Parent Support System: Talk To Other Parents With Autistic Children

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects the social, emotional and cognitive development of children that continues until his/ her adulthood. It is characterized by deficiency in communication skills, social behavior, motor skills and mental functioning abilities.

The term ‘spectrum’ is used because it affects different children differently. While some children are only mildly impaired by their symptoms, others could be severely disabled. Parents of children with ASD find it extremely trying to live with their kid’s conditions. ASD in the family can cause mental and financial difficulties that can even lead to a rift in relationships. Thus, it is very important for parents of children with ASD to share their feelings with other such parents. Talking to other parents allows you to see things in a different perspective and focus on the joy that your children bring.

You have various options to find parents of children with ASD to talk to.

Autism parent support groups

Support groups range from those only for moms (or dads) to those for parents and family to those where you can take your kids along to too. This is a great way to meet other parents who are facing the same challenges that you are. You can share information, get advice or simply open your heart out for emotional support. Support groups prevent you from feeling ‘singled out’ and help you cope with the help of stories shared by other families.

Counseling

If you are undergoing depression or anxiety, or frequently have panic attacks, you need to see a therapist. Counseling helps you get professional help to sort your psychological problems. Just talking to someone honestly about your problems tremendously boosts your spirit and gives you the strength to live through and enjoy another week. A therapist may also prescribe anti-depressants if you are in dire need of help. If your marriage is getting affected due to your child’s ASD, a marriage counselor will help you separate the issues stemming from ASD and those caused due to other factors so that you can deal with the problem more effectively. Counselors can also get you in touch with support groups that will help you specifically.

Respite care

At times, you can break down and feel like you are unable to take care of your child with ASD. Opting for respite care will allow you to take time out and use this time to talk to other parents with similar problems. In respite care, a trained nanny can take care of your child for a few days or weeks. You should use this time to share your feelings with your counselor and / or parent support group.

3 Signs To Look For To Find Out If Your Child May Be Autistic

Nobody wishes for an autistic child, but that shouldn’t stop you from looking for signs of autism in your baby. Research shows that early intervention, even as young as six months, can strongly improve your child’s autism and allow them to live a healthy, social life.

The autism spectrum is quite vast and there are no ‘one size fits all’ symptoms. However, all autistic children will show some degree of autism related problems. Here are X signs that you should look for in your child, from the time she is born till she is eighteen to twenty months old:

1. Slow in learning to communicate

Autistic children are typically self-absorbed. They tend to live in their own private world and do not seem comfortable around others. They have trouble learning language skills and often do not start speaking even after most children their age have. They may not respond to people who try to communicate with them. Many parents may even suspect that their children are deaf, but they are simply ignoring people around them. Many autistic children also have problems communicating non-verbally i.e. they cannot gesture correctly with their hands or express their feelings using their faces.

2. Avoids eye contact

Children do not make eye contact when they are babies. However, you can still pick up on some signs. When you talk to your baby, she will ideally look at your face. Slightly older kids will look up when you talk to them. Autistic kids do not feel the need to look at you when you speak. Research suggests that autistic children may find even the friendliest of faces threatening. The amygdala – an emotion center in the brain associated with negative feelings – lights up to an abnormal extent when an autistic child casts a direct gaze upon a non-threatening face.

3. Prefers to be alone

Autistic children do not like to be touched or played with. Your infant may start crying every time she is picked up for any reason other than drinking milk or a diaper change. She may simply ignore people’s attempts to play with her and look another way or show her discomfort by wailing loudly.

As a parent, you need to:

  • Monitor your child’s development

Keep a close eye on your baby’s emotional, social and cognitive development. If your child is lagging behind her peers in all three, her chances of being in the autism spectrum are very high.

  • Don’t wait and see (trust your instincts)

Older family members and well-wishers may tell you not to worry, but ignoring signs is the worst thing you can do. As a parent, trust your instincts. If you feel that something is wrong, it might just be. Developmental delays could be a symptom of a variety of problems and need to be checked into. Even if your child may not have autism, it’s good to know what else is causing this delay.

  • Get intervention

If you see signs of autism, talk to your doctor immediately. Make a list of events and episodes before you do so. This will give the doctor a lot of information that will help her diagnose your child better. Early intervention helps accelerate emotional, social and cognitive development in children.

Truth Hurts: What To Do When Your Kid Always Speaks The Bitter Truth

Children with autism have the uncanny habit of speaking the truth all the time. This results in really embarrassing situations sometimes!

Autistic children (and even adults) have minds that tell them that being honest is more important than being polite. So you may hear sentences like “You’re fat”, “You’re ugly”, “I don’t like this Christmas present” or “I hate this grilled chicken.”

The book reading

When my son, Jonathan, was in the fourth grade, we took him to the library, which turned out to be quite an eventful trip! All the little kiddies and their moms were sitting on the library floor listening to a new author, Mrs. Spalding. She was reading a children’s dinosaur story that she had just finished writing and had not yet published. The children were all behaving so nicely, sitting with their legs crossed in perfect form. When Mrs. Spalding was talking about the dinosaur book, she asked the kids a lot of questions as well. The children would raise their hand and reply and it was all very interactive and engaging. At the end, the children started raising many of their own questions.

During this time, Johnny, who was in the back of the room, was frantically waving his hand in the air trying to get Mrs. Spalding’s attention. Finally, she called on him and out of his mouth came words that not only embarrassed me, but probably embarrassed her as well. “Mrs. Spalding, well, um, this is boring.” I looked around to see what all the other parents were thinking and, sure enough, they were glaring holes through me! I’m sure they were thinking, “What kind of a mother does this child have?” Jonathan was just being very truthful and said it the way he felt it, which is so typical of kids with autism.

Teach them to apologize

I took the opportunity as a way to teach Jonathan how to apologize to people for things that might hurt their feelings. I also explained to Mrs. Spalding a bit about autism and how there was nothing meant to hurt her feelings. It all worked out well in the end, even though the parents probably still thought I was in need of parenting skills! Well it was never going to be the perfect situation now, was it?

Sometimes, the truth just makes you laugh

But it’s not all bad. This literal telling of the truth also means that autistic children expect that everything you say is literally true too.

In the first grade, Jonny was just learning how to apply sentences to a context and not always take them literally. He did not like to go outside to play, probably because of the social challenges on the playground. One day, he decided to tell his teacher, Mrs. Shincaryk, that he was too sick to go outside to play because he had a tummy ache.

Johnny’s aide, Caraly, heard this news, went to him and said “Johnny, a birdie told me that you don’t want to go outside to play because you have a tummy ache. Is this true?” Johnny replied “What? I didn’t know Mrs. Shincaryk was a bird! It’s really cool to have feathers though.”

Johnny’s literal understanding of what Caraly said was very endearing to us all. It’s times like these when you thank God for having such special little ones.

Identifying And Understanding Hyperlexia in Autism

Hyperlexia is a syndrome characterized by an intense fascination with letters or numbers. Children with hyperlexia show a very advanced ability to read, much higher than kids their age. Hyperlexic children often begin reading at very young ages, sometimes at age two.

Mix this condition with a child with autism and you’ve got yourself a whole lot of confusion. Between 5 – 10% of children with autism are estimated to be hyperlexic as well.

My oldest child, Jonathan, was all of two and a half when this incident happened. My husband and I took him to the park at Edmonton, Alberta for a family outing. We were both holding each of Jonathan’s hands and playing with him. “1-2-3 weeeee!”, “1-2-3 weeeee!” we went. That’s when Jonathan spotted a truck with the words ‘recycle’. The next thing we heard out of his mouth was “re-cy-cal”. My husband, Jim, and I looked at each other in amazement as we realized he had just read his first word.

Now Jonathan was autistic and just barely learning how to talk, let alone read. We were so taken by surprise that we actually didn’t believe it at first. We thought, “Wow! We have a gifted child in our hands.”

We were so excited that we called the Autism Society to tell them all about it. We spoke to a lady called Anita who, after hearing us patiently, informed us that this was hyperlexia and while it was certainly wonderful that Jonathan was able to speak, he may not be comprehending what he’s saying. Poof!

Hyperlexic children are brilliant at visual and auditory memorization. This means that they easily pick up things that they see and hear. They do not learn language the way that most other children do – sounds to words to phrases to sentences to conversations. Instead, they memorize what they hear and have a challenge in deconstructing sentences to find the meaning of smaller phrases within them. Therefore, they cannot comprehend what they read. In fact, they also find it very difficult to create original expressions.

Long story short, some children with autism demonstrate this phenomena and can lead many parents down the wrong pathway. What Jonathan was doing was showing an innate ability of repeating things that he heard other people say when they saw the visual construction of the word ‘recycle’.

Such kids are amazing readers and with the right communication strategies, you can gradually increase their comprehension skills. With hyperlexic children on the autism spectrum, enhancing their comprehension skills will give them a boost that can even make them surpass their peers in language and communication. That is really something you should be aiming for!

For me, I’m glad that we were given the right direction to recognize it for what it was. Thanks to that, we took immediate measures to get Jonathan into a proper intervention program to encourage his comprehension skills.

Early Intervention Can Do Wonders To Your Child’s Functioning And Communication

My youngest son, Alex, has had many, many challenges in his life. He was diagnosed with mild ataxic cerebral palsy at the age of six months. Thankfully, we were able to dig up and use resources to help our newest born. This included speech and language therapy that meant that we had to shell out to the tune of $350 from our pockets three times every week.

While these resources are by no means easy to accumulate, we soon started seeing the benefits of our decision. Thanks to this early intervention, we now call him Mr. Chatty Cathy. We are sure that had he not had an early intervention, he may not have ever spoken.

Children with autism have a lot of trouble communicating. They often don’t start babbling at the age they’re supposed to and show a lot of delay in starting to talk. You start realizing this when all of the similar aged kids around you start talking but your child wont. Instead, your child starts engaging in repetitive behavior like staring at certain objects like their feet or other people.

Sally Rogers at the UC DAVIS MIND INSTITUTE in California conducted a small pilot study on early intervention of autism. The study showed that 5 out of 7 babies between the ages of 7 and 15 months who showed signs of autism were able to catch up with the developmental growth of other kids their age after an early intervention program.

Today, statistics show that 25 – 50% of autistic kids who receive early intervention can move into general education streams by Kindergarten. Additionally, several others move into general education by the next few grades. Many others need significantly less service provision in the future.

During his early years, one of the major challenges Alex had in his communication was an inability to hold concepts together in to a complete thought. This was one of the problems that we tried to deal with. For example, when pictures of a baseball bat, a football, a softball, a cash register and a pair of skates were shown to Alex, he had a difficult time understanding that that was a sporting goods store. Slowly, but gradually, we trained his mind to read these patterns and make conclusions. He’s still not great at this stuff, but the bottom line is that we’re happy he can talk and communicate with us. His life would be much more difficult without having this type of early intervention.

Subsequently, Alex’s doctor stated that Alex no longer qualified for cerebral palsy and we were elated. “Alex is not a CP kid”, he said. This was great news at the time.

Not many families are able to diagnose or afford early intervention. It would definitely be helpful if parents had a DIY kit on strategies to use for their kids. Our goal with Autism Today is to make resources available for everyone through early recognition, diagnosis and subsequent strategies for improvement of an autistic child.

THE ODD WAY HOME, a feature film starring Rumer Willlis and Chris Marquette

The film that pairs autism with abuse with abuse is premiering on May 30th, 2014 and opens from May 30th through June 5th at the Hollywood Arena Theater.  June 3rd it will be available at i-tunes and VOD.  We want everyone and their families to be there as this is groundbreaking social awareness.

Two strangers, each living at the edges of society, are fatefully united for a harrowing and inspirational journey through the enchanting vistas of New Mexico. A passionate young woman escaping her abusive past, and a reclusive young man with Autism, take a journey that redefines the notion of family. Duncan lives a solitary life in a tiny town, finding bliss in map making. His humanistic GPS skills bewilder the customers who pass through his convenient store. Maya encounters Duncan in the most unexpected way and has no idea what a wondrous journey is about to ignite.

Link to trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Skm20UveaNs

Comments from the Director:  RAJEEV NIMALAKHANDAN

MY INSPIRATION TO MAKE THE FILM:  The reason I was inspired to direct and co-write the film is because I was asked to do a documentary on several families with autism. I went into the experience not knowing what to expect and I was blown away by my interaction with the families coping with autism. Each child had a unique spirit and sense of joy that stayed with me at a very deep level. I wanted to tell the story with a character who would demonstrate the many layers of autism that I had experienced.

ABOUT MAKING THE FILM:  The casting was quite fun. We had great actors to come in and read for us so we considered many and finally chose the ones that gave life perfectly to the actual script.  The actors are Rumer Willis, Chris Marquette, Veronica Cartwright, Brendan Sexton III and Bruce Altman.  Chris Marquette and I were keenly aware of the responsibility that we had in telling a story about a man with autism and we pledged to create someone who was textured, layered, and steeped in honesty. From the reactions we have received from the many families with autism in their lives, we feel we have captured a truly special character. Many times family members don’t just say they liked the film, they have thanked me for making this film. This reaction touches me beyond belief.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: The Odd Way Home has received a lot of support from the autism community at large.  Through the process of making this film, and interacting with so many families with autism, I have come to appreciate the many facets of this condition.  Prior to making the film I attended several conferences and met Dr. Temple Grandin, the winner of 7 Emmy’s for her film entitled “Temple Grandin” starring Claire Daines.

I heard the many questions and issues parents were trying to navigate, as we filmed, both Chris Marquette and I would be very careful to guide Duncan in the direction of what he would or wouldn’t do.  We did not want to let the story affect his behavior. We wanted him to react to the world as naturally as someone with autism would. Then again, as Dr. Stephen Shore, another person on the autism spectrum and world class presenter on autism, has often said, when you meet one person with autism, you have met just one person with autism. There is more diversity in the autism spectrum alone than there is amongst so called “normal” people.  We wanted to create someone who stayed with the very characteristics that define autism in the first place.

THE FILM TAKE AWAY:  The takeaway from this film is that even though Duncan has autism, he is the stronger character that lends strength to Maya who is climbing out of the trenches of abuse and addiction she was trapped in. Duncan has a profound impact on her and helps her find the beauty in life again.   My message to audiences worldwide is to see and know that no matter what disability a person has, they have so many more gifts, strengths and talents that have great impact for everyone.

IMPORTANT TESTIMONIALS

The protagonists’ personal journeys and the relationship that develops between them are captivating, and sensitively drawn, but what is more, their experiences are marked by an inescapable sense of authenticity. Filled with humor and flavorful personalities “The Odd Way Home” paints a picture of how people really will come to know and recognize the true face of autism in the real world.  Captivating and lots of fun!”

KAREN SIMMONS, CEO & Founder of Autism Today, Help You Need Now!

With rich characters and well written dialogue, Co-Writer/Director Rajeev Nirmalakhandan’s captures a journey seldom seen in independent film. Rumer Wills and Chris Marquette’s interaction perfectly reflects the day to day challenges of those individuals who are autistic and those around them traversing a world they know little about.”

JOEY TRAVOLTA of Inclusion Films  

 

A soon to be released film produced in New Mexico deals in the most sensitive and compelling way with the subject of autism. It is a profoundly moving story about a young man with autism. The word autism is never mentioned in the movie, but the viewer gains enormous insight into the behavior and thinking of an autistic man and is able to make the diagnosis without being told. More importantly it educates the viewers about this complicated and debilitating condition in a way that one would never get from simply reading about it. Like many cognitive conditions, the film is first class in every way but most importantly it will help people understand this disability and hopefully stimulate conversations that will lead to greater understanding.

DR. BARRY RAMO, Cardiologist in New Mexico

HOW TO FIND THE FILM:  The premiere is May 30th, 2014 and will be available on i-tunes and VOD on June 3rd.

Stories from the Heart: Matinee

For most parents, taking a child to a Saturday afternoon flick is little more than a way to kill time, of entertaining their little ones with minimal parental exertion, and even as a way to regain their sanity on a busy fun-filled weekend.  For one Dad and his very special boy, however, a Saturday matinee became so much more than just a weekend excursion.  Watching a simple children’s film together fulfilled   fathers wish and gave him an afternoon he will never forget.

For proud dads, certain father-son activities are a rite-of-passage in the parent-child relationship.  While my son was still swimming and kicking in his mother’s humungous abdomen, I dreamed of taking him to his first baseball game, first camping trip, and even his first movie.  This was, of course, before April and I knew we would be blessed with a child who, despite having special-needs, would also bring abundant joy and blessings to our lives.  He was more precious than either of us could have ever imagined a cherished gift from God.

Because of Shamus autism, most of these traditional father-son outings, which most parents take for granted, never became a reality.  How I wished I could take my son on an exciting train excursion to a San Francisco Giants game, buy him a hot dog, Coke, and Giants cap, and together experience an incredible baseball game.  My eyes, although sometimes blinded to his limitations, were certainly open enough to realize that such an activity would be disastrous, considering Shamus often disruptive autistic behavior.

Upon seeing promotions for the upcoming motion picture Curious George, however, I knew it was finally time to give Shamus a chance at a father-son outing.  This film, I reasoned, was a kid’s movie.  If he does misbehave, the other patrons, being parents of small children themselves, will certainly understand.  Besides, the running time is less than ninety minutes certainly short enough to hold Shamus interest, I figured.  Even if Shamus didn’t like the show, I certainly would, since that playful critter named George was a favorite storybook character from my own childhood.

Shamus, I asked. Do you want to see Curious George with Daddy? Yyyyyyyyes, he replied, in his unique, signature style, answering in a way that only my special Shamus can.

He is not ready, April said. Be flexible, and take him out of the theater if he misbehaves, she advised.  Being the proud father, however, I was more optimistic, and knew it was time for Shamus to see a movie with Daddy – a film about a mischievous monkey named Curious George.

Driving Shamus to the cinema, my spirits were higher than the white puffy clouds floating so far above our heads.  I would finally have my chance to do a real Dad activity with my precious son.  After parking in a crowded downtown garage, we strolled to the theater hand-in-hand, passing bustling restaurants and traffic-jammed streets of roaring buses and blaring horns.  After finally arriving at the box office, I shouted through the microphone, One adult and one child for Curious George, please. Words cannot describe my incredible pride as I traded my greenbacks for two theater tickets, which I immediately handed to my little boy to give to the doorman.  We then wandered to the small auditorium where our chosen feature was showing.

After the lights dimmed and the projector started to flicker, Shamus sat and absorbed the movie.  No, he didn’t make a fuss.  He didn’t ask to leave, and he didn’t require my constant attention.  None of his mother’s predictions materialized.  What Shamus did was watch the naughty monkey named George play peek-a-boo with a yellow safari hat in the African jungle, paint a downtown studio a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, float aimlessly over the Manhattan skyline clutching a rainbow of colorful carnival balloons, and generally make life very interesting for himself and The Man in the Yellow Hat – who eventually grew quite fond of George’s frolicsome behavior.  The movie screen sparkled like a brilliant display of fireworks on a balmy summer night, and Shamus, although not following the storyline, was mesmerized by the symphony of color splashing on every corner of the silver screen, like a painter’s canvas coming to life.  It was a pleasant and enjoyable time for both father and son, and an unforgettable experience.  While enjoying the dazzling film, I realized that, sitting next to me was my own little monkey who, like Curious George, also likes to find mischief, always warming my heart in the process.  I was ecstatic, sporting a huge grin from ear-to-ear, as my precious son and I watched our first movie together.  It was a day I will never forget and will cherish in my heart forever.

A few days later, I asked Shamus which movie did you see with Daddy? He replied, in a way that only my little boy can, Monkey Movie.  In Shamus eyes, it was a Monkey Movie.  In my eyes, however, it was something so much more.  It was a special gift from a special boy – a Saturday matinee his proud father will never forget.

* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism and special needs experience.

Stories from the Heart: Nevin and Fencing

From the beginning Nevin would grab a broken twig or any long branch and would swing it back and forth. We did not take notice of it. Going to the dollar stores or any kind of store that display play swords, he will jump at the opportunity to have us purchase it.  At home, he will swing it back and forth trying to imitate the character he plays on one of his PlayStation 2 games. If he had another sword to offer, he will then play sword fighting game with one of us.

A video movie of Zorro was on the stands at Wal-Mart.  We purchase the video and took it home and he watched the video almost every day. And every single time, Nevin will imitate Zorro’s actions. Last Halloween, he dressed up as Zorro.

If he is not playing around with a sword, Nevin is in the computer on youtube looking at cartoons and watching some of Zorro’s movies from the past. One day, he googled fencing on the net and a site here in Edmonton popped up on the screen. It was engarde fencing and they were on the northwest of Edmonton. He was very excited to let us know what he has discovered. The timing was just right because their new session was just about to begin.

First, I enrolled him on the over 12 beginner class. Observing him for the first two weeks, I figured that he just doesn’t fit there. I spoke to the coach/teacher that he has a difficulty in understanding. The class had a lot of students and the teacher/coach tried to modify and simplify the class but it was just too hard for Nevin to understand the concepts. He would try to imitate one of the students but did not really pay attention to the teachings. When the coach tried to let him does it on his own, he could not do it. I had to a couple of times intervened.

They had a parent/child session class on Saturdays and there was an opening. We transferred to that class and attended every Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. A typical class always starts with the stretching and then warm-ups and then doing the fencing concept, like how to do the lunge, proper leg stance, defending yourself with the sword and how to strike your opponent. There were number of parent/child attending in that class. Just before this session was about to come to a close, there was a tournament and it was opened for everybody who was a member. At the tournament, Nevin went against students that were there for a number of years already. He scored and fared well for a new comer. He won one and lost the rest. Winning that one put a big smile on his face. He made it through to the second round but that’s where it ends. He enjoyed every minute of it and walked out with a lot of pride and satisfaction. Before the tournament, he kept telling me that he will win a medal. There is always next time.

We purchase the complete fencing equipment gears so we could start practicing at home to what the coach taught us in class. Every day, I could see improvements in his fencing.

For our second session parent/child, about halfway to the session, the coach suddenly quit and had to move on. The parent/child session for the weekend was cancelled. Nevin had to take one of the classes that were open for his age and status. No parent was allowed to participate. I was just a spectator.  He had to attend every Thursday evening. They had one of the young advance students who was designated as the coach, started teaching the class. Nevin and another kid was the only student in this class. During this session, he blossomed because the attention was to both of them. It was perfect. He quickly learned a lot and paid more attention. Regular School was coming to an end and most of the students attending other sports beside this had prior commitments. So, there was no tournament for the second session. On the last day of this session, the student coach created a mini-tournament for us. Two parents and two students, when this tournament was done, Nevins classmate came in first place, one of the parents came in second and Nevin and I were in third place. It was lots of fun and it was a blast. Nevin enjoyed every minute of it.

The third class session is about to begin on September 18. The parent/child is on again on Saturdays with a new coach. Nevin has been asking a lot about the class and looking forward to it.

By Neilzon  Viloria

nviloria@shaw.ca

* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism and special needs experience.

Stories from the Heart: PJ

Sometimes, God surprises us by giving an Autistic boy  who had nothing but fear for His glorious creatures  a new best friend:  a gentle pony named PJ.

It’s was sunny Saturday morning as my stretch my eyes open after a long slumber.  As I awoke, I heard the patter of tiny squirrel paws playfully darting back-and-forth across our humble roof.  I was pleased, knowing my furry four-legged friends enjoyed my home as much as I did.

On this warm spring day, April and I took Shamus to visit a ranch for his very first pony ride.  We hoped it would help him improve his fine and gross motor skills, learn to love and bond with a living creature, and, most of all, overcome his fear of animals.  Hopefully, the encounter would be positive and Shamus would ride the creature each week as part of this ongoing therapy program.

Shamus, unlike most little boys, was afraid of dogs.  Perhaps that’s normal for younger children, but Shamus was almost five.  Even small dogs terrified him.  We visited my brother last summer, whose charming cabin in the Idaho wilderness is a menagerie of cats and dogs.  We tried our best to keep the scampering canines away from Shamus, but with the numerous two and four-legged creatures and the constant chaos, it was a difficult task.  Shamus would just have to manage.  He did, somehow.

Before we left for the ranch, April showed Shamus pictures of horses. “What’s that, Shamus?” Shed ask, pointing to a picture. “Horsie”, Shamus would answer. “What we are going to see today, Shamus?” she’d ask again.  The answer was the same, “Horsie”.

Driving to the ranch was absolutely delightful.  Although we barrelled down an interstate, it seemed like a quaint country road, with the sparse traffic, green rolling hills, and nearby mountains topped by giant redwood trees with a touch of coastal fog kissing the peaks.  The ranch was just as picturesque, with a panoramic view of rolling green pastures and stately oak and sycamore trees.  Whenever a horse passed our van, April would ask Shamus to turn his head and announce what he saw.  The answer was of course, “Horsie”.

Soon, it came time for Shamus to meet the pony. “This is PJ”, the trainer said, introducing us to the creature and encouraging us to touch him.  PJ was a gentle and patient pony, and being the ripe old age of 25, was quite laid-back as well.  With all the hands stroking his tan colored hair, caressing his ears, and touching his nose, he was an extremely calm beast.  He loved the attention and had a natural affinity for young children.

In a strange sort of way, he seemed to truly appreciate his important role in assisting special children like my little boy.  We encouraged Shamus to pet the pony’s soft hair and fluffy white mane.  Even I enjoyed rubbing his soft, silky coat.  Living most of my life in the suburbs, petting a pony was a rare opportunity.

When it came time to mount the animal, however, Shamus resisted.  The Monster called Autism reared its ugly head, and my special little boy transformed from a sweet gentle boy to a fighting maniac in a mere moment.  For such a little boy, he sure can fight and is quite strong for his small body.  He can certainly be stubborn sometimes (not unlike his father ).

After much cajoling and sweet assurances, however, Shamus eventually calmed down enough to allow PJ to carry him around the pen.  Once Shamus became comfortable with the pony, he was happy.  Actually, he was more than happy.  He was ecstatic.  As PJ and Shamus marched around the pen, April said to me See, he’s smiling.  I looked, and sure enough, he was.  He had a giant, playful grin on his face and a magical sparkle in his eye that melted my heart.  He seemed like a different kid not the unruly, struggling 4-year-old that resisted mounting the animal just a few minutes earlier.  That radiant glow never left his face.

In watching this sight, I realized that Shamus gave this creature the greatest gift of all:  his unconditional love and trust and PJ cherished this.  The beast walked proud and tall, knowing that because of his gentleness and compassion, he was able to gain the confidence of a very special boy.  As far as PJ was concerned, he was a magnificent stallion carrying the noblest prince through the gates of a glorious kingdom.

But alas, even life’s most memorable moments must eventually come to an end.  When it came time to dismount, Shamus stubbornness returned.  He loved the pony so much, he didn’t want to leave.  “Say bye-bye to PJ”, I told him.  “I want ride PJ”, he would repeat over and over.  “Next time”, we would reply, as we pulled him off the pony.

As we drove home through the green, rural countryside, Shamus repeated endlessly “I want ride PJ, I want ride PJ, I want ride PJ”, his chatter was almost nonstop.  To most parents, it would be a major annoyance, but not to this proud Dad.  It was music to my ears.  My little Autistic boy, who was terrified of even the smallest dogs, had a new best friend a gentle pony named PJ.

By Patrick Paulitz

* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism and special needs experience.

Stories From the Heart: Junk Food, Bumper Cars, and My Special Son

Sometimes, a father and son, while simply smiling, laughing, and enjoying life together, discover a common bond, and create a touching and precious moment.

August in San Mateo means many things; warm days, cold nights, outdoor concerts, weekend camping trips, and of course, the San Mateo County Fair.  Living down the street from the fairgrounds, it had been a tradition in our family to attend the festivities every year.  Even when Shamus was a not-so-tiny newborn, I attended the fair by myself, sporting a cell phone on my waist to always be in touch with Shamus and his proud Mommy.  This year was no exception, so we hopped in the minivan and made the one-mile journey to the San Mateo County Fairgrounds.

After arriving at the fair, we followed tradition and made a beeline for the food court, letting our noses lead the way.  The food court is a lively gathering place, with brightly colored trailers sporting exotic banners advertising all kinds of delicious fare, with treats ranging from Greek gyros, Mexican tacos, barbecued pork ribs, pizza, cheeseburgers, Thai chicken, and everything imaginable deep-fried, from chicken, fish, hot dogs, bananas, zucchini, and even Twinkies and Oreo cookies.  The aroma of all this food lingered in the still August air, inviting us to indulge in the pleasures of filling our stomachs with the tempting and downright fattening delicacies.

Nowhere else is there such a variety of scrumptious treats all in one place but the County Fair, and at no other time would anyone dare to savour such sinful delights as deep-fried Twinkies or Oreo cookies.  Yes, the fair brings out the child in all of us, and takes us back to a time before calorie-counting, cholesterol-checking, and low-fat diets – and returns us all to our lackadaisical, carefree childhood.  Too bad it only comes once a year.

After stuffing our faces with notoriously greasy County Fair delicacies, we took Shamus to a children’s play area.  Here, the little guy could ride toy cars and climb inside a real working ambulance or helicopter, as well as play tiny-tot basketball or swing a hula-hoop.  He could even gaze at a moon rock from an Apollo mission.  Of course, all our special Autistic boy wanted to do was ride a toy car, in aimless circles around the small room.  Soon, April decides to go home, leaving Daddy and Shamus together at the fair – just in time to visit the roaring and electrifying fun zone.

Ah, the fun zone.  Like the food court, the fun zone is also filled with sights, sounds, and smells that bring back childhood memories, and this fun zone is no exception.  Sounds of screaming children and adults, barkers inviting carnival-goers to try games-of-chance, the smell of hot dogs, cotton candy, and popcorn, and the sight of brilliantly colored attractions that spin and twirl riders, turning them sideways, upside-down or simply dropping them from great heights are all a part of this carnival experience.  Of course, there is also the traditional Ferris wheel, House of Mirrors, and bumper cars.  Yes, this fun zone is an important part of the County Fair, and to experience it is to relive an integral part of American culture.

Fortunately for me, the father of a very special Autistic boy, this carnival had lots of rides for the little ones.  First, I emptied my wallet of several greenbacks for an all-day wristband so little Shamus could compulsively ride the attractions over-and-over without me having to constantly return to the ticket booth, with Shamus tugging one hand while I juggle my wallet in the other, hoping to keep the little guy from rambunctiously scampering all over the fun zone.  Then, one-by-one, I put Shamus on the rides.

Most of the children’s attractions revolved in endless circles, and included bright pink elephants, buzzing bumblebees with a kaleidoscope of colors, and roaring fighter jets of sparkling blue.  There was also a tiny train, child-sized Hummers, a miniature green dragon roller coaster, and carousal with vibrantly colored horses galloping up-and-down, as if marching to the beat of the lively calliope-like music.  All of these attractions were brilliantly colored and played pleasant, uplifting melodies.  As Shamus enjoyed the attractions, which I chose for him, he was always happy.  Not ecstatic, mind you, but happy just the same.  After all, he is a very happy-go-lucky child, and nothing seems to upset him too much.

Finally, I decide to let Shamus try the bumper cars.  Even as a young adult of twenty-something, I would sometimes go to the local carnival by myself and ride various attractions, and my favourite was always the bumper cars.  There’s something special about driving in endless circles, colliding with complete strangers, and not worrying about insurance companies or body shops.  To me, the bumper cars were always special, so it only felt fitting to let my special son share this experience with me.

After buying ride tickets and waiting in a long, snaking line, we finally climbed into our bumper car.  Almost immediately, I felt like a child again, and could hardly contain my delight as I waited for the ride operator to flip the magic switch that would bring the bumper cars to life.  Before long, we were moving, backwards, forward, and sideways, around-and-around, constantly hitting the side railing and other bumper cars.

As I was driving the special cars, I noticed something.  Every time we collided – every single time – Shamus giggled and laughed and a huge smile appeared on his face.  He, like his Dad, loved bumper cars.  He laughed out loud for the first time all day.  I was elated.  It put a smile on my own face, knowing that my son, my special Autistic son, loved bumper cars just as much as his father.

The experience, although probably only a few minutes long, seemed to last forever, and, to be honest, I was hoping it would.  But alas, all moments in life, no matter how special, must eventually come to an end.  When the time came to disembark the tiny cars that Shamus and I loved so much, Shamus was very cooperative.  He grabbed my hand, climbed out, and followed me to the exit.

Soon, we were again strolling throughout the carnival grounds.  While Shamus and I were aimlessly meandering around the fun zone, I felt something.  It was the child-sized hand of a little boy, my special little boy, gently tugging my T-shirt.  Then, with his small petite voice, he said something, which, unintelligible to most, was crystal clear to me: “I want more”.

“You want more what?” I asked him, knowing full well the answer in my heart.  He replied “I want more bumper car”.  My heart melted as the huge smile reappeared on my face.  “You want more bumper cars?” I asked.  “Yes”, he said, in a way that only my special Shamus can.  “Okay”, I said, as I dabbed my eye with a handkerchief to dry the tiny tear that was starting to form.  “We’ll have more bumper cars”, I said as we headed to the ticket booth to purchase more ride tickets for Daddy.

We rode the bumper cars three times that day.  Every time our car collided, Shamus continued to laugh and smile and giggle, like any five-year-old child should.  And, after every ride, Shamus always said “I want more”.  I admit I actually felt guilty not letting him ride a fourth time.  But, like happens so often in life, my wallet ran empty.  It was just as well, though.  We both had a wonderful day eating junk food and enjoying the carnival, and Shamus and I shared a most unforgettable father-son experience:  butting bumper cars at the County Fair.

By Patrick Paulitz

* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism and special needs experience.

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