The hardest lesson

posted by Jeff | Monday, August 25, 2014, 8:22 PM | comments: 1

Simon is a theme park nerd. When we moved back to Cleveland, and stared bringing him to Cedar Point at the age of 2, he was totally engaged in the place. Large as that park is, he was also very content to walk all over it without the stroller. It was probably where his love of trains began, and he loved to watch the rides. A couple of years later, living next door to Walt Disney World, he not only enjoys walking around and observing, but he's taking a close look at the mechanical devices and the procedures, to the point where it's a big component of his imaginative play. That's a relief because, prior to the last nine months, there wasn't much in the way of imagination with him.

Of course he's all about trains and monorails, but the thing he loves the most, anywhere, is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. He rarely asks about Magic Kingdom in the general sense, as it tends to be about specifically riding Thunder Mountain. He even refers to his wooden trains as Thunder Mountain. Before yesterday, we hadn't been to any Disney park in more than two weeks, since before we went to Cincinnati. With school starting, therapy and I think a general desire to just chill out (and maybe a little August heat), it hasn't been a priority. Plus, the People Mover had been down for rehab, and that's a favorite too. We were overdue.

Things started out a little rough, with Simon being defiant about where to sit on the parking tram. Then inside the park, he tried to insist sitting on the outside on Dumbo, which isn't allowed because adults have to sit on the outside. He was generally being cranky and ready to flip out unless we were doing exactly what he wanted, and that was a hint of things to come.

When we got to Thunder Mountain, we used our Fastpasses to board pretty quickly. It isn't a rule, but we prefer he sits between us, because he is still kind of little, and we just feel like it's safer. However, this time, he wouldn't get in the train unless we both got in first. Not being one to hang up a dispatch, I picked him up and put him in, where he tried to keep me from sitting down on the outside. Diana warned him, he shouted no, and that was it. I picked him up and carried him, kicking and screaming, off of the platform. It was a scene for sure, but hopefully brief.

What followed was a true meltdown. Tantrums are where a kid looks for a reaction and stops when he gets his way or is ignored. This was not a tantrum. It was intense rage, and nothing we did was going to help. It just had to run its course. The interesting thing about Simon is that he's somewhat self-aware about the situation. From there we got on the train as an express route to get to the front of the park to leave (cut short at the Fantasyland station due to the parade). On the train, he asked for help because he couldn't stop crying.

The parenting fail is obviously that we've been letting him get away with not following directions. This was the worst time to have that realization, but it's certainly a lesson he needed to learn. The problem is that it's hard for him to learn these kinds of lessons because he doesn't always understand the underlying reasons for us to demand his compliance. It's another one of those social contract issues that some kids on the autism spectrum have. "Because it's a rule" doesn't really mean anything. Not only that, but as I can see so much of myself in him, I understand that in a lot of cases he wants to do the less safe thing, ignoring instructions, because there is something he wants to more closely observe.

We're very fortunate that these are rare occurrences, and that he tends to not have the issues that a lot of other kids have. For example, he's exceptionally polite, and doesn't toss manners aside because he doesn't get that social norm. Heck, he queues like a champ in theme parks, which is one of the classic autism social rejections. But there are arrangements that he simply rejects, not out of defiance, but because they don't meet some rational standard in his head. Defiance is fairly easy to respond to and discipline. Stuff like this is harder, and it's still not clear if the discussions you have with him later, when he's calm, are things that he understands.

While I'm happy he's in six hours of school every day, I hate that he can't continue to see the same therapist, because she's awesome for him, and very helpful for us. She would be able to tell us exactly how we deal with situations like this.

As necessary as these "teaching moments" care, they sure can suck. This is especially true because he has been a very sweet boy lately, full of personality. It's fascinating to watch him use his theme park experiences in imaginative play. Today he was methodically swinging a Little People toy swing (without the people), indicating they had to hold on and wait for the ride to come to a complete stop, then exit carefully and watch their step. It's pretty adorable. He was obviously empowered by the ride ops at Kings Island who let him push the button in the Eiffel Tower elevator.


Bill Martschenko

August 26, 2014, 8:28 AM #

Hi, Jeff, that's a great story. Perhaps, just because it makes me think and reflect. Perhaps, just because stories of little boys make me reminisce. You and I met in business briefly so we know that part of each other only. I have 2 boys and your story takes me back to Simon's age. Thank you for that.

I'm picking up that he is autistic or potentially--not reading him, just your words, :).

Though, you describe a meltdown that could be any kid. My first one never had the tantrums so Laura and I wonder...when? :) But he was shy so again we thought, holding back, backup up, when? He's off to college now so soon it will be his wife-to-be's question--just kidding.

My second one from the get go had strong preferences. Had to be held facing the world, no cuddling face to shoulder.

The tear to my eye, though, Jeff is the way you lovingly described Simon. I abhor the label "terrible 2" because it discounts the kid's point of view. You did an awesome job at his point of view. You're probably an awesome dad.

I truly believe that there's something like a frame of reference disconnect with an accelerating brain function relative to a slowly emerging mechanical function--hah!

I look at meltdowns, and it it always touches me on what the kid is experiencing and the utter inability of me the dad, uncle or friend to relate a comforting concept. It is very much like the inability to relate a comfort to a dog scared of thunder.

Thanks for the story, Jeff.

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