There is no such thing as sure-fire fun when it comes to my non-verbal son with Autism. His idea of a good time is his idea only and, for the most part, that opinion can change within minutes.
Trips to places like the park can present very different reactions depending on his mood. We’ve had days where we ran through the playground like we were in the Sound of Music and we’ve had days, in that same playground, where he refused to budge while letting out a steady low-level whine. We’ve even had days with both. There’s no pleading or bargaining. If he’s not feeling it, he’s not feeling it
When an indoor play area opened near our home that specialized in “children on the spectrum”, I knew there were no guarantees he would like it. The place itself was spacious and clean. They had foam tubes, big bouncy slides, and toddlers running amok. I guided Lucas through the waves of kids to each ride-a-long toy for a test spin, where he would humor me for a few seconds before trying to run away. On paper, this should have been his favorite place on Earth.
It wasn’t. His weakness was for the giant window at the store front. It peered out to a busy Long Island road and, with each passing car, he got more and more excited. Rather than sitting on the merry-go-plops or dipplehoppers or springamagigs, he chose to run back and forth in front of this window, clapping for each speeding motorist. He nearly trampled teams of preschoolers in order to accomplish this intense applause party. I spent a little less than 20 minutes chasing behind him to ensure no children were crushed before I finally just started to put his shoes back on.
As I was wedging his Flintstone feet into his Adidas, the woman who runs the location walked over with the $15 I had paid for the open play time. She had seen how he reacted, watched my exhausted attempts to reel him in, and sympathetically returned my money with the statement, “Save it for when you come back next time. Maybe he will like it then.” It was a really nice gesture, but also made me realize that we weren’t invisible during that whole scene. Sometimes I actually forget.
Sadly, we never did go back. That’s not because the place isn’t wonderful. It is. I’m sure there are teams of kids ready to eat their vegetables in order to earn a trip to this magical playland. My son, though, is not one of them. Chances are, the next verse would be the same as the first only this time we probably would have to eat the admission fee.
The honest truth is that Lucas and I already have a special place but it’s not a playground or a park. Our special place was discovered when he was small and continues to be our place until this day. That place, strangely enough, is Target.
Yup. The store with the Up and Up brand toilet paper and red-eyed dog is our favorite destination. Since my son was a baby, I would bring him there to do my shopping and he would promptly fall asleep in the shopping cart. I’d wedge a throw pillow under his head and go about my business. I knew he was comfortable there. He never seemed unhappy in that cart.
Of course, that was when he was younger. Carts were plentiful and made for his tiny body. Years later and he looks like a polar bear wedged in barbed wire. Supermarkets, craft stores, and most essential stops were all off his list of places to roll through.
Sure, he can walk…unless he decides not to. A tired Lucas can be a forceful Lucas and the cold linoleum of a Walgreens Pharmacy can often outweigh his desire to step over to the battery section. Couple that with his confusing aversion to making turns in certain directions and hoofin’ it seemed almost out of the question.
It was Target, though, that came through during the great cart-outgrowing of 2015. They had specialized carts for larger customers looking to wheel around. He’d climb in and, facing me, would happily ride along from aisle to aisle. By the time he reached the age of seven, we had gone to Target together ten times more than any ol’ playground. It was our place.
Last week, we returned after a slight absence and the moment we started to walk through the front door, his eyes lit up. There was a sudden spring in his step and soon my boy was marching in as if entering Disney World.
Actually, I take that back. I’ve seen him enter Disney World. This wasn’t that. His grand Target entrance wins hands down. Disney is mouse meat compared to this place.
Normally, the giant cart is positioned right near the entrance, but this time it wasn’t. So, unable to find it, I made a judgment call. Lucas was going to walk this time. He was ready.
Oh, and walk he did. I have never seen him prouder as we strutted from the linens to the lotions. He loved walking along with total freedom. I couldn’t believe how great he was doing. We were the Kings of the Market Pantry until it came time to make a left turn down the bread aisle for bagels. It was one turn too far and his unexplainable aversion reared its head. The low whine started and his hand stiffened in mine. He had planted his feet firmly on the ground and would not move.
Had this been a year or two ago, I might have picked him up and carried him with me. I might have even forgone the bagels and bought them another day. This time, though, I tried something different and way out of our comfort zone. I let go of his hand.
He looked at me with surprise. There was a time when stepping a foot of away would have sent him sprinting into the closest traffic he could find. This was about trust and I could feel that he knew that. I backed down the aisle, repeating “stay there” to him as I did. His sly little grin grew with each step I took. It was as if this was simultaneously our funniest private joke and the greatest thing that ever happened to him. Customers casually walked around him as he stood like a statue, beaming back with happiness. I could read the world in his face and, if he was able to speak words, he would be screaming, “Look, everybody! I’m standing here on my own!”
In the end, it was only about ten feet, but it might as well been ten miles. When I returned to him, he lifted his hand for me to hold, gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen him give, and we marched to the register. It was one of his proudest moments. I could feel it in the air.
So, if you ask me what fun things Lucas did on his break, you might expect to hear about movies and baseball games. Nope. Target. We bought Veggie Straws and garbage bags as souvenirs to prove it. It was our favorite December trip. Other people might not get it, but we do. And, to be honest, that’s all that really matters.