It’s my son’s “Happy Place”.

For the past seven years in June we’ve been taking the kids to Story Land amusement park in Glen, New Hampshire.  Our first year was with just one kid.  Now we’re a loud and rowdy family of five.

Story Land has become Howie’s place. Something clicked with him and this park when he was two.  Before I even knew what a stim was, he would sit hunched over the map on our floor, rocking back and forth.  He knew where every ride was, where the eating places were, and where the exit was (“X marks the spot”).  He would talk about it constantly.  And those nights before we discovered melatonin – when Howie would take hours to fall asleep and wake up at 2am screaming – Tim would take out his phone and scroll through the pictures of our previous trip.  “See, that’s you on the flying shoes!  And that’s you and Mom on the train.  Look, that’s you driving a car.” Quietly and slowly, Howie would fall back to sleep again.

Every day he asks how many more “sleeps” until Story Land.  And when I say every day, I mean every day.  Three hundred and sixty days a year for the past three years.  I’m subtracting out the days that we’re actually at the park.  In the winter he asks how long before the snow melts and Story Land is open.  In the spring he asks how long before the workers open up the park.  In the summer he asks to show him on the calendar the number of the day that we’re going.  And when we return, he asks when we’re going back.

Our trip up there was last week.  Maybe it’s because I’m starting to understand him better, but I finally could see what he sees.

I saw a place where all three of my kids could ride on every ride.

How Tall Are you?

I saw a place where stories come to life – not in a scary way with lots of people in costumes (because we don’t do people in costumes) – but in a nice gentle approach-if-you-want kind of way.

Cinderella's Pumpkin

I saw a place where the kids didn’t have to hold my hand, but they could hold each other’s hands.

this way to Storyland

storyland hug

I saw a place where kids could drive their parents around in cars.

Driving Miss Mommy

I saw a place that had food that was safe to eat, because they publish all of their food’s ingredients online so we knew what we could buy.

eating our way through the park

I saw a place where all three of my boys were happy.  No fighting.  No complaining about stimming or verbal outbursts.  Happy.  All at the same time.  For three days straight.

Let's Get Together At Storyland

I took a moment to look through the eyes of my five year old.  What I saw was magic.

You can have Disney.  We’ll take Story Land.

Three hundred and fifty five days until we go back.

"The sun will always shine where you stand
Depending in which land
You may find yourself.
Now you have my blessing, go your way.
Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway,
You can have everything if you let yourself be.
Happiness runs, happiness runs.
Happiness runs, happiness runs." - Happiness Runs by Donovan

So, how much sharing is too much?

It’s Wednesday morning, and my family was in the lobby of our hotel.  We’re on our annual trek to our favorite place on Earth: Storyland in New Hampshire.  We’ve come down for the hotel’s free breakfast, and we’re crowded around the tiny table.

Well, not all of us.  I had removed Howie from the sitting area because his behavior was becoming quite disruptive.  I plopped him down in the chair in front of the reservation desk, handed him a Storyland map, and told him to plan out our day.  I strategically placed myself halfway between him and our table, so I could keep an eye on everyone.  And suck down my free coffee at the same time.

At that moment, a mom and her son came in.  He looked to be about seven years old or so.  She asked if I was waiting for a table, and as I gestured to my left and right I explained that I was keeping track of my crew.  She smiled and grabbed a table in the middle of the room.  Her husband and daughter came in behind them.

A few minutes later, I heard her tell her son to “just go out and ask them what they like about Storyland.  He has a map right there.”  Her son comes right out, glances back at his mom, and turns to Howie.

“So, what do you like about Storyland?”

Howie’s eyes lit up.  It was  like asking Dino Dan what he likes about dinosaurs.

(in case you don’t know, Storyland is Howie’s second obsession after Hot Wheels cars.  He asks almost every day “how many more sleeps” until we’re going.  And on the days when he doesn’t ask, he talks about his favorite rides.  Constantly.)

For a good ten minutes the conversation flowed.  “I like the polar coaster!” “I’m going on the Flying Fish!” “Do you like the train?” “I’m going to ride on the green one!” “Did you know there’s a circus”…and on and on and on…until:

“Mom!  I made a new friend!”

From Howie.

Of course, he didn’t know the kid’s name or anything about him.  They just connected on Storyland and that was enough.  Frankly I was surprised he didn’t say “I made a new best friend!”

The rest of us finished our breakfast and headed back up to the room to get ready for our big day at the park.  Our new friend Gabe (yes, we now knew his name) and his dad rode up with us.  And they were still talking about Storyland.

We said our goodbyes at the elevator and the perfunctory “see you at the park”, gathered our things and went our separate ways.

In the parking lot, I realized I had forgotten something in the room.  I headed back to the lobby, and ran into Gabe’s dad outside of the door.

Something overtook me at that moment.  I don’t know what it was.  For some reason, I was compelled to talk to him.  To thank him.  So I did.

“I just have to thank you and your son.  He’s a great kid and my boys had a nice time talking with him about the park.  My five year old…um…he has high functioning autism, and it’s hard for him to relate to kids sometimes, so…um…that was really great for me and him.  Thank you.”  And I turned and walked into the hotel.  His wife was walking out right then.  She looked at me quizzically and said “I guess I’ll have him fill me in.”

I have never shared that information with a stranger.  A complete and total stranger. There was no immediate reason for me to tell them any of that.  The only time I’ve ever told anyone about Howie’s autism was as an explanation for his behavior.  And it’s only to a person who we already know.  I’ve never considered it anyone’s business before.  And clearly, they didn’t need to know it.  They came into breakfast five minutes past the verbal outbursts, the refusal to eat, and the inability to sit still.  All they saw was a perfectly behaved five year old, talking about his favorite vacation spot.

But I saw something different.  I saw my son connect with another young boy – one that he had never met before.

A boy that seemed a little like…mine.

What was it that got my radar up?  Was it the excited way that he talked too?  Or was it the fact that his mother asked me twice if he was bothering my boys?  Or was it the little tears that welled up in her eyes when I told her that Howie said that he made a new friend?

Something compelled me to tell that family our story.  It was the thought that maybe we shared something else besides our love for the Whirling Whale ride.

We saw the family two times at the park that day.  Once they were getting off one ride, and we were getting on.  There was a quick hello, and that was it.  Later on, I saw the mom.  She was walking alone, talking on the phone.  She glanced at me, and looked away.

I’m guessing now that my radar was off that day.  I was wrong. And I scared her.

I expected a teary “yes, us too!”. What I got was a “I don’t know you.”

I spent the rest of the day thinking about this encounter.  What did I expect to gain from sharing, or in this case, oversharing?  Why did I need them to know?  Why did I need to connect with this family?  They were strangers then and are strangers now.

Why did I need to make my son the topic of her next mom’s night out?

I guess it’s that feeling of not wanting to be alone.  I thought she’d be a mom who “gets it”.  Instead, she was a mom who didn’t want to understand.

However…

I’m not sure I’d do anything different any other time.

You just never know when you’ll get that teary “yes, us too.”

That moment can make all the difference.

footprints

Let's get together at Storyland

(more about our actual visit to Storyland in my next post.  As soon as I finish unpacking…could be weeks…)

And the trouble I find is that the trouble finds me
It’s a part of my mind it begins with a dream
And a feeling I get when I look and I see
That this world is a puzzle, I’ll find all of the pieces
And put it all together, and then I’ll rearrange it
I’ll follow it forever
Always be as strange as it seems
Nobody ever told me not to try” – Talk of the Town by Jack Johnson

Hot Wheels and Storyland.

For two and half years, that’s all we hear from Howie.   All he talks about are Hot Wheels cars and Storyland amusement park in New Hampshire.

I’ve been thinking a lot about his obsession with these two things lately.  Lewis, our two year old, is currently fascinated by monster trucks.  He carries them everywhere, even to sleep.  He races them around the house and smashes them into each other.  He begs Tim to play the Monster Jam game on the Wii, and then picks out the truck for him to use in the game.  It’s even helped him to start talking.  He knows all the trucks’ names and it has slowly evolved from something completely unintelligible to “brwn mo mutt” for the brown Monster Mutt truck and “Max D!” for Maximum Destruction.  When Tim is finished with the game, he’ll ask for “mo-monstr-jam?” (all one word).   Sometimes, those words are just music to my ears.

My kids have always had their “thing” that was their obsession.  With Lewis it’s the monster trucks, and with Gerry we’ve been through everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to Playmobils to Legos.  He’s currently stuck in all things Star Wars.  And in a sense we help feed into those obsessions.  We joke that every year there’s a theme for birthday presents for the boys – last year it was Curious George for Lewis and this year Monster Jam.  Same with Gerry.  Each year there’s an obsession, but each year it’s something different.

Not for Howie.  It has been Hot Wheels and Storyland.  Always.  Never changing.

It’s led me to have a love/hate relationship with those two things.  I’m pretty sure it’s because it’s how we first saw those red flags of autism.

Let me start with Storyland.  We’ve been going there for years, ever since Gerry was three and before Howie was born.  Yes, Gerry loved it there – the place is amazing and designed for kids ages 1-10.  But he didn’t talk about it all the time.  The year we went with Howie when he was two, it was all he could talk about.  He studied the map like it was the Bible.  He knew where every ride was and which ones he wanted to go on, and which ones he was going to avoid.  From June 2008 to now, he asks us constantly to go back.

I’ll admit I use it to my advantage.  I told him to read it on the toilet when we were toilet training because I knew he would sit longer.  When I needed him to calm down, I’d spread it out on the floor, point out the “Flying Shoes” ride on the map, and I knew I’d have a good 10 minutes to clean up, check my e-mail, or make some coffee.  I tried to use it as a way to show the changing seasons, as in “we can’t go to Storyland now because there’s snow on the ground, but when the snow is gone, we can go”. I didn’t bet on the lack of snow last year in New England, so the lesson then was lost.

The obsession with Storyland wouldn’t be enough of a red flag on its own if it wasn’t also accompanied by the Hot Wheels car craze.  With three boys, our house is covered in vehicles.  We have hundreds of Hot Wheels cars.  We first started collecting them when Gerry was little, used as a incentive for toilet training.  Somewhere around 18 months, Howie became attached to the cars and never let go.  It’s all he ever wanted to play with.  And because he would sit for long periods of time with them, lining them up and watching their wheels move back and forth, I let him.  Just like with the Storyland map, it was the only way I could get anything done.  I’d encourage it.

It wasn’t until our meeting with the developmental pediatrician last year that I realized this was a “sign”.  A flag.  Howie rolled a car back and forth on her desk for 10 minutes while she talked to me.  I didn’t even notice that he was doing it.  I did notice her eyes watching him the whole time.  When she told me later that this was his “stimming”, I was floored.

All of this is making me watch Lewis like a hawk with these monster trucks.  I panic slightly when he lines them up on the rug, then breathe when he pulls them out of line immediately to race around the rug.  I feel my stomach go into knots when I catch him lying on the floor watching the wheels move, then relax when he leaves the truck there to go play with something else.  I watch for the long extended meltdowns when he can’t find a truck, and wonder if he’ll get mired in all things Monster Jam.  So far, it’s not the same.  Lewis can easily move from playing with the monster trucks to serving me tea from his pretend kitchen to demanding to hear more music from the Glee soundtracks.  That last one I’ll indulge at any time.

But not Howie.  It’s still all about the Hot Wheels and Storyland.  Just yesterday he asked me if I could open up Storyland so we could go.   And for Hanukkah, we got him a special Hot Wheels backpack that opens up into a racetrack mat.  He packed it full of his favorite 50 or so cars to “save to race in the basement”.  We don’t have a finished basement.  It’s just something he says.

I don’t know if it’s right to continue to feed his obsession or not.  All I know is that he loves those cars.  And Storyland.  In a world that can be so difficult for him, is it wrong for us to deny him the things that make him feel…happy?

Time to go.  Two more nights of Hanukkah and I have a few more monster trucks, Hot Wheels cars and Star Wars figures to wrap.

You are an obsession
I cannot sleep
I am your possession
Unopened at your feet
There’s no balance
No equality
Be still I will not accept defeat” – Obsession by Animotion

I’m not a big fan of what I call “obligation holidays”. I’m talking about days like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and even my birthday. Holidays when you feel like you’re supposed to be doing something. Everyone asks what you’re doing on those days, and there’s the expectation that you need to do something great – a fabulous dinner, flowers, a midnight kiss. When it doesn’t happen, there’s a feeling of total failure. The end-of-the-day giant letdown.

Summer has always felt like one big long obligation holiday.

There’s the anticipation at the beginning of summer. Oh, we’re going to go on a trip, and go to the beach, and have cook-outs and family bike rides. This will be the year we finally take the boat out again, and…

(that last one is a tough one for me…the boat has been sitting in our garage for six years now. Tim and I used to talk about it every spring, thinking that maybe this will be the summer that we’ll rent a place on the lake for a week and spend the whole day out on the water like we used to do before…well, before everything. We don’t even mention it anymore. We both just stare at the boat in silence as we stack strollers and scooters and trash cans up against it.)

This summer I decided to break the cycle. I know our family better now. I know our limitations and have a better understanding of what we can and can’t do. I set zero expectations for this summer. And as I wrote back in June, I dug my heels in and started counting the days until September.

And now, Gerry starts school on Tuesday, and Howie the week after that. Gerry has a memory bag that his new teacher gave him on the last day of school, and he’s supposed to put special things in there from his summer adventures. I remember getting sad looking at it, knowing that I had nothing special planned, and just hoping we could find a thing or two so the bag wouldn’t be empty when he returned to school.

So here I sit now, the last Friday of August. I’m trying to figure out what we could put in that bag.

The truth is, quite a lot. Here’s what we did on our summer vacation:

-attended a wedding (my mom’s)
-went to Storyland
-went blueberry picking*
-went to the library
-played at the park (not once, not twice, but three times)*
-went bowling*
-went to the zoo*
-shopped at the mall
-went to the beach (just me, Gerry and Howie)
-took family walks
-taught Howie how to ride his bike
-played in the backyard
-went to the New England Aquarium
-saw a ballgame at Fenway Park (ok, this was just Tim and Gerry, but still cool)
-went to birthday parties (two of them – both Howie’s friends, first time ever)
-had playdates
-took all three boys swimming in friends’ pools (once even by myself!)
-survived camp/summer school/swim lessons (just barely)
-had a sleepover (Gerry’s first…more on this another time)
-bounced in a bounce house. All five of us together.

note: the (*) next to some of the activities on the list means I did them with the assistance of a mother’s helper. I hired the 15 year old daughter of Howie’s one-on-one aide to help me out two mornings a week on the days when Howie wasn’t at his summer school. The best decision I ever made and worth every penny. I’m pretty sure this summer would have been an even longer one had I not done that. I’m forever grateful for her help.

I’m exhausted just typing that list. Well, I’m exhausted with a smile on my face.

To the average family, that list might not seem so impressive. It’s probably what most families do during those 12 weeks of summer. But for us? Not so average. Getting us out of the house is sometimes accomplishment enough. Getting us anywhere is impressive.

Were there days when the minutes seemed like hours and the hours seemed like days? Absolutely. Were there days when I thought that all the progress we’d made with Howie this past year had disappeared in an instant? Definitely. Were there days when I sat at the computer, trying to hide my tears from the boys? More than I care to count. Were there tantrums, meltdowns, and screaming matches at some of those activities? Oh yes (just ask them at the zoo…)

But there were also mornings that started with laughter, when the coffee pot wasn’t the first thing I reached for. Afternoons filled with baseball, and swings and bike races. Nights when I fell asleep easily, knowing that we had made the most of the day.

That is our new version of summertime. The living isn’t easy, but it’s the best we can do. I know we’re not the rent-a-place-at-the-lake kind of family. At least not now.

Gerry has several things to put in his memory bag now, including one more to be made today with his dad at the water park. They’ve waited all summer for the perfect day to go. Can’t get more perfect than today.

Perfect song on the radio
Sing along ’cause it’s one we know
It’s a smile, it’s a kiss
It’s a sip of wine, it’s summertime
Sweet summertime”
– Summertime by Kenny Chesney

We just got back from the happiest place on Earth.

No, not Disney.

Disneyworld (or Disneyland for that matter) is just not feasible for my family, logistically or financially.  Flying with the five of us, and our kids at all different ages and stages, is just incredibly difficult right now, not to mention very expensive.  Add in admission to the park, hotel, finding food for my vegan husband and corn-free Howie…Disney is just out of our realm right now.  Plus Tim hates to travel.  So for the sake of our sanity and our checking account, we keep our travels to car trips.

So for us, our “Disney” is Storyland, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  And for my three guys, this place is heaven on earth.

This was our sixth year at the park.  We first went with Gerry when he turned three (and it was just him) and we’ve gone back every summer around his birthday ever since.  The park has been in existence for over 55 years, and Tim’s mother remembers taking him when he was a little kid.  The park has evolved over the years, of course, but the overall point remains the same – giving kids between the ages of 1-10 and their parents a fun, safe place to have a fantastic family vacation.  For my guys, it’s the one family vacation spot we go.  Howie talks about it ALL year long, and asks starting in December if it’s time to go back to Storyland.

There are many things that make this park special for a lot of families.  For us, with all of our “special needs”, this park is perfect.  First of all, almost all the rides are for kids 36 inches and under.  That means there’s no “sorry, you can’t go on that very cool looking rollercoaster”, or “I know that Crazy Barn looks really awesome, but you’re too small” talk.  There’s very little saying “No”.  My kids get to choose the rides they want to go on, not have the park choose it for them.  Even the baby got to do a bunch of rides, which thrilled him to no end.   Parents can also fit on all the rides with their kids, so it’s truly a family event.

Not to say there aren’t plenty of meltdowns.  But they seem to happen around 2pm at the front of the park at nap time.  Or in my family, when it’s time to leave.

Secondly, the park is relatively small and feels very safe.  Because the rides are geared towards the younger set, there are no teenagers or grownups trying to muscle their way on any of the rides  (nothing against teenagers or grownups, but when I’m with my little kids I don’t want to worry about someone bouncing the ride to make it crazier, or swearing, or causing a ruckus).  Everyone there seems to be either a parent, a grandparent or some relative, oohing or ahhing over seeing Cinderella, waving to the train as it goes by, or sharing an ice cream with their kid.  I’m sure they have had issues in the past with safety, but you wouldn’t know it.  There are no security guards or policemen walking around.  Just Mother Goose and the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe.

It’s the most family friendly place I’ve ever been.  They have special “Mama’s Houses” for moms to feed, change and nap their babies, complete with rocking chairs and clean changing tables.  Every restroom has at least one unisex family bathroom, so we can all go in together.  The rides are clean and all the ride operators are incredibly friendly.  We try to go at off-peak times, so we’ve never waited on a line for more than 10 minutes.  If the line is long at one place, we move on and come back at another time.

Thirdly, and most helpful to me, they list all their food choices and ingredients (color coded by allergen) on their website.  That means before we even enter the park I have a list of foods that both Tim and Howie can eat.  Yes, that list is short (for Howie it was five foods that were corn-free) but at least I know those foods so I’m not checking labels.  You can also bring in your own food to the park, which is a life saver (and money saver) for my family.  Our lunch consisted of yogurt smoothies, goldfish and apples that I brought from home.  And they don’t care.

And finally, for us, it’s the one place where all of my kids’ needs are met.  Lewis can go on rides, throw balls with reckless abandon in their “Loopy Lab”, and run through the park from place to place.  Howie can map out his entire day based on all the rides he wants to go on and run/climb/jump and get all his sensory inputs without feeling overwhelmed.  Gerry can do all the rides by himself now, and we save special rides just for him and Tim to do while Lewis, Howie and I ride the train around the park (over and over and over again).  I must say, Gerry was truly the hero of the day.  He went on rides with both Lewis and Howie, even the ones he didn’t want to.  He rode alone on certain ones because Tim and I were in a seat with one of the other two.  And he let Howie go ahead of him in line – twice – when the purple electric car was coming and Howie was screaming that he needed to ride in that specific car.  Tim and I are, for the most part, worry-free.  Our kids smiles make all the difference.

Not that the trip was perfect.  Things were certainly more stressful now that we have a toddler – the car ride was hard because Lewis was trying to nap but Howie kept shouting/making noise/asking for hugs/stopping to pee.  Lewis also did his best to set a new world record in hotel room destruction.  And it was hot.  Very hot.  But we still managed to go swimming, take pictures, and enjoy each other’s company – the three most important components to a successful family vacation.

Howie’s already planning our next trip back.

There is this little song I wrote
I hope you learn it note for note
Like good little children
Don’t worry, be happy”
– Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin