This week we brought Collier to Pigeon Forge, TN for an early birthday trip. He had made a list of all the fun activities he wanted to do while we were on vacation. He had lots of fun things on his list: visit a haunted house, play putt-putt, go indoor snow tubing, watch the water fountain show and go to WonderWorks.
On our second day of vacation we carried him to the indoor snow tubing park. He had looked at pictures and videos of people tubing and was excited and ready to go….until we got into the park. As soon as we had paid and walked in the doors….autism anxiety kicked in full force.
All the sudden what had looked like a fun activity was fraught with danger in his mind. How will I carry my inner tube? Is the escalator too steep? Will I go too fast? Will I fall off? What if I don’t stop at the bottom?
We had to talk through those fears at the bottom and thought we finally had it worked out. He continued to ask questions as we went up the escalator to the top……and then got scared again as we got towards the top. He was having trouble with his inner tube and the attendant at the top yelled at him and pulled him off the moving lift rather quickly. Although she was trying to make sure he was safe, it startled Collier and he just lost it.
So here we were at the top of the ride, with the only way down being sliding on the tube….and a crying, shaking kiddo. It took awhile to get him to agree to go down, but eventually he did. We got him on the platform and seated in the inner tube….and then the anxiety hit again. Will I go too fast? Will I fall off? Will I get hurt? Finally, we told the girl working the platform (who had been fabulous with him), to let us go. She did…and we went sliding to the bottom.
He screamed at the top of his lungs all the way down…but I was relieved when we got to the bottom; I looked over and saw A SMILE!!!! Great, I thought, we’ll have a fun time for the rest of our hour and we can leave autism anxiety behind us now.
Nope….it wasn’t through with us yet. Halfway to the tubing platform, it caught back up with us. He started in with the exact questions as before. What if I can’t get off the escalator? Will I go too fast? Will I fall off? Will I get hurt? What if I don’t stop at the bottom? It didn’t seem to matter to him that he had already experienced the ride….his mind was still trying to make sure he wouldn’t enjoy himself.
We repeated our same answers and reminded him he had fun the first time. This time with just a few reassurances and a quick hug, he was ready to go. Again, he screamed the entire way down….and again he had a huge smile at the bottom.
We had gotten there at opening time hoping that the crowds would be low, and our strategy worked. This was great because we got to slide probably 15-20 times in our hour. I would like to tell you after that second time everything went perfect, but if I did, I’d be lying. Every few rides our old friend anxiety would pop-up and we would have to go through the laundry list again…… What if I can’t get off the escalator? Will I go too fast? Will I fall off? Will I get hurt? What if I don’t stop at the bottom? But each time we answered his questions, reassured him and tried to continue having a fun time.
There are sometimes that I just hate autism, and when his brain just won’t let him relax and enjoy life….I hate it most of all. When I see kids around him having fun on rides, being able to play games, and trying new things without fear….it makes me so angry that he has to deal with this. When I look around and see kids staring because here is this almost 12-year-old boy crying over a kid’s activity, it just hurts my heart.
But…I will not stop pushing him to experience life, even when it is scary. I want him to know and participate in the world around him as much as possible. What I will do is stand beside him, holding his hand and reassuring him, no matter how big he gets. And when his anxiety face gives way to a smile…I will enjoy it more than anyone will know.