February 25, 2011
In the Spotlight
“No Justin, we have to wait!” I implore my oldest child, as he rejects the juice, popcorn, DVD player and toy I offer him in rapid succession. He is angry at me because I’m refusing to cater to his desire to visit the snack bar located in the middle of Fun Time America, which until a few minutes ago had actually lived up to its name. I’m summoning mean mommy because the line to acquire overpriced, undercooked carbs is thirty deep in there, and our chances of being seated are about as great as me being granted more than five minutes to myself at the end of this elongated holiday weekend. By accident Justin wrenches my wrist, and I feel my capacity for patience, already as thin as my annoyingly fine hair, completely snap. It’s been four consecutive days with children, I have a sinus infection that’s functioning as a bronchitis chaser, my husband’s away working in DC, and it’s winter.
Despite the circumstances, we’ve had a great time through the grace of POAC (Parents of Autistic Children), who have arranged for families with offspring on the spectrum to have the run of the place from 9-12 today, the last day of our celebration of the presidents’ lives. Since the weather out there is as pleasant as a trip to the DMV at the end of the month, I am especially grateful that we have somewhere to go this morning. The thought of schlepping Justin to our local arcade ONE MORE TIME is making me faintly nauseous, and this time I can’t blame the Zpack for my unsettled stomach. POAC, with their frequent family events, has once again saved my sanity.
I thought I’d discovered every remotely palatable venue for fun since we moved back to the Garden State five years ago, but apparently I missed one, and I’m thrilled to have a new option for the kids. Yes, it will cost me roughly a month of Zach’s college tuition every time I venture here with the boys. True, particularly at this time of the year, it’s a teeming germ fest. And yes, since Justin will force me to ride the spaceship simulator with him every time we cross the threshold, during each trip I will want to vomit at least once.
Again, it’s winter in central Jersey. It will be completely worth it.
We’re at the end of the event now, which for us has lasted an uncommonly long seventy-five minutes, a record with the McCafferty clan. Gary Weitzen, the founder of the non-profit, has asked me or my mother to speak for a POAC PSA before we leave, and since leaving my mom alone with two autistic kids under the age of eight in a crowded indoor amusement park is questionably a criminal offence, I’ve volunteered to take one for the team. The truth is my mother, with her thirty years in special education (culminating as it did in a stint as assistant superintendent in a large school district), will be far more compelling on camera than her congested housewife daughter. Within thirty seconds of waiting outside the staging area however it’s become apparent I’m going to lose a child if I don’t get some help, so I send Zachary inside to watch Grandma become a “movie star”. I then attempt, through my sinus haze, to conjure up productive ways to keep Justin calm for five more minutes.
All I can come up with is a trip to the bathroom. So much for creativity.
We pay our tribute to the questionably clean porcelain god (wipes, thank God for wipes!), and round the corner to what I hope will be a concluded taping. My mom has nailed her role on the first try, and since Justin is eager to enter the room and play with/dismantle the camera equipment, I allow him to barge inside. He actually becomes shy when he enters, and I quickly take the opportunity to seat him so I can chat with one of the volunteers, a POAC member I know well who’s filming the takes. Apparently Zachary has been enthralled with both watching Grandma speak “live” and seeing her simultaneously through the view finder, and in the spirit of the moment, the camera man asks him if he’d like to try it too.
Of course all I can think is “crap, he’s in a gray sweatsuit” (Toddlers and Tiaras’ moms have got NOTHING on me).
He lets himself be gently placed on his mark, the toes of his Spiderman sneakers jutting ever so slightly over the peaks of the black “X” criss-crossing the hardwood floor. Our filmmaker asks him to look into the camera, smile, and repeat several short taglines that will add a personal touch to statistics and facts, accomplishments and contact info that are the meat of a PSA. Since Justin is seemingly captivated by the unfolding events I walk over to the tripod and stand in close proximity, the better to encourage my budding star. Zach is asked again to look into the lens, and with enthusiasm utter four words I longed to hear eight years ago when his brother was first diagnosed, and our family was not as yet part of a community. He looks directly into my eyes, and repeats the words in a voice so soft and so utterly unfamiliar, I fear he’s spontaneously taken ill.
I smile at him encouragingly, and tap the black cylinder he should be regarding instead. I clear my throat and say in the best mommy voice I currently possess, “Louder Zach, you can do it, on the count of three!”, a command that’s a frequent pre-cursor to time-out, and one with which I’m certain he’s comfortable. I watch his entire body tense with excitement, and this time he stares into the correct spot, exudes a smile that engulfs his entire face, and repeats in a voice overflowing with enthusiasm, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE!”
This is my baby, who two years ago had a repertoire of five garbled words, found eye contact painful, and seemed to exist in a world of his own making. He is now standing still, following directions, and repeating entire sentences in an appropriate context. It is clear he is even having fun, and I watch contentedly as our director feeds him his last phrases. To say I am overjoyed watching him repeat his lines verbatim would be the glaring understatement of the year.
He nails them all, and asks for an encore.
I gently derail his dreams of fame and fortune and tell him it’s time to go home for lunch, and my mom and I begin the process of packing up children and gear to make the long trek to the car. Gary thanks us profusely, but I assure him it’s been our pleasure. Truly, in addition to training thousands of police officers, teachers, and bus drivers in our state, this man and his vision have also provided families with years of events where their kids can let loose, and just be themselves. While I deeply appreciate the former, the latter has proven priceless to this family. A few minutes surviving Justin’s irritability from denied access to carbs is the least I can do for them today.
Soon we’re buckled into our seats and navigating our way back to the parkway, Justin inhaling a juice, my mom and Zach engaged in a discussion about the current existence of dinosaurs. I am left to a few peaceful minutes with my thoughts (hallelujah!), primary of which is profound gratitude that I have found this organization, as well as the people encompassed within it. I know not everyone has a POAC in their backyard, and I never had anything resembling this non-profit during those long years in DC either. Perhaps the one thing I’ve learned however, the one universal I’ve discovered for all families in the almost-decade I’ve been dealing with autism, is this: make your “autism friends” wherever you can. Whether it’s a parent group, a mom in your special ed PTA, or a person you meet online, someone is out there to guide you and support you. Forge your connections whenever it’s possible, and never let go.
In the precious words of my youngest child, you are not alone.
For information on how you can volunteer for POAC, or just participate in their events, please visit the website at: www.poac.net