February 10, 2014

Back in the Saddle

Posted in AMT's Faves, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:15 pm by autismmommytherapist

J Horse 1

The call came as I was preparing dinner, straining gluten-free spaghetti through a colander for me and my youngest boy. I have to pause a conversation about Lego Star Wars to pick up the phone, and as I glance down I see it’s my mom’s cell, so I press “talk.”

After a brief greeting I ask her how Justin’s horseback riding lesson went, and I hear a slight pause, which my imagination rapidly fills in for me. I immediately worry that Justin doesn’t like this new stable, the one with the trainer who I’m hoping will get him to the Special Olympics this fall. My thoughts are no more dire than that.

What my mom says instead takes my breath away momentarily, shocking me as this has never occurred in the almost six years Justin has been riding. “He fell off the horse hon, but he’s okay” my mom reassures me, and then continues with “and damned if he didn’t want to get right back on.”

Knowing my boy, that doesn’t surprise me at all.

Apparently Justin’s horse was startled by another equine friend in the ring, and fortunately my son slid from the saddle right into the waiting hands of his trainer, with only the indignity of his bottom hitting the ground. In the seconds my mom contemplated whether she should risk going inside or not she said he simply stood up, grabbed his trainer’s hand and pulled her toward the mounting block. With the other hand he pointed straight at his horse.

My boy doesn’t need to talk to make himself understood.

Once more I make sure he’s okay, hear his excited “eeeeee” in the background as I wrap up my conversation with my mom so Zach and I can eat our carbs. I tell my youngest that Justin fell off his horse for the first time but wanted to get right back on.  Zach responds that his brother is very brave, and I smile at him in agreement, telling Zach that I think he shares this same trait with his sibling. There is a request for the parmesan cheese I’ve forgotten to put on the table, and as I make my way to the refrigerator I am hit by the magnitude of what has just happened. My son has fallen off a horse. He didn’t cry, fuss, or try to leave. Instead, he got right back in the saddle.

The truth is, that’s what this family does every single day.

I have two children with autism, one severe, one mildly affected. To my everlasting pride (and relief) they are both safe, productive, and happy. I attribute this bounty in part to great teachers and aides, excellent therapists, an involved family, and of course, time and maturity. All of these ingredients have coalesced into a recipe for success, an outcome I am grateful for every day.

But if I’m perfectly honest, it’s falling down and getting right back up again that has been perhaps the most important ingredient in this family, a trait I’m proud to say we all share. I’ve seen this occur after time with Justin, whether it was watching him learn how to ride a bike, conquer an educational game on the computer, or, and most difficult for him, see him manipulate his mouth to form coveted consonants. This kid never gives up, and I don’t believe it’s a trait one can teach. I believe in him it’s innate, a force of nature which propels him on in all his endeavors, one I’m very grateful he inherited from his obstinate and purpose-filled parents.

Truly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Soon I am being pestered for cookies from Justin’s equally brave brother, and my reverie is broken as I search for more carbs in our pantry. I’m asked often how our family has made things work, how we’ve managed to create a palatable existence despite the demands of an often difficult disorder. I am loathe to give generic advice to families as everyone’s situation is so different, but here is one universal truth I feel comfortable passing along. No matter what issue you’re facing, if you fall down from the weight of it try your best to brush yourself off, and keep on going. It is the one constant that has always worked for this family.

And my most heartfelt wish is that it works for you too.

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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.