Everyone’s Surfing

Surfing and autism have a unique history. There are some great special needs surfing programs around the country, mostly started by surfing parents who had children with autism and saw how much they loved the water.

My own son is no different. Of all of his phobias, the ocean is not one of them. He could live in the water. He will swim far far from shore, and I have to struggle to keep up. So, after reading stories of California surfing camps and not wanting to spend that kind of money to get there from Austin, I looked into my closest beach’s program–Port Aransas, Texas (also known as Port A). On a trip last year, I just grabbed a flyer from a tourist kiosk in the Port A grocery store and called them up to see if they could accommodate my son. They were friendly, helpful and really interested in helping my child try to learn to surf even given his huge motor deficits. He scores consistently in the fifth percentile for gross motor planning tasks.

When I asked my son what he thought about trying surfing, he said, “Sure.” So we arranged a private lesson at $80/hour. Pricey, but not expensive given that we drove to Port A and he would carry this memory for life. For the same price, they also included my typically developing niece in the lesson to give my son a chance to feel comfortable and also to help us get “two for one” value on our private lesson.

I tell you, things were a bit dicey in the beginning. My son had a hard time practicing on shore, where they like to start beginners and I thought he would quit before hitting the waves. But, once in the water, he was so happy and the instructor helped him so much that he was able to first “surf” on his belly on a wave all the way to shore and eventually was able to “knee surf” all the way to shore. He never was able to figure out how to stand up but he didn’t really care. He said, “I can knee surf!” and he was really excited about it.

He learned how to “Hang Ten” and we had a great beach memory.

Here’s how to contact the “Texas Surf Camps”. Call (361) 749-6956, or www.texassurfcamps.com. They have weeklong surf camps for typically developing children, but have been known to accommodate autistic individuals in the camps as well. The best way to figure it out is just to call them and speak to someone on staff about your child’s likes/dislikes and strengths/challenges.

If your child likes the water, I think they’ll like surfing. There is no feeling like cheering from the shore as your child smiles and struggles to surf. It was a beautiful day and a great memory. Worth 80 bucks!

Five great places to go right now

We are so blessed in Austin with abundant outdoor opportunities. I hate to generalize, but I will…I think most people with autism are calmed by nature. I have never seen my son throw a tantrum when we are hiking or walking or skiing or doing something active in a gorgeous natural surrounding. I’ve had lots of tantrums in my house related to media–can I watch more TV, can I watch that inappropriate YouTube video, can I keep playing angry birds and on and on. Therefore, when the weather is pleasant in Central Texas (this means not summer), there are lots of ways to enjoy what Austin has to offer. Here are five of my favorite outdoor picks:

1) Town Lake Hike and Bike–it can be a bit overwhelming with the crowds on a gorgeous day, but I find that looking at the lake and wandering around on the trail allows my son to get some much needed exercise along with allowing us a chance to look at downtown buildings and huge river cypress trees in the same view. The trails are free and accessible from the north and south sides of the lake.

From The Trail Foundation website, a view on the Hike and Bike.

2) McKinney Falls State Park–Located close to Austin’s airport in Southeast Austin, sits a little gem of a state park, McKinney Falls State Park. I try to head out there with my son before the summer drought because we enjoy wading and playing in the water at the “lower falls” portion of the park. The upper falls are really beautiful, but the lower falls offer visitors the chance to splash and swim in the portion of Onion Creek that flows through the park. It’s so close to Austin, yet feels so far away. There is no easy access to the lower falls for handicapped visitors. My son is able to walk without assistance and so can make the 1/2 mile hike over the rock formations to get to the water feature. Other areas of the park are ADA compliant. There are 7 miles of trails within the park and many of these are paved. There is a daily admissions fee of $6/per person, 13 and older.

3) Bull Creek District Park–There are lots of places to explore trails and falls within this Northwest Austin park. Here is a good map of the entire trail from austinexplorer.com’s website. We stick to the north part of the falls for it’s serenity. There are lots of neat things to see here, lots of frogs, fish and turtles in the water. Free.

4) City Park Beach–I’m not sure if that’s it’s official name, but that’s what I call it. Probably the only beach in the world with a sticker burr problem, Austin’s Emma Long Metropolitan Park boasts an actual beach on the frigid waters of Lake Austin. For a recent spring break, I took my son here every day and he swam up and down in the chilly water, while I waded with teeth chattering. This is actually a great place to go in summer when the outside temperature makes swimming more palatable. Sitting on the dock is peaceful and serene. There are loads of campers here during the major holidays, but during the week, you can be entirely alone with nature and of course the huge houses that sit right across the lake. I wish the city had bought that land as well so the view would be completely naturalistic, but oh well. There is a per car admissions fee of $8.

5) Art Park–This is what my son and I call the grounds of the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria. We will sprint over here on a school day before it closes at 5 p.m. just to take a 30-minute walk on the grounds. We hardly ever go in the actual museum, well, because my son wants to touch everything, and that is pretty much frowned upon. We enjoy strolling the grounds while admiring Lake Austin, the gorgeous Italianate-style villa originally owned by Clara Driscoll and the variety of sculptural works dotted throughout the property. My son and I love going here. It’s calm and cultured. The grounds are free to wander.

The Zoo is a Zoo

Spring break is always rough for my son. I’m pretty sure he fits the usual autism profile of needing year-round school (oh, one can dream) and structured down time. It gets exhausting as a parent to run a week-long camp for a child with a short attention span, but if you’re going to survive the school breaks, you’ve got to do it.

After our spring break devolved from a much-anticipated ski trip to Park City (lingering bronchitis caused me to cancel), then to a stay at a Hill Country resort outside of San Antonio (reservations messed up our reservation), we settled on going to the San Antonio zoo for one of the days.

The San Antonio Zoo is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014 and it’s undergoing a great deal of new construction. It would be gorgeous and interesting if most of San Antonio had not also descended on the zoo on a stunningly beautiful mid-70s temperature Tuesday during spring break.

I would recommend not taking people no the autism spectrum to this zoo during spring break. It doesn’t have nearly enough space for the wanderings that people on the spectrum usually need and everyone is packed in there pretty close. It’s a great concept for neurotypical folks who want to be immersed in the experience, but not so good if you have autism and can get overwhelmed as my son was for our two-hour tour.

The zoo’s layout breaks a few of the cardinal rules for the needs of autism–there is no escape from the labyrinth once you’re in it. The African exhibits are great, but there is no “out of Africa”. Once you’re in this exhibit, you’re stuck and have to go all the way through it to exit. One of my cardinal rules for autism travel is, “Always have an escape route planned.” And the San Antonio Zoo, though lovely and interesting for typical brains, doesn’t provide this kind of leaving and returning that an autism brain sometimes needs to calm down and regroup.

And on this outing, I broke one of my own cardinal rules for autism travel, “Don’t visit places on the busiest days/times.” The zoo was packed that day for good reason–the weather was great and it was a school holiday. I have learned and continue to learn that you cannot travel with autism when it’s most convenient but when you have the greatest chance for success.

Because sometimes the zoo can be a real, well, zoo.

Traveling mercies

Austin was lucky enough to have the touring Architects of the Air Luminaria interactive exhibit in our town and our son wanted to go. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the very very long line for this super cool experience. Friends, you know one of the biggest challenges of traveling with autism is difficulty with waiting. Oh, the waits and the fits and then the stares of other parents. It’s enough to make you want to stay home. But, this blog (and life) is about travel and adventure, so we prepared ourselves for a several hour wait. Bringing along an iphone loaded with games to pass the time, off our family went. We left an hour before the exhibit opened in hopes that we’d get a jump on the crowds. When we got there the wait was going to be around two, possibly three hours. So, wait and wait, we did.

Our son had even tried waiting the day before, standing in line with a therapist for an hour before giving up, unable to manage the crowds and the noise. He was determined to try again. I was proud of him for trying but not sure we could do much better. For more than an hour we walked and ran around and tried to entertain him. At one point, I headed off with my daughter and struck up a conversation with a lady out walking her dog around the park we were waiting in. I told her about our two-day attempt to walk inside the exhibit.

“Oh, there’s a line for special needs. I’m sure you can go up there and ask.” But seeing all of the people waiting in line, I didn’t want to “cut” even though our son was getting precariously close to giving up. While I was standing there debating with myself about asking for an accommodation, the dog owner (or was she our guardian angel?) strode up to the front of the line and got us a special needs pass. I let her. I never even got her name. When I went to retrieve my son and husband, our helper was already gone. I wanted to thank her and didn’t get the chance. I did get to thank the touring manager who O.K.’d our request but not the mystery dog walker.

I’ve had experiences like that before and it always make me certain that fate, or luck, or guardian angels is on the side of special needs families when they travel. Traveling mercies indeed.

My son, oblivious to the negotiations involved to get us near the front of the line said, “See I told you waiting isn’t so hard for me.”

So, what’s Architect of the Air exhibit anyway. According to their website:

“Each luminarium is a dazzling maze of winding paths and soaring domes where Islamic architecture, Archimedean solids and Gothic cathedrals meld into an inspiring monument to the beauty of light and colour.

The luminaria are designed by company founder, Alan Parkinson, who started experimenting with pneumatic sculptures in the I980s. They are made of a plastic produced uniquely for Architects of Air. Only four colours of plastic are used to generate a great diversity of subtle hues.”

When you step into the inflated “Luminaria” with its different “rooms” there is a wonderful glow from the colored plastic walls allowing light to filter in at interesting angles. One room has colored windows, like stained glass, and my son exclaimed in happiness, “Look at the stained glass. It’s a cathedral.”

My son was motivated to wait in line (not something he will normally manage) by his deep love and obsession with visual forms. The “Luminaria,” as the inflatable creation is known, looks like an inflated cathedral of colored plastic that you enter and walk around in (without shoes) or lay down in against the soft inflated walls. There is calm music playing in the background and the constant whoosh sound of the entire structure being inflated is quite relaxing. Listening to the music he said, “I hear beauty. I am in a lullaby land.” The whooshing and the near silence of the participants gives it a very spiritual feel. Or as my son said as we entered, “This is a new kind of synagogue,” and he got down and bowed in prayer. It was a beautiful mystical moment.

Thank you guardian angel of Austin for helping us have this wonderful experience.

All I want for Christmas is a passport

Traveling with our son is pretty complicated. We have to write social stories, pack all of his food for his autism diet, and troubleshoot as much as we can with the condo we’re renting, to make sure that there will be no obvious problems for our son’s sensory issues.

We have gotten very used to doing lots of homework, preparation and mental jujitsu to manage our son’s anxiety when we leave our house. Each and every time is a challenge.

But, oh, so worth it.

Whenever our son has a new experience, he adds it to his creative world. And we are enriched from it. He speaks rarely, but when he does, it revolves around where we’ve been and where he wants to go.

When he was asked what he wanted for Christmas he answered with serious focus, “I want a passport.” Why? “So, I can go to faraway places.”

Oh, my wish is for the world to get flexible enough to handle our son’s autism and allow him to experience all that he wants in this world.

Santa did grant our son’s wish. Santa brought Jackson a passport application in his stocking. Now, we just have to figure out how to get him on an international flight.