My grandmother was the one who would bring me to The Beach when I was a kid. Going to the beach with my grandmother meant leaving first thing in the morning, driving an hour to Jones Beach, dragging towels and a beach chair across burning sand, spending the whole day swimming and building sandcastles and leaving around dinner time, exhausted and sand-caked and sunburned.
My father would take me to a very different kind of beach during my childhood – a local stretch of swimming-prohibited shore where we would search for dead things and use medical waste as squirt guns. I never even considered taking off my shoes or digging there. And I never thought of it as going to the beach.
Ryan adores going to the beach. For Ryan, going to the beach means spending a couple of hours on a swimming-friendly harbor beach about 20 minutes from home. There is a sprinkler park and a playground and grassy areas where he can pick dandelions. There’s often a pair of swans aggressively protecting their babies at the north end of the beach, and a school of tiny translucent fish at the south end. No matter how many people are on the beach, Ryan is utterly at peace, breaking up the dry top layer of sand with his fingers, wading up to his waist. He walks barefoot – a lifetime away from the shrieking sensory-defensive mess he used to become if sand touched his skin. I point out interesting shells and rocks; he throws them into the water without looking at them. Sometimes he sidles up to the sprinkler park, teetering on the edge of his comfort zone (you can tell which side of the comfort zone border he’s on by whether he stands on his toes or on flat feet).
At the beach, Ryan doesn’t even know I’m there. He doesn’t even need to recite Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. He is in his element. Peaceful. Quiet. Intense. He works his way across the beach on his hands and knees, methodically crumbling the crust of the sand inch after inch. He jumps over thin channels of water and walks around other kids’ castles without knocking them over.
He is happy.
And then he passes out in the car on the way home.
I am forever grateful to the occupational therapists who have helped Ryan overcome his sensory discomforts so he can enjoy the beach and tap into an elemental part of himself.