Internally, a constant battle takes place between myself and I. One part of me feels the need to always overshare in preparation for an uncontrolled circumstance. The other part of me believes in keeping silent for fear that any label will encourage the world to hold him back. It varies on which side of me reigns supreme – day-by-day, hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment. It’s hard, for him and for me. And as a parent, I’m torn on which me is the best me for him.
A recent trip to the most magical place on earth may have unearthed just how important my role is in his life. As we weaved in and out of colossal crowds full of August sweat, we overlooked what would normally frustrate us, and stood in long lines to be exhilarated by dated rides and meet cartoon icons! If you expect to be able to see past the magic, it’s nearly impossible! I learned that firsthand as I found myself taking pictures of every character during the daily parade as if I were seeing movie stars.
The magic was contagious the moment we got off the ferry and stepped foot onto the enchanted world nestled deep in the heart of Florida. It could be found in the eyes of all kids – and most adults – as they eagerly meandered from ride to ride, anxious to absorb all that the theme park presented.
We had spent the entire day exploring every nook of the park that when it was time for an indoor ride, we were all excited. Everyone except my oldest son. While he tried all day to soak up every ounce of Disney World’s magic, he found himself sporting a constant frown. He was loving every minute, but no matter how stimulating the previous ride was, he couldn’t let go of the worry he felt for the last experience we had prearranged – a personal meet and greet with the one-and-only Mickey Mouse.
You see, for the last few years we’ve collected autographs from all of Mickey’s friends, but the line has always been too long to meet Mickey himself. This year, we made an appointment so we wouldn’t miss it! The night before we had to peel my son off the walks from the excitement he had about the opportunity. But when the day came, his sentiments changed.
He wasn’t just worried, he was manically terrified. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. And because of his uncontrollable concerns, he was finding himself getting into trouble. A combination of his lackluster attitude and inability to use his listening ears caused him to lose privileges throughout the day, all of which he earned back later. But at the time we met the sweetest woman in the park, my son was moping from his latest outburst.
We were standing in line for Mickey’s PhilharMagic experience, which was a new ride for our family. We hadn’t a clue what it would entail, but the short wait enticed us to try it out. As we paused for our turn to enter, the attraction required all guests to pack into a room in preparation for the doors to open. The cast member kept encouraging everyone to get as close as possible to ensure that the most people could enjoy the show, so I found myself weaving the family deep into the crowd, next to a woman about half my height.
My daughter looked up to the woman with her sweet grin, and that is all that was needed for the conversation to begin. She shared with her that she was excited to pick out a special gift at the store later in the evening since she had been good that day, which required me to explain why my son looked rejected. To explain myself and our parenting style – because, you know, that’s what you do when your kids call you out in situations like these – I looked to our new friend and shared that while my daughter had followed directions all day, my son struggled doing so.
She understood, as a parent herself, how important it is to follow through with the consequences of situations. And as my son looked to her, he explained it was just because he was scared of Mickey. He walked away quickly before he could explain any further, and there I stood, internal battle underway, determining how much I should share and how much I should keep to myself.
In moments like these, I find that I must let intuition take reign. The two sides of me are too polarizing and each lack perspective. They can’t seem to see past their individualized opinions, so I go with my gut. And that day, my gut encouraged me to open up a bit. As my son walked away, I whispered to her that while he is an exceptional kiddo, sometimes he has situations that make it hard for him to control his actions and reactions. And currently, one of his triggers is characters in costumes.
When what I told her didn’t make her run away (as if she could since we were like cattle quarantined in a small – but airconditioned – space), I decided to divulge a bit more. My son has unofficially been diagnosed as being on the Asperger spectrum. There. I said it. I acknowledged the hidden truth behind this sweet boy’s frustrations. I disclosed a label that a therapist acknowledged he may relate to, and after further research, I happened to agree. And while he is high functioning, he still has things that trigger him, things that no matter how supportive I am of him I forget are beyond any control he has. And those things tend to get him in trouble.
Every time I allow myself to mutter the label that I yearn for my son to never hear, I find myself holding my breath to see how the person I muttered it to will react. This woman paused briefly and then a shy grin slowly spread on her face and she said words that meant more to me than any hug would. “I understand. My son, too, has Asperger’s.”
I’ve met very few people who understand. I’ve met many who yearn to, but most have never experienced it – either personally or as someone who loves someone who is challenged by it. For those who love my son enough to try to understand his situation, it’s as simple as this. His brain functions very differently than most and while the severity of traits vary from person to person, he struggles most with sensory overload.
From a meltdown at the smell of pickles to becoming a different person when the blinds are open just enough in the morning for the sun to peer on his face, when his senses are overly stimulated, he can’t control himself. In the beginning, I too was frustrated, until I later learned that the meltdown wasn’t just to cause drama, but rather because when he inhaled that smell it was like he was inhaling razorblades. And the beautiful sunlight that I enjoy seeing each day, to his eyes, is like someone holding a flashlight beamed directly at him. It hurts. He hurts. And through his pain, he doesn’t always have a clue how to manage it.
Most people give me an evil stare when my son has a meltdown. I can see in their eyes that they are judging my parenting skills for not being able to control him. I feel their judgement constantly, but not at that moment tucked away deep into the heart of Disney. At that moment, I was the one that felt the magic. That lovely woman and I chatted for a bit on our commonalities, and just as the doors opened for us to make our way to our seats for the show, she leaned over to give me the heads up on the loud sounds and surprising water splashes and wind gusts we would experience. To her son, loud noises were his triggers. With no words needing to be said, she could see my shy grin and knew that I was grateful.
Our line took us to one of the last rows in a massive auditorium where a 3D experience was about to take way. When I said our new friend was half my height, that was saying a lot because I too am tall-challenged and nothing gets me more irritated than sitting behind someone who isn’t. I know, I know… it’s not their fault. But I couldn’t see, and so I asked Eli if he wanted to move to the end of the row so we could see better together. He had sat next to our new friend, and after quickly glancing at her, he opted to stay put.
Several seats were vacant between us and him, but throughout the entire show, I noticed he was exactly where he was supposed to be. I would see our new friend whisper to him, pointing out things happening on the screen. Only later did I make the connection that instead of celebrating each happening together, she was preparing him. Preparing him for the loud music. Preparing him for the 3D mind tricks. Preparing him for the water droplets and for Donald’s final flip off screen. The whole time while she should have enjoyed the experience herself, she instead was ensuring that he did.
As the show ended and we made our way out to the scorching heat, I personally thanked the kind woman for what she did for my son. I apologized for oversharing but told her how appreciative I was that we found her. I told her I struggle constantly sharing the label my son has but was thankful she was so receptive. Her response? “As parents, it’s our duty to educate others. That’s all you were doing.” And with that, she looked at him and encouraged him to meet the mouse that he was so nervous meeting! I didn’t even realize but through the show she was also preparing him for his biggest worry of the day… meeting Mickey.
Thank heavens she did because I can’t imagine how we would have had to coax him just to stand in line when it was time to meet him. The struggle was real, but I know good and well it could have been worse! Moments before we met Mickey, my son had confidently determined he would not move forward with meeting his icon. Sure, he’d stand in line, but he would not move forward to get in a family picture, and he was definitely not going to hug the well-known mouse.
Fine. No matter how excited he had been, when his mind is made up, there is no use in trying to change it. He’s not fickle, he’s determined. As we moved closer and closer to it being our turn, all I heard was his decision. I finally halted him in his words when he tried to tell me for umpteenth time. The decision was made and there was no going back.
We walked in a waiting room to meet Mickey that held three other families. As each family took their turn, the cast would invite another family to fill in behind us. With each step closer, I could see my son tense up and when it was our turn to hug Mickey, he quickly hid on the other side of the room.
At first, Mickey didn’t notice as we have two other kids to entertain and they were eager to meet him. But after their hug, I saw Mickey eyeing the room trying to find our missing puzzle piece. I quietly pointed where he was but cautioned Mickey on approaching. I shared that he was scared, so we moved forward with a family of four photo, leaving my oldest out of the opp.
We were content to leave when I saw Mickey frazzled. He started pointing to his own head and I asked if he had an idea. He did and since words were not feasible for him, he guided our family to look into the mirror placed in front of him instead. Then, he slowly stepped as far back as he possibly could. At that point, my oldest was intrigued and came close to peek into the mirror. It was then that Mickey’s idea made sense!
At the right angle when glancing in the mirror, the cast members could take a photo that made it look like we were all next to Mickey, even though Mickey was quite far away. The family picture we had all hoped for was still possible, thanks to Mickey’s ingenious idea! My son smiled as did the rest of us – and I would guess that the person hidden under the costume of the icon was smiling too. In fact, I know it. Because when we made our way out of the room I peeked back when I heard the sound. Clapping. The families behind us were clapping because my son unexpectedly ran to Mickey and gave him a high-five, which triggered Mickey to do a happy dance! All was well in the world that moment and the magic exuded from every pore of that mouse.
My heart was warmed that day in so many ways. It was warmed when I realized that our lovely new friend was right. My duty as a parent – and not just any parent, but as my son’s parent – is to educate the world on what others may not understand. The battle I have is more about me and less about him, so I need to put down my armor and retire my swords. This battle is won with words and the victor is celebrated by their courage to use them.
My heart was warmed when someone so popular and well-liked decided that my son was worth being loved too. The person behind the mask – a person I’ll never know – saw the fear in my son’s heart and loved him anyway. And through their love, this person found a way to make my son’s fear subside and his dream come true. It worked because at the end of the day when asked his favorite part, you guessed it… he named meeting Mickey.
It was as if the merging of magic from Ariel’s “dinglehopper” and Merida’s arrows gave me the resilience I needed to care less about others and most about my son. You see, he’s not contagious. His challenges are his challenges and while they may impact the lives of others a bit, to those who are lucky enough to call him a friend, it’s worth it. That’s because he’s loyal to all he loves and is full of compassionate and thoughtfulness. He’s hilarious – just ask him – and he’s so brilliant that I am confident he will one day cure a major disease! He’s extremely loving, almost to a fault, and he’s cautious in all that he does. He loves stuffed animals (even if it drives me crazy!) and sugar (even if it gives him cavities). He is such a proud big brother to his two siblings and, whether he likes it or not, is a replica of me. He ability to love is intense, and he is content knowing he is so loved by his family, his God, and his Mickey.
Magic. Here I thought it only lived in a fantasy world covered with flawless positive customer experiences. But it doesn’t. It is evident when we all take risks. It is visible when we share – and sometimes overshare – with others. It is present in actions and reactions. It is found in both the expected and unexpected. It exists among challenges and beams as we get through them. It is always there and best coupled with a dash of courage and a heap of faith.
Thank you, to the sweet woman who’s name I’ll never know and to the person beneath the costume of the icon the world loves. Thank you for being our magic.