July 16, 2010

Performance Art

Posted in Life's Little Moments tagged , at 6:30 am by autismmommytherapist

Justin bounds out of the office with his awkward march, his steps slightly staggered, much like hiccups. His hand is firmly enveloped in the fierce grip of the camp director because there are horses in close proximity, and she wants him to be safe. I watch as he slows his pace to make a careful descent down the moderate incline of the barn’s ramp, and eventually comes to a complete stop in front of me and my mother. We are perched eagerly on our unforgiving bench, trying to maneuver cameras and video recorders into perfect position as we wait for the event to begin. I have a moment when anxiety, my ever-present companion, washes over me when he releases his teacher’s hand and grabs mine to lead him from this place, but I quickly evade his grasp, and he complies with the command of the director. I regard him as he ascends a far steeper slope that will gain him access to the mounting area, and breathe a sigh of relief as I realize he will not protest this decision, and will indeed wait patiently for his equine friend. Next to me, I feel my mother visibly relax as well.

Today is the culmination of a week’s worth of activities for my son, ranging from acquiring grooming techniques, to feeding the horses, to expanding on his repertoire of riding tricks. I am proud of him for participating in this event, but feel far more pride that he has once again acclimated to something new, something far removed from his usual lexicon of activities. In the weeks to come my son will be participating in two new camps, attending a brand new school, and of course begin the journey of forging new relationships with all the primary and ancillary employees associated with these new locales. Since Justin does form emotional bonds with those around him, I wonder if he will regret losing access to those he cared for, will find it arduous to begin again. I believe he will be excited by the new experiences, but perhaps will mourn the connections to staff, the emotional ties that were integral both to his progress, and his happiness. I accept that I can only guess at his feelings. I may never truly know.

But for this moment, as he swings his growing frame over the saddle and clutches the reins tightly, I vow not to think such thoughts, to sequester my trepidation at the impending changes, my sadness at the necessity of goodbyes. Instead, I watch my son flash his brilliant smile at his mother and grandmother as he performs, his vocal utterances in perfect rhythm with the stride of his animal. My mother places her hand on my arm, and squeezes it tightly. And for the next few minutes there is just this, the joy of accomplishment, and my inherent pride in my boy. For once, I permit myself peace.

July 12, 2010


Posted in My Take on Autism tagged , , , at 6:26 am by autismmommytherapist

I dropped him off this morning at special needs horseback riding camp, my oldest offspring who seems to be demonstrating both an aptitude and a penchant for our equine friends. I could tell he recognized the location from the way he bounced back and forth in the harness I lovingly refer to as his “strait-jacket”, the adaptation on a car seat that allows me to legally and safely transport him since he learned how to evade the strictures of a conventional one. He’s been here several times with his school on class trips, and he knows this destination implies both a work requirement, and several opportunities to slide into the saddle and urge his horse du jour to “walk on”. He smiles ever so slightly as I help him disembark from the backseat of my SUV, and since there is no refund offered should he decide against my choice of filler between the end of the school year and the commencement of summer term, I am pleased. Five minutes in, so far so good.

I leave him in the director’s capable hands, and contemplate the fact I’ll have approximately three hours to myself for five consecutive days, fifteen hours in which due to the distance between camp and home I will be unable to exercise due to the heat, run an errand, fold laundry, or tend to my other child.

I am already inordinately fond of horseback riding camp.

As I sit here in the parking lot waiting for the outlets to open (because truly, in this part of Jersey, my options are shopping, staring at bales of hay in our disappearing farmland, or embarking on the Great Adventure Safari), it occurs to me that I might be misinterpreting my son’s approbrium after all. How can I be so sure he’ll enjoy this camp, the grooming techniques he’ll acquire, the obstacle course he’ll conquer, the crafts activities he’ll simply endure?  How do I know for certain he’d prefer to be here rather than with his grandma and brother at the beach, or immersing himself in our pool for the forty-two minutes he’ll remain outside?  My grand scheme of course, my Machiavellian exertions, revolve around him learning the skills necessary to make himself a valued employee on a horse farm someday. It is an endeavor I’ve latched onto because it is the only activity other than the thrill of roller coasters, or replaying the same segment of “Monsters Inc.” on his portable DVD, for which he has truly shown any consistent affinity.

The truth is, I don’t know if he’ll enjoy this, and his communication device, utilitarian at best, cannot help him indicate to me whether or not he’d prefer to work with horses in any future professional capacity. As with so many other events I have to guess, like when I ascertain what toy he is truly requesting when his Springboard can’t come through, or when I sense an exacerbated irritability is the manifestation of the onset of illness, not simply autism rearing its ugly head. I hope I’ve chosen right for him this week, both for his sake, and for those rare unfettered hours, for me.

And I wonder, as I watch the manufacturers open their doors to eager customers hoping for that next great deal, if there will ever be a day I’ll stop wishing he could just tell me what he wants himself.

April 12, 2010

Horse Whisperer

Posted in AMT's Faves, Life's Little Moments tagged , , at 11:15 am by autismmommytherapist

I’ve decided my oldest son should live on a farm someday.

This is a decision I’ve made not because I like free vegetables, although I do. I’ve never quite made it to eight servings a day, but ingesting all of them in a twenty-four hour period is something I aspire to achieve. I still have ambitions.

No, my son is going to live on a farm someday because I want him to have something worthwhile to do as an adult, to participate in a job in which he’ll take pride and satisfaction. I also want him to reside on a farm because there is something there he loves almost as much as movies on his DVD player, and cute fifth grade girls who play with him at recess.

My son has a thing for horses.

Quite honestly, I never would have thought to try horseback riding with my six-year-old autistic son if it hadn’t been for a free day of lessons that Parents of Autistic Children (POAC), our local autism organization, had sponsored. Justin has never really engaged with animals, has generally avoided them, and has even regarded my mom’s dog with suspicion. Plus, I’ve always considered horseback riding to be an expensive sport, and since Justin will cost the equivalent of four neurotypical children, I didn’t think the activity was in the cards for us.

But on a crisp fall day this past October my mom, son, and I drove out to what passes for farm country in western New Jersey, and decided to give our equine friends a shot with Justin. If worst came to worst, even if he hated it, at least it would kill a Saturday.

I figured he’d probably give it a try if we encouraged him from the sidelines, and he lived up to our expectations. He tentatively climbed up on that horse with three people flanking him on both sides, held on for dear life, and at each turn, regarded me with only a slight air of desperation. Since each child only got fifteen minutes on an animal I hoped he’d make it through his timeslot without either sliding off his pony or protesting vociferously, and he did. He even seemed mildly happy about the event afterwards.

When I found out the owner had a slot open on Saturday afternoons for lessons, I decided to jump on the opportunity. I thought we’d give it a month, and if he remained this grim and declined to loosen his death grip on his horse du jour’s mane, we’d call it quits. I’ve found with Justin, you never really know if he’ll like an activity unless you try it. Sometimes, you have to try something many, many times.

Over the last few months he’s fallen into a rhythm with Crackerjack, his newest host. He has relinquished the reticence he experienced during his first few lessons, and instead embraced an exuberance toward this activity that I usually only see him reserve for snack-time. On weekends that he rides, as we pull into the stable, he strains against the harness on his car seat that protects both him and his mother from his Houdini-like ability to escape, eager to be released from its confines so he can visit his old friend. He races inside the barn, and I have to remind him that riding a horse with a full bladder isn’t the most palatable prospect as I lead him to the rudimentary bathroom. As I do so he always glances through the large bay window into the corral, and his entire body shakes with excitement at the prospect of a ride to come.

At first this activity was solely for him, but over time, it has come to have great meaning for me as well. Every Saturday, come rain, sleet, show, or shine, I lead him into the ring where his horse patiently awaits him. I barely have to assist him now as he climbs the mounting block, so steadily and with such confidence. As I watch him ascend with such assurance I am reminded of how difficult it was for him to walk, how six months after he was supposed to be making my life a holy hell by his mobility, I watched him begin to take tenuous, faltering steps, and was concerned at his lack of overall coordination.

After attaining the summit of the mounting block I see him attempt to place his foot securely in the stirrup and swing himself over the waiting back of his ride, and I recall how distressing it once was just to secure him in the car to arrive at an outing such as this, and how he now revels in adventure.

I watch him firmly grasp the reins as he steadies himself on his charge’s back, and see him tentatively caress the mane of his pony as he attempts to convey his affections. There was a time in the not too distant past that he avoided all interactions with anyone not genetically related to him, and I am reminded just how far he has come, how he now seeks out the interplay of discourse, the give and take of simple social interaction. He is no longer afraid to connect.

I find so often, as I am immersed daily in both the tragic and trivial consequences of autism, that I forget to notice his accomplishments, the small strides and great leaps that comprise his progress, that contribute to his peaceful, happy soul. These lessons have given that back to me, have offered me the opportunity to appreciate his courage, to be proud of him for every struggle he surmounts, and even those he doesn’t. This farm extends to him the gift of pleasure, and affords me the opportunity to reflect. I am thrilled to have provided it to him. We both learn something here.

And as I watch him round the corner of the barn, barely glancing at me as I enthusiastically cheer him on from the sidelines, I realize anew how much he has taught me to appreciate the smallest joys, the slightest increments of achievement, the pleasure of surprising him with a newfound love. This gift, he bestows upon me.