December 9, 2013
As the gates barring us entrance to the farm swing toward us Justin is uncharacteristically quiet, rocking contentedly in the backseat to a muted Springsteen singing “Santa Claus is coming to Town.” It’s appropriate that Sirius is playing this particular tune as the property we’re entering is near to the Boss’s expansive farm, and I briefly wonder if he’s ever visited here, and what my son would make of him if he did.
We park in front of the main building and my mom sneaks into the space next to us, and when my eldest sees her, he breaks into his signature “eeee” and a commensurate smile. We’re a bit early for our appointment so my mom hops into the car to wait with us, and as she does I turn to explain to Justin why we’re here.
Today, my boy is being evaluated for participation in the equestrienne Special Olympics. I really couldn’t be more proud.
Justin’s come a long way from the days when he had a rather tentative relationship with horses. We first entertained the idea of lessons five years ago when POAC (Parents of Autistic Children) asked a barn in Jersey to hold a fundraiser for them. My son was five, and at first regarded the pony he was asked to mount with the same amount of disdain he has reserved for any vegetable I’ve offered to him since birth.
We battled it out that day and got him on that horse which he rode for ten minutes, clutching the beast for dear life and looking at his parents as if we’d gone nuts. I pushed him that day because I had a gut instinct he’d eventually like to ride (although my gut is not always right, surfing was met with an equal amount of rejection, and that’s permanent). I also pushed him because there are only a handful of things he likes to do in winter, and frankly, his mother gets bored.
On occasion, it’s still about me.
He’s made such progress over the last half decade. He’s gone from a kid who basically had to be shoved into the saddle to one who can command his steed to walk and to stop. Justin is even beginning to learn how to steer (although he needs some more work in this area, he drives like his mother), and from what I’m told has a wonderful “seat.” We’re thrilled with his accomplishments both during his lessons and during his stays at camp, but the biggest surprise to all of us is that my boy loves to perform.
Turns out my kid with severe, non-vocal autism is quite the ham.
He’s always smiled at his spectators during lessons, but usually this is quite an intense time for him, so there’s not a great deal of interaction. We first discovered his penchant for attention two years ago when his camp held a last day performance, in which his mother, brother and grandmother were in attendance.
He came barreling out of the back room of the barn that day, and as soon as he saw us a huge grin overtook his face, one which never left him the entire time his instructors took him through his paces. He kept looking back at us at the conclusion of each maneuver, and as we gently applauded him his “eeees” of contentment echoed back to us. Justin was clearly in his element.
His grandmother and I were in heaven.
Based on that day and several subsequent giddy performances my mother and I decided we’d one day give Special Olympics a try, not because we want to see him strut his stuff (okay, that’s part of it), but mostly because we think he’d love the spectacle of it, the crowds, the newness, the possibility of performance. I will share with you that this is a child who once hated even the slightest deviation in routine, from my singing songs in an incorrect order (although he may have been reacting to my voice) to a new take on a character’s voice in a book we’d read many times.
He hated change, and was quite adamant in his expression of said distaste. Although he’s far from reveling in it now, after years of exposing him to various experiences we’re finally at a point where we can try a new farm, attempt to pair him with a novel instructor, and perhaps take him to a completely foreign location next fall where he will get to show off for strangers. It’s not anything I thought we’d ever be able to do nine years ago when he was first diagnosed with autism and was riddled with insomnia, multiple gastroenterological issues, and a general demeanor of constant distress.
Back then, I felt victorious when I could get him into a car.
He’s come so far, my big boy. Every day he stretches my expectations of what I think he can do, shatters many limitations I’ve unconsciously imposed upon him. He amazes me with his courage.
He simply amazes me period.
Today he may not be accepted by this new farm. He may not have enough of the requisite skills, may not react well to the new location, horse, or instructor. Justin may not like this one bit.
Or he may just soar.
And as I take my last sip of lukewarm hot chocolate and listen to the final strains of Springsteen I smile, because in the big picture of things, it really doesn’t matter. My boy is trying new things. He’s happy.
And I’m so damn proud.