This article was contributed by Nancy LaCross, ASNC Autism Resource Specialist in the Raleigh area.
This summer, our family went on an eight-day group tour of South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. We visited many beautiful sites: Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, Devils Tower, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, The Little Big Horn Battlefield, Grand Teton National Park, Mormon Tabernacle, and more. Not only were the scenic views spectacular, but we also got to witness acceptance, which was heart-warming.
Our tour group was made up of me, my husband, my parents, our son Eric (who has autism, intellectual delays, and is 23 years old), our tour guide (Jeffrey), our motor coach driver (Ray), and 40 other passengers. Knowing that Eric is accustomed to having a predictable and daily visual schedule, it was intimidating to be on a bus with strangers, not knowing exactly where and when we would be stopping. These strangers knew nothing about our lives. What would happen if there was a meltdown and we needed to get away? In the past, we always drove separately just in case we needed a rapid getaway.
The trip began in Rapid City, SD. We had an evening kickoff meeting to get an overview of the itinerary and meet the tour guide. It was at this meeting that a friendly gentleman from New York, named Bill, came up to us and introduced himself. From that point on, he took an interest in our entire family. Eric isn’t much of a conversationalist, but thankfully Bill was more than happy to do most of the talking. Over the next few days, we encountered Bill many times on the motor coach, at stops, and at restaurants. Each time he would go out of his way to speak to Eric, call him by name, and give him a welcoming smile. Before long, everyone on the bus knew Eric by name and made him feel at ease. It was amazing to see that the acceptance and kindness of just one person had spread to the entire group.
It was fascinating to watch the social interactions on the trip in this natural setting. I had never said a word to anyone about his disability; I had not asked anyone to do anything. We hadn’t written an ISP or IEP goal to work on social skills. I didn’t have to secretly pay someone to include him. There was no insurance or co-pays. It was simply one person being accepting that had made all the difference. I have heard the phrase that it takes a village to raise a child, but prior to this trip, I frequently felt as if we were on our own island most of the time.
Our tour guide, Jeffrey, who had been a classroom teacher, seemed to see educational opportunities for Eric and would offer him challenges. Though Eric was frequently reluctant, he would later push himself beyond his comfort zone. If our son hadn’t felt accepted by the group, he would never have gone beyond his comfort level.
How did Jeffrey challenge our son? Eric religiously shared a seat with me no matter where we would travel. Jeffrey was able to get Eric to share a seat with Dad, next sit by himself near us, and finally transition to the jump seat by the driver while the rest of the family was in the back. When Eric completed this leg of our trip and got out of the jump seat, Jeffrey made an announcement to the entire group about what a great job our co-pilot, Eric, had done. Everyone cheered and Eric was all smiles. (The others didn’t really know what a big deal this was, but I did. Just recently, we were at a Special Olympics bowling event and Eric couldn’t independently walk from the ball carousel to the bowling lane. I was the only parent holding her child’s hand at the event. In that particular setting, he was too afraid to independently walk just a few feet.)
At our last dinner as a group, Jeffrey came over to Eric and told him that he always has the youngest person in the group say a few words. He asked whether Eric would be comfortable doing it, and Eric said he would. I was shocked. The man of few words was going to stand up and address the entire group after we ate dinner. As folks were finishing their dessert, Jeffrey did a little recap of our adventure. Then he turned the floor over to Eric. Eric stood up, and though he needed some prompting to get started, he did thank Mom, Dad, Nana, and Papa for bringing him on the trip. Everyone cheered, and Eric’s NY friend was the most enthusiastic.
At that final dinner, other travelers also shared their favorite memories. I so desperately wanted to stand up and thank everyone for their acceptance, but I wasn’t as brave as Eric. My legs were weak, and the tears were welling in my eyes just at the thought. I stayed in my seat trying to reassure myself that I could do it, when suddenly the next person to stand was Bill. He started out by saying how he enjoyed spending time with his wife and listening to Jeffrey’s knowledgeable commentary. At this point, he paused, looked in our family’s direction, and said the best part about the trip was meeting his new friend, Eric. Bill had more to say, but my tears were streaming uncontrollably, and I never heard another word.
During my happy motherly moment, Eric instinctively handed me a napkin. (It wasn’t the first time he had seen my waterworks). After other passengers shared their memorable moments, there were hugs, handshakes, and final goodbyes. Bill asked whether he could get a picture with Eric, and others expressed how much they enjoyed meeting Eric. I had to excuse myself as the second wave of tears began streaming down my face. As my husband, Eric, and I dashed through the lobby to escape, Eric said, “Mom, here take my worry stone. I think you need it more than I do.” The tears now gushed even harder. Standing before me was this innocent man, my son with autism, who so quickly identified a way for me to self-soothe. On the inside, my mind was reflecting on the years before when he himself had trouble regulating his body, identifying when he was upset before a major meltdown, implementing ways to calm himself, us trying to teach him to use the Incredible 5-Point Scale, and the years of individual speech therapy to teach him to identify emotions and feeling.
One person really can make a difference. Let’s all spread acceptance and embrace the abilities of others.
Nancy LaCross can be contacted at email@example.com or 919-865-5093.