My youngest son, who is five and has autism, has a field trip scheduled. He is going to a water park tomorrow. Without me. Without Dad. With camp.
His camp is awesome. He is going to a regular summer camp through a special needs inclusion program. So far there’s been nary a hitch. He has not once, all summer, run into the street and gotten hit by a car, drowned in the pool or disappeared from the camp grounds. On top of Those Things not happening, he has established friendships with typical peers, participated in a ton of great activities, and finally puts his head underwater when swimming-—in fact, he now spends more time under water than on top of it when he’s in the pool. He’s a fairly proficient swimmer; he’ll love the water park.
And it's not even really a water park. It is a park district aquatics center. Two slides, a zero-depth pool, some play structures that dump water, the kind of place that I’ve taken the kids to lots of times without incident.
So why am I a nervous wreck?
It has been suggested that many parents of autistic kids suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, most familiar from the its effects on many former combat soldiers). Our lives do have more drama, and sometimes trauma, than most. My son learned to escape his exersaucer at 9 months, could open virtually every form of child lock by age 3, and has slipped out of the house more than once, forcing us to lock him in his bedroom at night and put extra locks and alarms on all the doors. Lately he’s been opening and climbing out of our living room window, dressed in his underpants and snow boots, pretending he’s Astro Boy, just before he learns he can fly. Eventually the high level of anxiety becomes habitual. We’re always on high alert, waiting for the next emergency.
You may have heard that a new diagnostic code was recently approved for wandering. “Wandering” sounds sort of harmless, you imagine a child walking away from mom and into a toy store at the mall or an old lady in a hospital gown picking flowers in somebody’s yard. But wandering is sort of misnomer.
Autistic people usually don’t just wander; they don’t just distractedly follow a butterfly and end up miles away. Autistic people decide to go somewhere, or do something, and don’t understand the dangers of pursuing that plan on their own. My son, tired of waiting for us to get ready for an outing last weekend, left the house and went to the car on his own. It was terrifying and he was only “missing” a minute or two. Luckily he wasn’t waiting for us within sight of water. The statistics on wandering and drowning are downright frightening. Although, even I have to admit most of those tragedies don’t involve lifeguards and the buddy system.
Truth be told, my son is probably going to be safer on his field trip than he is during certain times under my own supervision. I’ve got distractions: other kids, phone calls and chores and when I have couple seconds, I sometimes use the bathroom. His aid has only one job, keeping my son safe.
Of the many flavors of jive I work to push out, fear is one of the hardest. Anxiety is a strong emotion, sufficiently powerful to obscure the powerlessness I feel over all the “what ifs”. Parents of autistic kids don’t have a monopoly on clutching at worry or letting fear dictate their behavior, but when my little guy is out of my sight, I can’t trust in the rules I’ve taught him, his carefully cultivated good judgment, or even his fear of consequences. He has none of these. My fears are all I have to hold on to.
There are plenty of legitimate things to worry about, and in the end I will always err on the side of caution when it comes to this kid. As hard as it is for me, when it comes to a field trip to a water park, I just have trust in the team, and let him dive in. Even if I’m the one holding my breath.