August 16, 2010
“We’re going to the jungle, Daddy?” asks my youngest son, who stopped dead in his tracks when my husband uttered the words “jungle” and “safari” in his presence. “Yes sweetie, we’re going to Great Adventure, and there’s a place there where wild animals live. We can see them from our car.”
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
It’s early on this July Saturday morning, or at least early for us, and for once our calendar is devoid of plans, no team meeting to discuss Justin’s progress, no therapy (for any of us), no autism movie, no hair appointment for mommy. It’s just our family and a beautiful blank slate until Justin’s horseback riding lesson late in the afternoon, and since the amusement park is mere minutes from the barn it makes perfect sense for us to attempt both activities. We’ve also decided to add on the safari as an extra degree of difficulty, an experience I am certain Zachary will adore, and fairly certain Justin will loathe. Seeing as how most residents of the jungle life don’t light up or spin, I am confident my oldest child will be counting the minutes until we zip through jungleland and get to the good stuff, the rides. I’m basing this assumption partially on his reaction to several zoos we’ve taken him to in the past, where he wore a look on his face that said “I’m doing this for you, you people had better appreciate it”. Not even monkeys cavorting with their babies or elephants defecating right in front of us could do it for him. Justin is a tough sell.
After the gooping, the bathroom breaks, and of course what I’ve dubbed “the odious gathering of the crap”, the four of us manage to get on the road and make it to our destination in record time. We weave our way through the entrance to the park, bypassing the water rides region as we usually do, and quickly make the sharp left that signifies we are now entering the wild plains. I look in the rearview mirror and see my oldest son on high alert, sitting up in his seat, looking out the window a bit bewildered. Since we’ve arrived at the earliest time possible we only have a brief wait to gain entrance, and after declining the extravagant offer of an audio tour we glide through the large silver gates into “Africa”.
The caterwauling begins. I am curious to see who in this car will make it out alive.
Within seconds it is apparent to us (and perhaps anyone within a five-mile radius) that Justin is quite distressed by our detour. As we slowly wend our way through wildebeests, emus, and peacocks, the latter of whom frankly seem too cheeky for their own good, I am struck by the dichotomy of experiences being enacted in the backseat of my car. Zachary is enthralled, pointing out animals with gusto, repeating “what’s THAT?” with great enthusiasm as his father frantically searches through the brochure to identify exactly which animal he’s regarding. On the other hand we have Justin, whose percussions of kicks on the back of my seat will be the deciding factor in whether or not I seek chiropractic aide, and whose staccato beat is being accompanied by a steady stream of angry vowel sounds I am certain cannot be matched by even the fiercest member of this animal haven. Jeff turns to look at me as I ask “how long does this take again?”, and we both placate ourselves with the promise that perhaps the “serious” animals will do it for Justin, those elephants, tigers and lions that at least seem to hold his attention in videos. We acknowledge to each other if the big guns don’t do it, we’ll be forced to listen to his tyrannical tympani for a good forty-five minutes longer. I am deeply regretting the gate-keepers didn’t offer me a margarita instead of the audio tour. Hell, you can only drive ten miles per hour here anyway.
Zachary is kind enough to inform us that Justin is crying, and as I gingerly regard my son once again in my rearview mirror I note indeed that he has turned on the waterworks. His face is beet red, he’s sweating, and with each turn of the car that doesn’t end up in the mecca of an exit he ramps up the vocals a bit, until I’m certain that some mammal in the area is going to hear it as a mating call. I look at my husband once again, expecting both of us to grimace at our faux pas, and me to begin my usual mea culpa at not being able to divine in advance exactly how tortuous an experience this would be for all of us, and subsequently chase this realization with a good self-chiding for my son’s suffering. Jeff and I make eye contact again. Instead of expressing remorse, we both burst out laughing.
I know. The headline reads “INSENSITIVE PARENTS MOCK AUTISTIC SON”. Really, I should be ashamed of myself.
Except, this time, I’m not.
I’m not upset with my choice, or castigating myself for laughing, or even in a hurry to finish this damn safari and get on with our day. For once, I’m not internally traumatized by Justin’s unhappiness, searching frantically in my mind for a way to appease him. In fact, I have no intention of speeding up this trip, or offering him a toy, or bribing him with food. He’s going to have to sit there for thirty-seven consecutive minutes more while his fairly oblivious brother enjoys this experience, and I’m not going to feel badly about it for one reason.
This is not autism. It’s just Justin not getting his way, and being bratty about it. Today, he’s just being a little boy, and he’s going to have to suck it up.
How do I know this you might ask? Well, first off I’m a Pisces, and that intuitive instinct is a well-developed sixth sense in me. Yes, I’m a bit prescient, am capable of discerning the genders of unborn children (except my own) with unwavering conviction, was able to predict with stunning accuracy that Jon and Kate Plus Eight might not end well, and that going “lighter” on the content of the SATC sequel might not be such a good idea after all. Sure, you could write off all of these predictions as mere coincidences, but I’ll tell you this: I do know my son. I know when he’s experiencing sensory overload, I know when he’s scared, I know when his OCD is in overdrive and he’s beside himself, and I know when he’s just plain mad. Today, he’s just mad. He understands perfectly that he’ll get to freak out his mama on Skull Mountain, that he’ll be served his exorbitantly priced pretzel, that the unmitigated torture of watching the residents of Noah’s ark will indeed end. He can’t say it in words, so he’s expressing his disdain the only way he knows how, with sharp kicks to my kidneys and a torrent of tears.
Jeff, being a Capricorn and therefore not psychic, asks me if I’m sure Justin understands he’ll achieve his preferred destination at the end of the road, and I reply in the affirmative. I tell him we’ll know for certain when we exit the safari and drive in the direction of the park entrance, that if Justin is surprised he will jump up and down in his harness with elation, display a grin that will envelop his entire face, and vocalize his relief that indeed his stupid parents have figured out where he wanted to go all along. I assure him this is just one more thing we have to endure, that at least Zach is excited and happy, that it was worth it to come here for him.
After what seems an absolute ETERNITY we leave behind gazelles, hippos, and hyperactive monkeys and begin our exit from the bowels of the jungle. At a 15 MPH minimum I am capable of simultaneously steering and regarding Justin through my rearview mirror, and as we make our way to what could potentially be construed as the exit to 195 or the entrance to roller coaster heaven, I listen for sounds, syllables that will indicate Justin’s current mood.
There is complete and utter silence.
I shift slightly to look back over my shoulder for a better angle, and I see my son, tears drying on his face, still in body, serene in countenance, with a smile of divine satisfaction playing on his lips. In his mind he has won, his protests have allowed him the escape from “Satan Safari”, and delivered him to the much-preferred grounds of Wiggles Worlds and carbohydrates. I know, to the depths of my soul, that he understood we’d end up here, that he knew this detour was not permanent. I also know that this delayed gratification, while conflicting with the treatises of the Geneva Convention for his parents, was good for him. This kid has a great life, filled with trips to the beach, boardwalks, his own pool, visits from relatives, and equestrian lessons for God’s sake. It’s okay if he’s unhappy sometimes. It’s okay if he waits. It’s okay if I require a Valium prescription in the future if we’re going to do this more often.
And as we shuffle our way through the crowded parking lot looking for a spot near a sign with a Looney Tunes character I’ll actually remember, I realize, once again, in our own fashion, we’re having a “typical” day, an outing that most families with “normal” children experience, and that we survived it. We’re okay, and Justin will be okay too.
Now I just have to pray they haven’t run out of pretzels.