.
I've begun to think of traffic lights as a symbol for our journey. We'll be moving forward thinking everything is going smoothly, then all of a sudden, there will be a warning sign. We will only have a split second to decide what to do. Do we stop suddenly and address the issue that is coming up, or do we speed up a bit and try to make it through without any mishaps? For James and me, I've learned that it is far better to stop, take a breath and evaluate the entire scene before we know it is safe to continue on. Everyone needs a break to regroup, but kids with ASD (and their moms!) need it more regularly, because quite frankly, Autism usually looks a lot like this:
So, I love traffic lights too. I love them because my son trusts that they will always do the same thing, but also because he sees something in them that I don't - he thinks they are special and notices every single one of them and appreciates their uniqueness.
The other morning he noticed that one green light has a swirl when it isn't lit. Now he wants to go to school that way every day now so he can watch it. So we will, if only so he will keep talking to me in the car and helping me figure out when I need to stop and when it is safe to go.