Taking Noah to our local park is always one of Sara's favorite things to do but there are differences about him that are sometimes "unusual". It's not enough of a difference that random people who are just walking by would notice but if they looked closely, they'd see.For instance, he doesn't really like the fenced in yard where all the playground equipment is. As much as he likes his own slide in our nice, little, quiet back yard, he usually doesn't want to go down the brightly colored slides at the playground, or stomp across the loud bridges that shake with every step or go through the stinky, sticky tunnels that connect everything together. I think he actually likes all those things very much but there are so many other kids there and they all move so fast, running and laughing and screaming. He would rather sit close to the outside of the perimeter and watch all the action from there. It might overwhelm him when he gets too close. I think that if we went there when the park was closed, and no one else was around, he would play in there all day.
What he does like to do, though, is hunt for small piles of leaves
basically, any object with an interesting texture that will fit in his little hands. Once he has found a little gold mine like that, which, if you think about it, is every five steps in a park, it's really hard to distract him with anything else. He grabs two big handfuls of whatever treasure he’s found in that five foot vicinity and holds his little arms as high as he can and then he crinkles his little fingers together, as if he's trying to feel every different texture between each one of his fingers, making each pebble or grain of sand fall separately- and as it falls, he watches the wind take all the smaller particles away in different directions and all the larger rocks and sticks fall to the ground. Every texture and weight has a different effect and he explores each one with every sense he has. He could do this all day.
There's a duck pond at this park as well and he always, very slowly, makes his way there but usually, the ducks are pretty bored with all the people and their pity bread and stay in the middle of the pond which doesn't interest Noah much at all. If it's not right in front of him, he won't notice them. We point and ask him to look at the pretty ducks but he’s there for a completely different reason. He’s on a mission and he knows exactly where to go to find his next little miracle in plain sight. Right at the edge of the pond, there are these little gray rocks that are just the right size for his little hands and he loves throwing them in the water. This is where Noah loves to sit. He has a wonderful time there, just throwing those perfect little rocks into the pond
listening to the plopping sound
watching the splash
and then the ripple effect that happens afterward that magically finds its way, in perfect circles, getting bigger and bigger, all the way to the edge of the pond.
He showed me. It really is beautiful.
You see, Noah doesn't care that we think he should be fascinated with the ducks. Or the slides or the rocking bridge or the laughing, screaming children, or any of it for that matter. Noah finds all these little magical obsevations in things that we don't even normally see.
He thinks the ripples in the water are the most beautiful thing at the park.
He's fascinated by the way the wind carries some things way up into the sky and others just fall to the ground.
He likes to stop and rub his hands on the bark of the rough trees or stop to feel the soft leaves of a bush we just passed or a patch of bright green clovers way in the corner by the fence.
He sees everything.
And he wants to touch and feel and experience every texture, smell, and taste of every new object he sees.
I think he's trying to show us that we should be seeing and touching and smelling it too. And we do! And it's wonderful! Although, the tasting thing is not recommended. For him or you.
There is one place in the park, though, where Noah acts just like every other kid. There's a water fountain that gently shoots cool streams of water from the ground up into the air at all different angles and pressures. It's a great place for all the kids at the park to get wet, cool off, and just have fun.
Here, in this place, Noah is completely and totally content. He doesn't care about the other kids laughing and running around him. He actually likes them in this area. He watches them intently with wide eyes and moves from one water spout to another, feeling the different pressure that each one gives off, occasionally stalking some little boy, watching him from a few feet away. He sits on top of the cool water coming out of the jets and lays his tummy on them and has a huge wide grin the whole time. It's his absolute most favorite place in the park. Possibly in the whole world.
The point I'm trying make is this; a trip to the park with Noah is not your "typical" trip. It's actually a lot more fun but you have to know how to do it.
You have to let him take the lead.
And you have to appreciate what he's showing you.
You see, with Noah, he reminds us how easy it is to find the beauty in the things we so easily overlook in our everyday lives. You just have to know how to "be" with him. This is something our family knows. We're used to it. It's our normal.
Recently, Sara and a friend were going to the park and she was bringing Noah with them. This friend knows Noah has autism and he said he thought it would be fun to hang out with him but I don't think Sara was fully convinced. She understands what most people think a trip to the park is "supposed" to be like. You know, the kids run to the slide laughing and running the whole way. Screaming for their mommy to watch as they roll down a grassy hill or throw their day old bread to the bored ducks with this enthusiasm that somehow, for me anyway, now feels unnecessary. All while the moms sit and relax and chat on a park bench close by, calling their children back if they went too far.
Sara knew it wouldn't be like that. Rolling down a grassy hill would not be in the plans for Noah that day. Feeding the ducks? He probably wouldn't even notice them. And sitting on a bench to chat was just ridiculous. And trying to call Noah back when he's gone too far is ineffective, to say the least.
What would this friend of hers think? Would he think it was weird? We talked about how maybe she could just take him directly to the water feature to avoid the rest of "the chase" around the park. I could tell when she left, she was more than a little nervous about how this little outing would turn out.
I was nervous for her.
To be honest, she was gone a lot longer than I thought she would. I kept thinking that had to be a good thing, right? I was right. (of course) When she finally got home, she told me they had a great time! The very first thing she told me was that as she was taking Noah out of the car, she was asking her friend what he might like to do first.
Maybe the playground? (Please not the playground).....
The ducks, maybe? (We won't need any bread.)
She nervously waited for his answer and was already thinking about how she would explain his behavior with whatever activity he picked but then he said something that was just about the most perfect thing he could have ever said:
"Let's just follow Noah"
Those four words took all the pressure off of Sara. She put Noah down, along with all the other weight of the worries she had about the rest of the day, and they did exactly that. They followed him to every corner of the park. He would walk off in different directions when anything new or interesting caught his eye, leading them to far corners of the park where I doubt very many people spend much time. When he stopped at a pile of leaves to figure out the wind direction at that moment in time, (because, trust me, he will check that again in about 5 minutes with a different pile of leaves.) her friend didn't ask questions about why he does that; they just sat and watched and talked and laughed about the cute things he did. Then they would follow him to some other odd little corner where he found a yellow leaf or an interesting stick or some other jewel just laying on the ground and they would just sit to watch him again. He was never offended when Noah wouldn't respond to his questions and it didn't stop him from trying to interact again.
When they eventually came to the duck pond, Sara was ready for him to start finding those perfect little rocks and start throwing them in the pond but, by some miracle, the ducks were actually paying attention to the humans that day and had come up onto the grass. When Noah caught sight of them, Sara told me he was beyond excited. He, of course, ran as fast as his little legs could carry him. He just had to touch them. When all the ducks started to scatter, Sara said she tried to stop him because she thought it might aggravate the other families that were feeding them. Her friend gently held her back and very kindly said "Let him go. It's ok. He wants to chase the ducks. Let him. It's a public park." Again, I don't think Sara could have heard anything better. So, again, for the second time that day, she let Noah, and everything else, go. His little feet hit the ground running. He headed straight for the ducks and, of course, they all flew away and landed in the water. Imagine the ripples!! Noah thought that was the just about the greatest thing ever! And when he turned to look at Sara she said the smile on his face was from ear to ear. Sara's smile, I can only imagine, must have been just as big.
I only wish I could have been there to see it.
After a long day of following a 2 1/2 year old around a very large park (with many long stops in odd places), they eventually made it to the water fountain that Noah loves so much. Sara said they stayed there a while and watched him play in the water until she knew he was just too exhausted to go anymore and came home. Happy.
I've had a couple of days to think about that day.
The way Sara felt before she left.
She was nervous about so many things. Things like acceptance of her son. The ignorance of strangers with their sideways glances. The confusion her friend might have about his odd behaviors. The questions she might have to answer. Will he get it? It felt like so many things she had to worry about.
But when she got home that day - all that worry, all that nervousness and tension, every confusing emotion she was feeling when she was getting Noah out of the car seemed to melt away with four simple little words:
"Let's just follow Noah"
It's what Noah has been telling us for two years.
"Look how pretty the ripples in the water are."
"Look how cool the way some of this stuff falls and some of it flies."
"Feel this tree! Isn't it cool?"
"Follow me! I'll show you!"
We figured this out a long time ago; how to follow Noah. But to hear it from a friend? A friend without a lot of experience with autism. Well, let's just say it doesn't happen often. It meant a lot to Sara to be able to relax and enjoy the day because he accepted our normal.
No questions asked.
I've recently read a lot of articles about how to help friends with children that have special needs and there are a lot of good ones. The problem is that every family has different needs which require different solutions.
What I figured out this past weekend is that for our family, you don't need to be a hero. The best thing you can do is, first of all, just show up, and after that, say "Let’s just follow Noah".
Now, don't get me wrong. Following Noah is sometimes not an easy task. Sometimes you have to follow him up mountains. But if you choose to accept the challenge,
He's going to take you to the corners of the park you've never noticed before.
He's going to show you the beauty of a ripple in the water.
He's going to show you the world like you've never seen it before.
And you'll be grateful for it.
All you have to do is follow him.
He somehow already seems to know the way.
But be careful, because he's going to steal your heart in the process and after that, you'll never be the same.