How a MythBusters miracle helped my anxious, autistic son
A year ago today, a miracle happened. You’re looking at it right here: a photo of my autistic son and his big sister, up on stage with MythBusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman.
What makes this picture miraculous isn’t the celebrity encounter. It’s what went into making that encounter possible…and what meeting Adam and Jamie did for my son.
The process of making this miracle began when I first saw that MythBusters was coming to Vancouver. At that point, Peanut had been watching MythBusters avidly for about two years, to the almost complete exclusion of all other programs. He watched his favorite episodes over and over, screamed with excitement at the release of each new season, and cited MythBusters-gleaned factoids on a daily basis.
When tickets for the live MythBusters show went on sale in June 2015, I bought four tickets immediately. I figured it would be torturous for Peanut to wait six months to see his heroes if he knew they were coming to town, so I saved the big announcement as a Hanukkah surprise. Sure enough, when he opened the envelope with our family’s tickets, Peanut’s jaw dropped: he could hardly wait the week to see Adam and Jamie in the flesh.
Even though seeing MythBusters live was a dream experience for Peanut, I knew he’d need some preparation. I read a short description of the show to both kids, and they were thrilled to hear that the stars invite random audience members on stage to participate in experiments. They solemnly promised one another that if either one of them got picked, they’d try to invite the other on stage, too.
And I made sure to talk with them about what to do if they weren’t invited on stage. “I’ll just think, maybe it’ll happen some other time,” Peanut told me.
The day before the show, Peanut announced that he wanted his support worker/tutor, M., to join us for the show. “She’s a big MythBusters fan, too.”
“I’m afraid we only have four tickets, buddy,” I told him.
“She can have my ticket, then.” Hmm, that was a strange offer. Was he looking for a way out of the big event? Rather than find out, I went online, and picked up one more ticket so that M. could join us.
When they got home from school a few hours before the big show, the kids decided they wanted to make a sign to bring along. Peanut came up with the slogan, and Sweetie got to work on the art: a drawing of the show’s hosts. She completed her art work while eating an early dinner — there was no way I was taking the kids to a show without first insulating Peanut from the possibility of a blood sugar crash.
A little more than an hour before the show, I told the kids it was time to head off to the theater. Peanut’s face froze in panic.
“I don’t want to go. I’m too nervous.”
“Oh, buddy! You can’t miss MythBusters.”
“I can’t go!”
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m scared. I don’t want to see the show.”
“Let’s not think about the show right now. Just take it one step at a time. Can you put on your shoes?”
“OK. Can I use your iPhone in the car?”
Hmm, is that going to make it hard to get him out of the car? Well, I’d just have to take it one step at a time, too.
“Sure,” I told him. Maybe the distraction of the iPhone would keep him from focusing on his anxiety.
By the time we found our parking space — right across from the theater — any trace of anxiety was gone. I could barely keep up with Peanut as he raced into the theater. He settled into his seat, and then immediately asked for my iPhone; I handed it over so that he wouldn’t get overwhelmed by the crowd.
From the moment the show started, Peanut was bursting with excitement. Sweetie and Peanut hopped into the aisle with their sign, trying to catch Adam and Jamie’s eye: no luck. Peanut returned to his seat grinning madly, completely enraptured with the performance.
The promised calls for audience volunteers began nearly immediately. One of the first lucky participants was little girl who returned to the audience with an Adam and Jamie cape as her thank-you gift; Peanut growled and scowled in jealousy. When another set of volunteers was sent offstage with a pair of caps, Peanut groaned and looked liked he was about to blow his stack. I leaned over and pointed out that a scowling kid was unlike to get invited onstage.
At the end of the first act, Adam and Jamie made a plug for their swag stand, so the moment the lights came up, both kids raced up the aisle and made for the merchandise. Rob and I used the intermission to confer over how to handle Peanut’s mounting frustration at not being invited onstage. Rob wanted to prep Peanut for disappointment; I felt that we might as well let him enjoy the show, but prepare ourselves for a likely meltdown at the end. As long as Peanut was still hoping to get onstage, I argued, he’d be able to hold himself together and enjoy the show.
The second act put my theory to the test. As soon as Adam and Jamie returned to the stage, the kids got a lot more active about showing off their homemade sign. When the MythBusters called for their next set of volunteers, the kids leapt into the aisle and waved their sign. Adam spotted them and called them up.
I walked the kids to the edge of the stage, then stood nervously to see how the kid who was nearly too anxious to attend the theater would handle an audience of more than 2,500 people. But there wasn’t a hint of nerves in either kid. Sweetie and Peanut both introduced themselves politely, and Peanut hopped up and down in excitement.
Adam showed Peanut the magic wand that a fan had left onstage as a gift, and Peanut admired its detail and speculated that it must have been made in a wood shop. I braced myself for Peanut ripping into one of his long monologues, but amazingly, he stuck with a pretty standard (if unusually articulate) level of conversation while on stage. The kids got to participate in an “experiment” — blowing fart raspberries that were filmed at high speed and played back so the audience could enjoy their rippling facial expressions.
After five minutes on stage with his heroes, Peanut returned to his seat; both of our kids were absolutely glowing. On the car trip home, Sweetie couldn’t stop talking about her delight at meeting Jamie and Adam. Peanut retreated back to the iPhone, but wanted to know how he could email Adam. Later that night, I helped him dictate a message on Twitter, letting Adam know how much he loved the show, and giving the MythBusters his email address for future reference.
I expected that seeing the live show would make Peanut even more obsessive about the show, but over subsequent weeks, the opposite seemed to happen. Peanut still watched the show occasionally, but it wasn’t a round-the-clock experience anymore; he was actually willing to watch other shows. I consulted his psychologist to find out whether I’d somehow traumatized him by not only coaxing him into the theater, but actually encouraging him in his quest to get on stage.
“No, it’s a great touchstone,” she pointed out. “He’s going to remember that night for years and years. Now you can use that experience to help him remember and reflect on what’s possible when he overcomes his anxieties.”
It sounded nice in principle, so I started to mention the MythBusters experience periodically, particularly when Peanut expressed anxiety about a new situation.
“Remember how you overcame your anxiety the night of MythBusters?” It’s become my go-to line on the eve of birthday parties, and movie outings, and first days of school. While I sometimes get a vague nod in return, it’s hardly been a magic bullet: he’s still more likely to respond to anxiety by hiding under the furniture than by taking a deep breath and powering through.
So when Peanut announced last month that he and his sister were going to to sing a duet at their school’s Christmas concert, I was torn. On the one hand, I loved his courage. On the other, I suspected that only the desire to please his sister would induce Peanut to commit to such an anxiety-provoking challenge.
I tried to lay the groundwork a few weeks in advance.
“You two sound great together,” I enthused when they practiced their song in the car. “I can’t wait for the concert.”
The week before the concert, the school music teacher invited the two kids to practice with her accompaniment.
“No!” Peanut dug in his heels outside the music room. “I don’t want to. I’m fine.” Sweetie ran through the accompaniment on her own, and announced that they would instead be singing a capella; singing with a piano had thrown her off.
“Is that ok with you?” I asked Peanut. Maybe he needed the piano, even if his sister didn’t. He nodded vaguely, in what might have been lack of concern — or conversely, nervous avoidance. I couldn’t tell which.
The morning of the concert, we drove to the auditorium where the kids and their schoolmates were holding a final run-through. The kids climbed into the car without complaint, and Peanut happily trotted past the stage and into a seat near the front. He curled up with a book until the music teacher called him and his sister up to the stage.
“No!” he shouted. “I can’t do it! I have stage fright!”
I leaned down and rubbed his back.
“You can do it, buddy,” I murmured. “Let’s just take a few deep breaths.”
At this, Peanut dropped down between two rows of auditorium seats so that his teacher and classmates couldn’t see him.
“Why don’t you give him a minute,” I suggested. The music teacher moved onto the next number while I tried to calm Peanut’s nerves.
“Remember MythBusters?” I asked him. “You were anxious that night, too, but when you got past it, you had a great time.”
He shook his head. “I’m too scared! I can’t do it!”
Next, Sweetie tried her powers of persuasion.
“Come on, you’re going to do great,” she coaxed.
“No!” Peanut pulled himself out from between the seats and ran out of the auditorium. I followed, with Sweetie trailing after us.
“I know you can do it, Peanut.”
“No, I can’t! And I can’t go to school, either. I’m too embarrassed about my stage fright, and I hate myself for disappointing you.”
After a glass of milk and a piece of banana bread, Peanut decided he was ready to face school, after all. By the end of the afternoon, he and Sweetie had not only made peace, but she had somehow convinced him to give the concert another try.
“I’m still scared,” he told me. “But I’m going to try my best. I don’t want to let Sweetie down!”
When we got to the concert, he once again huddled in a corner of the auditorium with my iPhone. He barely looked up until it was his turn to sing. But as soon as his name was called, he hustled to the front of the stage.
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m very nervous about this,” he told an audience made up of his entire school (plus their parents). “And I’m not sure, but I managed to get up here. So I think everybody can achieve great things.”
As Peanut and Sweetie sang their song, I found myself thinking about the MythBusters show a year ago — the night that I captured what seemed like a miraculous moment. But meeting Jamie and Adam wasn’t Peanut’s miracle. His miracle was the lesson he got from facing his anxiety, and learning he could bust it.