Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It's a kind of magic...

We went to Disneyland Sunday – the day after Captain Adventure was almost eaten by sharks when he plunged into 30 foot icy-cold waters off the coast of Alaska jumped into the pool.

You can imagine how calm and rational I was by then. Ahem. Yeah, I’d come up with at least sixteen THOUSAND ways he could be maimed or killed at the park – most of them involving a fast-running autistic kid and moving rides.

As we parked in the structure, my husband (probably sick of me and my constant “WAIT! What if he ends up {ridiculously improbable tragic end}?!”) suddenly said, “Hey. Do you suppose they have some kind of sticker or something we could put on him?”

I married a brilliant man, people.

Disney is big with the stickers and buttons. Birthdays, anniversaries, first visits – if you’re having An Event of any kind that you are celebrating at Disneyland, go to City Hall and ask. They probably have a button, and the cast members are always watching for them, and they will respond with appropriate congratulations, salutations, and if they have any “perks” they can offer, they frequently will.

So I went into City Hall to see if they had, you know, some subtle button or sticker we could staple, sew, hot-glue and otherwise attach to his little body. Maybe a battery-powered neon one that flashed something like, “I AM AN OVER-STIMULATED AUTISTIC CHLD! IF I’M RUNNING AND GIGGLING AND THERE ISN’T A PARENT BEING DRAGGED BEHIND ME CLUTCHING THE OTHER END OF MY BUDDY HARNESS, GRAB ME! REWARD FOR CAPTURE!”

Subtlety personified, that’s me.

So I walked up to the desk and sputtered out something about my son and he’s autistic, well, he’s…he’s not, you know…well. Yes. He’s autistic. Technically it’s PDD-NOS, ha-ha, which is, you know, not AUTISM-autism, but…yeah. Well. Anyway! We were wondering if you had, you know, some official button or something…because we know your cast members are trained in special needs kids, and we’re just kind of concerned that, if he gets away from us and all…

Did I mention that I am oh-so-smooth, too?

“I understand completely,” the perky young lady said cheerfully. “So, would you like to have me designate your stroller a wheelchair?”

{blink-blink} “Uh, well, he can walk and everything, he’s not disabled, he’s just…”

“Can he stand in lines? Wait his turn patiently and so forth?”

“Uh, well…not really. Sort of. If they’re really short.” (This, of course, means ‘no, he can totally NOT handle standing in lines,’ which he can’t – he generally doesn’t get to go on more than one or maybe two rides over a twelve hour period in the park, because he can’t handle something as simple as even a thirty minute wait in a line.)

“Does he handle crowds well?”

“Um…sort of? They don’t scare him or anything, usually, but he does get flustered. And lost easily, too.”

“What’s his name? How old is he?” she asked kindly, pen poised.

“Uh…Captain Adventure, and he’s four…”

“Hi, Captain Adventure! Hey buddy! Are you four? Are you a big boy, four years old? Are you going to have fun today?”

He stared at her left ear for a second, then dropped his gaze down, put his hands in front of his face and began wriggling his fingers frantically, humming loudly and swinging his head back and forth. Nice. Thanks, kid. ‘Oh, he’s not, you know AUTISTIC-autistic’, sure, right, Crazy Denial Lady…

“Ooooookay! Let’s get you out to the fun, Captain Adventure!” she enthused, then looked back to me. “How many in your party? Six? Good, that’s the max for the card, ha ha! Just for today? OK. Here’s your pass, and here’s the description of where you enter the rides. Show this to the first cast member you see at any attraction, and they can direct you. Some attractions you will go up the exit ramp, some you will have to wait through the line BUT you do NOT have to park your stroller.”

“You mean…we can…” We can wait in a line with him lashed to buckled in his stroller?! Instead of having to PHYSICALLY HOLD HIM, in our arms, the whole time?! Holy crap, that alone was…it was just…{sob!} I’so’happy…!

“Absolutely! We want you all to have the best day possible here! Now, if any cast members have any questions, they can call us here. If you encounter any difficulties at all, see the nearest cast member for assistance.”

So we went forth with our card declaring our stroller to be a wheelchair (the stamp actually has an icon of a stroller, an ‘=’, and a wheelchair icon!)…and the difference in our day with him was staggering.

For some of the rides, usually ones with very narrow and/or twisty line queues (the worst kind for Mr. Man!), our access was up the exit ramp. At the end of the ramp, we were greeted by a ride attendant who checked our card and queued us up right there. The area itself was quieter than the main line. Not nearly the same crush of people, not so many voices talking-talking-talking, fewer people trying to engage that adorable little boy in conversation. The cast members were brilliant at handling him, quick to take stock and know just how much interaction was perfect…quicker still to back right off if he showed signs of distress.

And, most importantly, while we waited our turn, he could clearly see the ride we were about to board. We were in the right place! There it was! The boats! The cars! The elephants!

Usually, theme park lines are hell for him. He’s very linear in his reasoning, with very little ability to think either ahead OR behind. He really struggles with the concept of “we must do this first for a while, and then we get to do that.”

Even if we make him do it, so he realizes that “ooooooh, I see, I AM going on the ride!”, it doesn’t necessarily “take” until we’ve done it a whack of times.

Just because it worked out that once doesn’t mean it will work out this time. And even then, it doesn’t automatically transfer to other situations, even extremely similar ones. Just because it worked out on Autopia does not mean he will understand the same concept holds true on Peter Pan. Nope, you have to start all over with it, with the explaining, the demonstrating, the walking him up and down the line so he can see where it starts and where it ends, responding to his increasingly anxious questioning (“Go dat way? Cars? Mommy? DO CARS? MOMMY! GO DAT WAY! NO! DAT WAY! CARS!!!!!!”), physically restraining him when he finally :pops!: and makes a break for it…sigh

It’s loads of fun. No really.

This is also why I have gone on King Triton’s Carousel so many times that, were it an airline, I’d have enough miles for a first class roundtrip ticket to Hawaii with eight days, seven nights in a five star hotel. He likes it well enough, there’s no line…SOLD!

But under this system, he was far more calm and patient. Nobody was jostling him, there weren’t hundreds or thousands of people crushing in on him, he could plainly see that he was getting what he was expecting to get. Oh, I have to wait my turn? Um…OK…I’d rather not, but OK…the waits were also far shorter than the standard line queue, well within his twenty minute max before meltdowns start no matter how hard we try to head them off.

He went on more rides Sunday than in his whole life before that.

And as we went, he began to laugh, to smile, to cheer, to engage with his surroundings. No more staring at his feet, or his hands. No more shaking his head wildly from side to side. No more random screaming and kicking.

And then…he began to talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. He was so excited by all the wonderful things around him that he just had to share!

“Ride boat today? Good job, mommy!”


“’Ee go TRAIN! CHOO-CHOO! Ee go train an’ RED an’ fast! Good job, Daddy!!!”

It wasn’t until the next day that how great a gift this was to us really hit me. At the time I was just happy that he had a good time, that for once neither he nor his long-suffering sisters had to endure a rotten series of disappointments. And that I had been spared the extreme low-back pain a day of holding a 45 pound kid in your arms as he fights to get down so he can bolt for the front of the ride through line after long, weary line will bring on.

That made me real happy.

The next morning, he ran downstairs, jumped into my lap with a huge grin and great excitement.

“Mommy! Sing! Sing Birdie Sing!” he hollered, and then helpfully started things off for me: “En dah eeki-eeki-eeki OOM! En dah eeki-eeki-eeki-eeki OOM! Birdies sing tweet-tweet-tweet, foh-whors OOM…EN DAH EEKI-EEKI-OOOOOOOM!!!!” (Don’t recognize it? Try this, but watch out! It not only plays a song, it’s a song with the brain-worm virus embedded in it!!)

As he continued to babble about the red bird and the blue bird and the airplane ride and the boat ride and the tigers and the fish and and and…I suddenly realized that I was hearing new words.

And…not only new words…OH MY GAWD, he was offering conversation. Real, back-n-forth conversation. Not just one word blurts, not only responses to questions with no further exploration unless prodded.

He continued trains of thoughts. He wanted to talk about how FIRST a bird did THIS, and THEN another bird did THAT. The train went HERE, then THERE. And Daddy went THAT way, with Boo Bug, and then Danger Mouse had ice cream! With chocolate!

And then, after a solemn, contemplative pause, “Mommy…I like-it chocolate ice cream, too! Yeah. Chocolate ice cream yummy.

Oh. My. Gawd. I’ve seen bare hints of that kind of language skill from him…but this was a flood.

I don’t know if it will stick. I don’t know if a switch has been permanently thrown and the ‘conversation’ neurons are getting some more juice in that little noggin of his, or if this will fade as time passes and the excitement wears off.

But right now, he’s saying new things, and saying them in new ways. Good things, good ways. And I truly believe the positive stimulation he had at the park this time around is a big part of why.

Disney Magic at its finest, people.

It isn’t in the rides, or the buildings; it isn’t sprinkled on the food or gassed into the air. That magic comes from the people, the cast members, who went out of their way to be kind and accommodating, quietly and expertly enabling him to have an experience I didn’t think he could possibly have. They opened a new door in his mind. Whether it stays open or not, I’m so grateful I could just hug them, each and every one.

Thanks, guys. All of you. You really went above and beyond for us, provided a level of service that was beyond first-rate…even though we’re “just”, well, us. Nothin’ special here, but you made us feel like we were incredibly important, worth extra effort, that our good time was valuable beyond reason.

You can’t know what it meant to me, to see my little guy have such a good time, to watch him taking in those sights and sounds and sensations, to have a full day with him that didn’t involve constantly dealing with (and resisting the urge to smack the daylights out of) irritated strangers sick of his antics.

Thanks for understanding and accepting him, letting him be him and adjusting your world a little bit so he could still enjoy it.

But most of all, thanks for giving him so danged much to talk about that he just couldn’t keep it inside anymore. Those garbled new words and phrases mean the world to us, they really do.

May the magic you’ve given return to each and every one of you, three-fold.


Jan said...

This. Is. Awesome.

I hope you'll send a copy of this to the folks at Disney -- I'll bet those characters get a lotta complaints and not so many bright shining moments.

I've always said if you want exciting rides, you go to Magic Mountain; you go to Disneyland for the atmosphere.

So glad for you and for CA.

PS -- 45 pounds? Holy carp, woman. My few-weeks-older Munchkin is at right about 33!

Anonymous said...

What she said! This indeed sounds magical, and you should most definitely send a copy to Disney.

Anonymous said...

I know these are rare moments and that makes them all the sweeter and more amazing. No one who hasn't been there can truly appreciate your feelings, but you do a fantastic job of describing them. Thank you for adding a lovely moment to my day.

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy to read that your family had a great day. I'm even happier to read about your son talking about it! :)

(formerly) no-blog-rachel said...

Wow - you gave me goosebumps and tears in my eyes at the same time.

My husband is a total non-fan of Disney. I'm going to show him this entry so he can see what good there is too. I'm so glad you had that wonderful experience!

Science PhD Mom said...

Awwwwwwww, that is BRILLIANT Tama!!! I'm so excited for you & Captain Adventure! You have rekindled my love of Disneyland and Disney World. It truly is the people who work there that make the difference, and that is even including my brother who worked there while an irritable teenager. Somehow they know how to get the best out of everyone. Yay Disney, and YAY Tama & Tama's DH for asking for the special sticker!!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. So glad you ALL had a great time with Mickey! Keep talking, Captain!

Anonymous said...

My DD and my Ausberger grandson and I went to Disneyland, armed with a statement from his doctor, to get this kind of permit at city hall. It was great for him, too. Since DD was post-due date for my granddaughter, the walk did her good. VBG!

Do send a copy of your post by snail mail to Disney, so they will continue this courtesy, please.

Anonymous said...

Reading this made my day. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Kudos to Disney for giving you such an amazing experience.

Tola said...

omg this post made me cry at work! im so happy for you having a fun day with CA and his sisters. <3 Tola

Threeundertwo said...

I'm going to link this post over to LaughingPlace.com, where a number of cast members post. This is such a wonderful wonderful story.

For future reference, you can go to City hall during a trip and leave a kind comment for any cast member that went out of their way to help you. This means a lot to them.

There is also a website http://www.whatwouldwaltdo.com/ to acknowledge outstanding cast members.

I am thrilled about your son. This story brought tears to my eyes.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! I have tears too. Now if Disney could start training our public schools (well mine anyway). That's just so, so awesome. I'm so glad you all had a great time. Gush, gush, gush.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh. Just clicked the link. May be singing eekie oom all dang day. Can't say I wasn't warned.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing and reminding us why we love the Disney magic!

Anonymous said...

What a joy and a blessing to have the communication flood! I can only imagine how overwhelmed you were - and I work with children like Captain Adventure! May it continue!

Threeundertwo said...


Anonymous said...

I'm in love! Captain Adventure will you marry me ? You beautiful, wonderful boy!

Oh and mom, we love you too!

Beth said...

What a great story! Great isn't even the right word... wonderful is more like it. :o)


Abbreviated said...

Awesome !

Steph said...

threeundertwo directed me here via Twitter, and I'm freaking crying (in a good way). This post moved me beyond any words I have, truly.

YAY for all of you! YAY for Disney! Mostly, YAY for one little dude who got a little magic!

Yarnhog said...

Teary eyes.

Have you sent this to Disney? I'll bet they'd love to see it.

San Diego Momma/Two Funny Brains said...

I'm so used to reading why people aren't happy with something, that this was such a welcome surprise.

I'm glad that this trip was made so special. And I hope its effects live on and on...

Beautiful post.

Anonymous said...

Greetings, Tamarian, this was posted on the Fool - I haven't kept up and did not know of Captain Adventure's diagnosis of autism. What a wonderful tale to relate! I loved reading it. My close childhood girlfriend's daughter is autistic (she just turned 13 this summer), high-functioning, and I remember that her progress came in spurts, often triggered by a new adventure that was made pure and painless, as Disney did for you. Her daughter is inventive and imaginitive in a way unique to autism and much of the trauma that can initially surround the diagnosis has long since smoothed out along the way. SO GLAD to hear of a fun day for Captain Adventure and the whole family and I wish you many, many, many more moments of light and joy as he becomes a bigger boy every week, month, year. Love, xraymd

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm bawling over here, but in the best possible way. Yay Disney! Yay Captain Adventure! Yay Tama! Yay Tama's DH for thinking of the sticker! Yay whole family! And what whiplash, from the what ifs of the day before...

Anonymous said...

I've been lurking for a few months and loving your blog, but THIS one I HAVE to comment on!! I cried and aplauded when I got to the 'eeki oom' part.
Definately do share this with Disneyland - they need all the encouragement they can get.
Thanks for sharing your life's trials and joys.

Louiz said...

I haven't been a fan of Disney since forever (cough... little mermaid... cough) but this is fantastic!

I'm so happy for you and your family and hope it's a permanent switch on.

Hollis said...

I smell a research grant! Disney Trips Cure Autism, film at 11...

Linda said...

I wish I'd had one of those neon signs to put on my child! Even then, I don't think people would understand what they were reading or seeing.

Linda K in AZ

Patty said...

Yeah Disney! I'm SO happy that your visit worked out a thousand times better than anticipated. And that Captain Adventure is having such a great time talking about it. I agree with Jan, make sure you send something to Disney so they know what an impact their caring had.

Michelle F said...

Hi Tama!
As a Spec Ed aide I was so happy reading this - I loved the comment about a research grant! I wonder if it would fund a "field trip" for 7 kids, 1 teacher and 5 aides from MA to Disneyland to see how it would improve their communication skills!
Awsome post!

Unknown said...

Count me among the people who love to hate Disney coming away from this story with much love for them.

They get it. They truly do. And I'm so happy for the results!

Marianne said...

Oh Tama, I've never even met Captain Adventure and I'm tearing up reading this with happiness for him, and for you!

Unknown said...

Tama, that story is really awesome, and I am so happy for you all! I too have been a lurker since Steph/YarnHarlot mentioned your blog. It is wonderful and very light at heart! Thank you so much.

Melissa said...

I've had this post open for a couple days, rereading it. I love it. I'm so happy for you and Captain Adventure!

RaplhCramden said...

You're making me cry! I hope the whole world moves that way very quickly! I'm proud to be a Disney stock owner.