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The ways I bond with my thrill-seeker son on the autism spectrum

This guest blog post is by Lisa Vaillancourt, proud mother of two. She is an office assistant and former homeschool teacher turned "life coach" to her son Alex, who was diagnosed with autism in 1998 at the age of two and a half. She admits that he is really her coach.  

“Sometimes they say it can be a rough landing,” my son, the gatherer-of-facts, then 20-year-old, blurted out at lunch – a full week after I had emphatically told him we would not be going for a balloon ride at the upcoming at our state's upcoming Balloon Fest.

Then, the proverbial light bulb over my head went off.  Now, I had to be the quick gatherer of facts.

“Why are you saying that, Alex?”  I asked.

“I just want you to be prepared, Mom.”

Uh oh.

As is usually the case, Alex had not given up on an idea that I thought was completely settled.

As many autism parents know, our kids have tremendous difficulty when it comes to loud noises, crowds, language, but often no fear of danger because they either haven’t learned how to be aware of it yet, or are so hyper focused on something else that they miss it. I also know that our son’s desire for all things high or fast comes from a sensory perspective. Going beyond his own boundaries somehow makes him feel calm and in control (of his mother). So, as a parent, how could I ever say no to something that would make him happy and feel grounded?  Oh, maybe “carefree” would be a better choice of words in this case.

It hasn’t been easy over the years, but I have had to put aside my conservative, fearful nature so that my son can expand his horizons, because I have learned that each new experience enhances his reasoning, social, and communication skills. Every new situation gives him another story to tell others in his words and on his terms.  Gloriously, though, each of these adventures has helped us to really connect in new ways.

I am, by no means, patting myself on the back here.  I am giving all credit to Alex who has pushed me beyond my own limits to experience things in life that have brought me great happiness and many thrills.   

Let’s see, there was the time we went to Disney World and rode Space Mountain.  When we got to the front of the line, the only seats available were the front two.  While there was certainly no way I would have convinced Alex to abandon that thrill ride on its threshold, I was truly terrified to ride in front.  However, there was also NO way I would allow him to take the death seat. Every time the ride took a sharp turn, I literally thought I would plunge to my demise.  As soon as we came to a stop, Alex immediately wanted to get back in line to ride again.  What kid with autism do YOU know who is EXCITED to wait in line?  What autism parent encourages activities that involve waiting?  On that day, I did.  That second ride was a blast!

Bike riding with Alex has brought new meaning to grey hair and worry lines.  It took me many years to teach him.  I ran alongside for two summers while he was learning on two wheels. I continued to sprint next to him while teaching him how to brake.  That “pedal backward” thing on his first bike was very confusing after so many years of trying to master the “pedal forward” thing.  When I could finally ride next to him on my own bike, I wore a whistle to signal stopping (to cut down on verbal prompts) because the real danger wasn’t as much Alex’s inabilities, as drivers’ inattention to us bikers.  I blew that whistle a LOT.  

It took about five years, but I can now safely ride behind Alex with confidence that he will stop appropriately at intersections and yield to pedestrians.  Now this is one of our fun, not fearful, activities. Thanks for really teaching me how to appreciate each ride, Alex.

Now, that we’ve established how many times Alex has pushed me beyond my own dread, let’s get back to our balloon discussion.  Alex went on to provide more very valid reasons for us to go:

-    “I have saved my money and don’t spend it foolishly like I did when I was a kid.”  This was true.

-       “From the air, the pictures I can take with my camera will be so much better than anything I can take from the ground.”  Can’t argue with that.   

-    “It’ll be fun, Mom.”  Says who.

I had no more excuses.  I called the Chamber of Commerce to secure a reservation for a balloon ride in three days.  When I confessed to the lovely woman there that I was petrified, she immediately assured me that it is a calm, breathtaking experience. I had three days to convince myself of that.

Fast forward to 3:15 a.m. the day of the adventure.  Alex and I are up and preparing to leave by 4:00 to drive to the launch site.

We live in a rural area, so just about as scary as a balloon ride at the mercy of the wind, is the possibility of encountering a moose (or two or three) on the roads in our county.    

Once we made it through that obstacle course unscathed, I knew the balloon ride would be a cinch.

Another thing I have learned time and again on this autism ride and pushing beyond my own fears, is that most people really do go above and beyond to help Alex. I am always so grateful.  

When I had made the reservation, I told them about Alex’s autism and how he does best with short, concise directions, etc.  As soon as the team leader greeted us, she directed all of her instructions to him. I love when people respect him immediately, even though he might be distracted and unable to make eye contact.

She, another team member, and, of course, our amazing pilot gave us the ride of a lifetime.  When Alex would simultaneously start to move while asking the person whose place he was going to take on the other side of the basket, “Can I stand there now, please?” he/she always calmly obliged. A video camera would have registered the horror on my face every time he moved in that small space so high up in the air.

Alex enthusiastically waved to people on the ground coming out on their porches and driveways to catch a glimpse of our beautiful balloon.  If the pilot needs a PR guy, Alex is the man.

After we sailed over the local shopping mall, the pilot asked Alex, “Would you like to grab a leaf?”  There was no way he was going to miss THAT opportunity. “Sure!” he replied and reached out to grab one as soon as we skimmed the top of the tree (and I started to reach out to grab Alex when I thought he would lean out of the basket too far).  Later that morning he insisted on buying a small frame into which he put that gem to preserve the memory of his phenomenal ride.

For the record, our balloon landing that morning was indeed a bit rough, but I was prepared because, of course, Alex had done his homework.

Did I mention that my original strategy for averting the balloon ride was agreeing, instead, to zip lining - over jagged rocks and water?  Alex hasn’t brought that up again.  Maybe he’ll forget I promised.  Who am I kidding?  He doesn’t even forget things that happened ten years ago.  I better start preparing myself for another high flying bonding adventure with my son.         

Author’s note: One year after our balloon ride, Alex started asking me about zip lining.  You KNOW I gave in.  I cannot say that I loved it, but Alex did and that’s all that matters.  

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.