“No Justin, we’re not going home yet” I say to my eldest son, who has already let our family know he is finished with the rides at Blackbeard’s Cave (an event sponsored by POAC, Parents of Autistic Children). He’s spotted our car, and in no uncertain terms is letting me know he would like to leave.
Justin rejects my response with a whine and throws his full weight into pulling my body toward our SUV and egress, which coincides perfectly with my other child’s enthusiastic request to play mini-golf. I meet Jeff’s eyes and we exchange that look we’ve perfected over nine years in the autism trenches, the connection that asks which one of us will be bright enough to figure out how to pull this off.
Our options, all of which have pros and cons, range from disappointing Zach and heading home, or trying to keep Justin placated in the car on a day when we didn’t bring any reinforcers, because the rides were supposed to provide that honor. There is, of course, one final choice. It will require two adults to coerce our eldest son back to the putting green, a decision I am certain will be met with great disdain.
We’ve never played mini-golf with Justin before, as each of our prior attempts resulted in major tantrums (mostly on his part). Ninety-nine percent of the time when we place a demand on Justin we follow through no matter how unpleasant the aftermath, but when it comes to leisure activities, we’ve learned to periodically throw in the towel.
Justin has fairly severe autism. There will always be things in life that his family members find enticing, events that would bore him to tears (and on occasion, have done exactly that). Sometimes, the right thing to do is just to jump ship and go home.
But the truth is today I’m feeling feisty, and I’m not yet ready to leave. I want to elongate this family outing that so far has included all four of us for an entire hour, the mast majority of which has been peaceful and pleasant. I quickly turn Justin around and grab his other hand to lead him back to the tiki hut where clubs, golf balls and score cards reside.
My husband returns my look with an expression intimating he’s not quite as gung-ho with my decision, but gamely grabs his other hand. Justin emits an “EEE!” of outrage commensurate with our telling him he’s about to sit through a five-hour opera with no intermission, but he permits us to propel him back to the opposite side of the parking lot, where a new adventure (hopefully) awaits him.
Zach is overjoyed that we’re giving this a go, and that his big brother will (in theory) participate. For the look on his face alone, I know I have to figure out how to make this work.
As we traipse back to our new frontier, I briefly contemplate the irony of the situation. After a number of skirmishes in his early childhood Justin became greatly enamored of outings, to the point where I’d have i reining him in and exiting a locale with my skin intact. For years, he was game to try anything. He would often grab my hand and gather up his sneakers with the other, making a beeline for the front door and what I believe he perceived as greener pastures.
His desire for excursions never dampened, even during blizzards or torrential downpours. Justin simply wanted “out”, and his mother, whose favorite part of teaching was always field trips, was perfectly happy to comply.
Over the past few years however I’ve watched this desire wane. We’ve tried employing multiple types of reinforcers, “rewards” to encourage our son to stay out, and engaged the services of a phenomenal behaviorist who enabled us to briefly extend our stays on certain occasions. Many of those strategies worked for a while.
Over time however their efficacy has waned, and since I only have about thirty pounds on my kid, arguing with him is a moot point. My son’s idea of perfect bliss has morphed into staying home with a good movie in his DVD player, and an even better snack.
As a food enthusiast myself, I so get that urge.
But today I’m determined we’ll stay, and as we cross the threshold of the shack containing our equipment I feel Justin’s body relax, and in response I loosen my grip on the hand I have tightly clenched within my own.
He is curious now, watches raptly as we all choose our clubs, is eager to select his favorite. Jeff and I decide (wisely) to forego the scorecard, and we head on out to hunt down our first green, a task which Justin, who rushes ahead of us, does for us.
And to our immense pleasure (and surprise), he does exactly that for eighteen consecutive holes.
There are a few blips here and there. At times Jeff doesn’t quite sink the ball fast enough for Justin, and he lets his father know in no uncertain terms. My eldest is not fond of waiting while Zachary “plays through”, and since there are no other patrons on the green, each boy is able to have his own playing field, which conquers that problem.
Justin is ecstatic every time he sinks a put with our assistance. Every single time, Zach cheers him on from afar.
My child, who for almost an entire decade has only shown enthusiasm for movies or toys that light up and spin, loves mini-golf. Who knew.
All too quickly our adventure concludes, and this time it is clear Justin will brook no opposition to the vehicle which will whisk him back to the films and toys he so covets. I smile with satisfaction because our family has found another avenue in which to be together, a way to mitigate the divide between the boys that only seems to grow deeper as they age.
I remind myself that no matter how seemingly insurmountable the task at hand, we have to continue to try new things with Justin. We need to push and prod him at times to break through the rigidity of his type of autism, in the hopes he’ll discover a new activity that will bring him joy. Today, to my great delight, our extended stay worked.
And as always, his joy is mine too.