December 9, 2013

Special Olympics

Posted in AMT's Faves, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , at 3:48 pm by autismmommytherapist

J Horseback Riding 003
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.

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10 Comments »

  1. Animals and autistic children have an amazing ability to communicate with each other. I do Siberian Husky rescue with a group called Tails of the Tundra and had a truly life changing experience when we took one of our foster dogs named Damona to an elementary school class of autistic children. The story has been published in a book called The Divinity of Dogs by Jennifer Skiff. Here is an excerpt from the story.

    “Tails of the Tundra was invited to speak to a fourth grade class in Yardley, Pennsylvania that was studying the Iditarod. Damona and I went along with another volunteer family and their dog. After I finished speaking to the students, we were invited to visit a class of autistic children.

    As we walked into the room, I took note of the surroundings. The room was the size of any other elementary school classroom. There were three teachers and 15 kids ranging in ages from six to sixteen. There was one little boy, perhaps six or seven years old, who was sitting on a chair alone in the corner of the room. When I noticed him, one of the teachers explained he was severely autistic and rarely moved from his chair or spoke to anyone. I was told he liked to observe.

    I moved to the center of the room and began talking about Damona. I explained that she was a Siberian Husky and mentioned that Huskies were sled dogs. As I spoke, the little boy who was sitting in the corner of the room stood up and walked over to me, surprising everyone. “What’s your name,” he asked. “I’m Bob, and this is Damona,” I replied. The boy bent down and reached for her. As he did, Damona raised her nose and licked his hand. He actually smiled and placed his hand on her head. I was stunned. I handed him her leash, to see what he would do.

    What happened next amazed everyone. The boy held the leash loosely and began walking around the circle of children, stopping at each one. Damona followed him without being led. “This is Damona,” he said, introducing each child to the dog. Damona, in return, greeted each child with licks and wags. When the boy finished introducing Damona to everyone, he brought her back to me, handed me her leash, said “Thank you,” and returned to his chair.

    I was in tears. It was as if, all of a sudden, I had an insight. For the first time in my life I related to an autistic child on an intelligent level. When I saw the reaction between Damona and this child, I knew I was witnessing something very special. The teachers too, watched in disbelief, saying they had never seen this boy interact with anyone like this. At that moment, as we all stood there, profoundly moved by what had just happened, I knew that this special dog – this dog that had been thrown away so many times, had just made a big difference in a little boy’s life.”

    Ever since this experience, I have had a special interest in autism in children and have been following your series of blogs with great interest.

    Bob Baker
    Hillsborough, NJ

    • Thanks Bob I appreciate that, your book sounds great! I used to be a fourth grade teacher, I would have loved to have had your program in my classroom. Are you still doing this? I’m certain you made a difference in that little boy’s life, it will be a moment he always remembers. Good for you!

      • Bob Baker said,

        Our rescue group loves to do educational events, especially with younger children who can benefit from learning about how to interact with dogs. The mascot of Sunnymeade School in Hillsborough is the Siberian Husky, and we have done several events there where we brought dogs and the students were thrilled. We have also brought our current dog, Bailey, to several Senior Citizens group meetings and they were delighted to meet her.

        Yes, we made a difference in that little boy’s life, but he also made a huge difference in mine. It was a moment that I will also never forget.

        Damona was a very special dog. Once, when our group had a booth at a community fair, a little boy came running up to Damona, threw his arms around her neck and hugged her. She responded with Husky kisses. His mother was amazed. “He is terrified of dogs,” she told us. “He has never approached a dog in his life!” Yet somehow he knew that Damona was special. Of all the dogs that we have fostered over the past 14 years, she is the one who left paw prints on my heart.

        If you would like to read the entire chapter about Damona, let me know and I will be happy to send you the full text.

        Bob

        • Thanks Bob, would enjoy that!

          • Bob Baker said,

            “He actually smiled”

            Robert Baker

            I’m a volunteer for a non-profit organization called Tails of the Tundra Siberian Husky Rescue. We’re a bunch of Husky lovers. When Huskies are in danger of being euthanized at pounds or shelters, we pull them to safety. We also take in dogs whose owners are forced to give them up because of foreclosures or other sad situations. Once the dog is safely in our care, we work to find them the perfect home. I’ve been rescuing Huskies for 10 years. I’ve met a lot of great dogs. But there’s one I’ll never forget.

            Damona’s rescue began on Valentine’s Day 2004, when her owners turned her over to a shelter. They said she had housebreaking issues and gave no other reason for her surrender. She was seven years old.

            Tails of the Tundra pulled Damona from the shelter and temporarily placed her in one of our foster homes. In foster care it was clear she was housebroken but had to go out often. She did give signals when she needed to go. It was also very clear that she was a loving and affectionate dog. She showered everyone with kisses and loved to snuggle.

            On two different occasions, Damona was adopted. Both times she came back to us because she had gone to the bathroom in the house. And then, a year after we rescued her, Damona struck gold when a retiree named Joe Ferruchia adopted her. Because of his age, Joe preferred an older dog and fell in love with Damona. He followed the instructions given to him on housebreaking and it wasn’t long before Damona was free and clear of the issues that had her bouncing from home to home.

            Joe and Damona lived together happily. He treated her like a princess. He discovered she was diabetic and treated her with two insulin shots a day. Later, after she was diagnosed with cataracts, he paid for an expensive surgery to help her keep her eyesight.

            After three great years together, Joe received bad news. He had terminal cancer.

            Joe was worried about Damona and what would happen to her. We promised to help. When Joe entered a hospice care facility, I brought Damona home to live with my family, including my two Siberian Huskies, Shadow and Timber. A few days later Joe passed away. Damona was now
            11 years old.

            Seven months later, Tails of the Tundra was invited to speak to a fourth grade class in Yardley, Pennsylvania that was studying the Iditarod. Damona and I went along with another volunteer family and their dog. After I finished speaking to the students, we were invited to visit a class of autistic children.

            As we walked into the room, I took note of the surroundings. The room was the size of any other elementary school classroom. There were three teachers and 15 kids ranging in ages from six to sixteen. There was one little boy, perhaps six or seven years old, who was sitting on a chair alone in the corner of the room. When I noticed him, one of the teachers explained he was severely autistic and rarely moved from his chair or spoke to anyone. I was told he liked to observe.

            I moved to the center of the room and began talking about Damona. I explained that she was a Siberian Husky and mentioned that Huskies were sled dogs. As I spoke, the little boy who was sitting in the corner of the room stood up and walked over to me, surprising everyone. “What’s your name,” he asked. “I’m Bob, and this is Damona,” I replied. The boy bent down and reached for her. As he did, Damona raised her nose and licked his hand. He actually smiled and placed his hand on her head. I was stunned. I handed him her leash, to see what he would do.

            What happened next amazed everyone. The boy held the leash loosely and began walking around the circle of children, stopping at each one. Damona followed him without being led. “This is Damona,” he said, introducing each child to the dog. Damona, in return, greeted each child with licks and wags. When the boy finished introducing Damona to everyone, he brought her back to me, handed me her leash, said “Thank you,” and returned to his chair.

            I was in tears. It was as if, all of a sudden, I had an insight. For the first time in my life I related to autistic child on an intelligent level. When I saw the reaction between Damona and this child, I knew I was witnessing something very special. The teachers too, watched in disbelief, saying they had never seen this boy interact with anyone like this. At that moment, as we all stood there, profoundly moved by what had just happened, I knew that this special dog – this dog that had been thrown away so many times, had just made a big difference in a little boy’s life.

            What I didn’t know then was that Damona was about to shed her grace on yet another family. She had been with us for a year when a family who had adopted one of our Huskies four years earlier, told us they were looking for a companion for him. They were specific. They wanted an older, “laid back” female.

            I delivered Damona to their home a week later. The next day I received a call from the family, reporting in with a great story. They explained that every night their dog Brahms slept on a bed near their bed. Every morning they would take his bed and put it under their bed. And every night, he would pull his bed out from underneath theirs and fall asleep on it, never moving again until morning.

            On Damona’s first night, Brahms pulled his bed out and went to sleep. But when they woke the next morning, Brahms had moved and was sleeping back to back with Damona.

            Damona touched a great many lives, both human and canine, during her all-too-brief time here on earth. It would not be an exaggeration to say she was a divine dog. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to be part of her life.

            Footnote: After only a year with Brahms and his family, Damona died of kidney failure. I am certain her former owner Joe was waiting to greet her when she passed and their reunion was joyful.

          • This was beautiful and so inspiring, thanks so much for sharing this piece. I think what you did was wonderful, again, thanks for sharing it!

  2. Shayne said,

    This just makes my heart warm!! I wish Justin the best of luck, but in the end it doesn’t matter because you guys have already won!!

    • Thanks Shayne, so sweet of you to comment! I feel the same way! Hope you and all the kiddees are well!

  3. How wonderful is that for Justin and for you! Let us know what happens! So proud of J! xo


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