Ingles Hall is a spacious, open room with sounds that bounce off walls and the cement floor. The ceiling is adorned with rustic cast-iron chandeliers of pine-cones, birds, and of course, warm yellow lights. A fireplace is framed by a hearth of bricks. The hall itself is surrounded by pine trees that smell like chocolate, rocks for collecting, little black creatures called Squabits, and whatever nature decides to offer you in that moment.
And this place holds memories of my friend’s wedding ceremony 15-years ago and the champagne-infused dancing that occurred with my 20-something boyfriend. Ingles Hall preserves the dancing extravaganza my daughter initiated with her lil’ girl pals, twirling and jumping and giggling on the small stage centered at the front of the room. This place holds the respite from the thunder storms and rain that held hostage to our squirt-gun fights in the forest – where we instead turned to sweet treats like licorice and gummy bears for comfort. This place is a lot of things to me.
And for my son, this was always too big and too loud and too much. The fits that incurred before going to any event at Ingles Hall while staying for our week-long visit to family camp were always followed by meltdowns and screaming and feelings of confusion. Ingles Hall wasn’t created to meet the growing needs of our sensory-sensitive community members. This place was built to host lots and lots of people. It was created for gatherings and laughter and prayers and songs.
For five years, my son has avoided the large events in Ingles Hall. The movie nights overwhelmed him. The arts and crafts sent him into a tail-spin. The game nights were too loud. I spent most of my time as a mother attending to the stress and anxiety of my son than I did to the joy of being with those I loved. I ducked out of most of the events because my son would rather be lost in nature, riding his bike and collecting big sticks. I accepted this. It was okay. In a way, it made me happy, because he was happy, too.
However, I missed out on the moments when my daughter giggled with glee because of her creation. I didn’t see her small impromptu dance rehearsals with her gal pals. I missed the rare opportunities that parents sometimes don’t get back.
And then, Aussie dog, came to camp with us. Side Note: Okay, I recognize this may seem so cliché. I also recognize that Aussie dog seems to have saved the day (in so few words). Yet, it is so true.
During our most recent trip to family camp we did have many journeys to Ingles Hall. Aussie’s role truly wasn’t too glamorous or big or long-winded. In fact, she walked into Ingles Hall by my side in her heel position. My son stood on her other side, clutching her harness and smiling with pride. In front of him stood a room filled with 150 human beings.
Lights. Sounds. Sounds. Sounds.
Tables and paint and paper.
And he asked me for Aussie’s leash. Without hesitation he fastened the handless-leash around his small body and took an eager first step into the neurotypical world. He approached a table with long, white paper draped across it. He watched as others – all 150 persons – made bear paw stamps on the paper (this was a symbolic opening night ritual for the week-long journey of camp). Dipping his bear-paw into his paint and then another paint and then another he finally stamped his paw print onto the paper, creating a color-infused masterpiece. Then he took a marker and he wrote the words,
“Peace within the paw.”
And under the table where his two feet stood firm sat his Aussie dog. She remained calm and reaffirming. She didn’t question him or judge him or make noises. She merely sat by his feet and waited.
And just when I thought the miracle came full circle, something else happened that I would have never imagined in my son’s lifetime: he spoke into the microphone in front of 150 friends, church members, and family. He raised his hand high when persons in the room where asked to read aloud the representation of their bear paw. He raised it with conviction. And then he read his words.
I don’t know if my son wrote those words because the forest and nature bring him peace. I don’t know if he even remembers why he wrote those words anymore. However, when I asked him later that evening about his bear paw print, he said to me,
“I feel peace, Mommy.”
These few seconds erased the mountains of worry and hurt and fear. These few seconds reminded me that anything, yes, anything in this world is possible. It is not about the obstacles that are put in front of you (or your child). Rather, it is about finding the possible and realizing the capacity for peace.
The last birthday party I remember attending with my son was at least 365 days ago. The day was ordinary – beautiful blue Colorado skies, a breakfast of gluten free pancakes and almond milk, and an hour of Saturday-morning cartoons (streamed cartoons, mind you). We were gearing-up for a birthday party and the day was off to a grand start. As we hustled to the car, my daughter prancing with her silver kitten purse, my son looking up into the sky, and we talked about what the party would be like.
“Buddy,” I reminded my son, “there be other humans at the birthday party.”
“Yea, Mom. I know,” my son replied.
“And I have a special gluten-free, dairy-free treat for you, too,” I added.
“Okay, Mom,” my son said.
“And, Buddy, we need to stop and get Diego a birthday gift. What does he like? Any ideas?” I asked my son.
“I don’t know Mom. Let’s just go into the store and find something,” said my son in a matter-of-fact tone.
And we did just that. We hustled into a store, my daughter now skipping with her silver kitten purse, and my son now talking in an army commander voice.
“Mom, I think we should buy Diego this,” my son pointed to the $60 Lego with dinosaurs and bones. He smiled when he looked at the box.
“Looks like that is something you’d like. I’ll remember that for your birthday,” I replied with a smile.
“Ah-yai-yai,” mumbled my son.
After multiple attempts to purchase his friend Diego less expensive $40 Lego, Buddy finally settled on a lesser value Lego and a National Geographic encyclopedia. He picked out a gift bag, too. The bag had a map of the world on it with lines running both horizontally and diagonally, showing the longitude and latitude.
“Mom, this bag is so cool! Look, here is New Zealand,” my son shouted!
Excitedly we raced back to the car, my daughter twirling around-and-around with her silver kitten purse and my son jumping up-and-down in excitement for the party.
“Mom, do you think there will be party bags? And what about watermelon? I like watermelon,” said my son.
“And, Mommy, do you think they will have girl party bags? I don’t like all those boy toys. Ugh. Ick. Gross.” responded my daughter with a gentle grin across her face.
This conversation and questions continued for the next 10-minutes as we drove through one neighborhood to the next. The excitement for the party bubbled with giggles and goofy faces between my son and daughter. And, when we approached the birthday boy’s home, I slowed my car to a stop and turned-off the car.
“Okay, let’s go!” I called out to my kiddos.
My daughter grabbed her silver kitten purse and pranced out of the car. But Buddy didn’t unbuckle his seat belt. He slouched in his seat and rubbed his belly.
“Mom, I have a tummy ache,” he said to me a shaky voice.
Always prepared, I pulled out my ginger chews and peppermint candies. I offered both to my son; he refused. Then, I climbed into the car and sat in the seat next to him.
“Buddy, what is wrong?” I asked.
“Mom, there are too many humans already,” he said when he pointed with his eyes to the group of boys running around outside.
“Buddy, these are your friends from school. You know all of these boys, ” I responded.
“No, Mom. I don’t know one of the humans. I’m not sure of him. I can’t go to the party,” my son said with a tone of sad confidence.
I looked out the window with him, the boys running and chasing in the long green yard. There were balloons and a grill smoking some delicious hamburgers. Boys were jumping up and then ducking as if they were playing a game of Nerf Gun@ wars or tag. The party was all rough and tumble and totally unpredictable.
“Mom, what are we going to do at the party?” my son asked.
“I’m sure there will be some play-time and some cake and opening presents and …” I replied.
“Yea, but what will we play? I want to know. What if I don’t like what we play? Then what?” he questioned. “Ugh. My tummy really hurts. There is a torpedo inside. I can’t go to this party, Mom, ” he said, again.
At this point, my daughter returned to the inside of the car and began digging through her silver kitten purse, pulling out lip gloss and a fan. She instinctually knew this scenario. We were going to sit in the car for ten-minutes and decide whether to attend the party or leave. She already felt the struggle that mounted in the confines of the car. So, she began to play with her lip gloss and fan, pretending she was a fashionable character from one of her favorite TV shows.
And, we did just that. We waited. And the tummy ache became worse. And the group of humans running across the green grass grew to 50 boys (according to my son). So, we pulled away from the home and we left. We left with the world map gift bag filled with a Lego and National Geographic encyclopedia untouched. We left without any words to the birthday boy. We left because the tears took over and the tummy ache increased and the day suddenly felt like it would crumble.
This was the last birthday party I remember with my son. …
Until now. After many more failed attempts at birthday parties, play-dates with peers from school, and other social, human interactions, something quite miraculous happened. My son’s four-legged service dog entered into our lives. She came to us a dog with lots of waggles and wiggles. She came to us, knowing more about the needs of our small family, then we could ever possibly pin-point. She came to us and showed my son what it meant to love and be loved. She gave my son chances to brush her teeth (yes, brush a dog’s teeth) and clean between her paws. She let him sit with her in the kennel, listening to the loud clashes of thunder during afternoon storms. And she responded to him, every single time he called her name.
And all of these small interactions with his dog, his Aussie girl, did something miraculous. His confidence sprouted. The hard shell that often sheltered my son from the world, began to crack. And, suddenly, he was talking to people he didn’t know while he was walking his Aussie girl. He started to take the trash outside and make his bed in the mornings. And, he found his confidence to attend a birthday party for another friend.
This birthday party started similar to the previous. The only difference: Aussie dog waited for my son at home. My son was eager to share his experience at the party with Aussie. The mere notion that his dog was at home – and would always be at home (or right by his side) after (or during) his journeys into the world – gave him the confidence to step into himself. He walked into the party holding my hand. He kept me close to his side as other humans arrived at the party. And he started to drift away when he watched his friends begin to jump and then chase and then bolt. He took a step and he joined them. And, he bolted and chased and zoomed around with all the boys. He laughed loud. His face dripped with sweat and flushed with pink.
After four hours at the birthday party, I had to actually firmly tell him we needed to leave. After four hours at the birthday party, my son had interacted with more than 15 of his peers and played, really played hard with all of them. After four hours at the birthday party, I felt a spark of joy. A sigh of relief. A moment of, “Wow! So, this is what it feels like to be a parent who gets to socialize with other moms and sip blood-orange sparkling water under an umbrella.” And that moment stayed with me. And it continues to stay with me.
These past few weeks with our Aussie dog have been nothing less than transformational. New things happen every day. However, more importantly, I feel like the pieces of my son that I never met – that I never knew existed – are now emerging and and taking shape. And I cry happy, joyful tears because these are the moments that move my family forward.
Our Aussie, a beautiful black Labrador, officially entered into our lives this week. She brought with her a beloved, familiar toy: a stuffed rainbow llama. Her eyes, a gentle brown, communicate her love for my son (and my daughter, of course) and her undeniable attention in everything he does. My home, a place where the floors are dusted with gluten-free flour, scattered legos can be found in all nooks, and rumbles and tumbles and jumps and leaps are in full-drive at all times in the day. My home was already a place that required any visiting person to have great stamina (or love) for me and my kids. And, now, my home, is filled with even more joy: dribbles of water on the hardwood floors, black hairs on my pillow case, and dog toys chewed down to the remaining eyeball. And yet, among all of this crazy in my home, you will also feel the happiness that has suddenly blown into our lives.
I knew this choice was right the minute we walked into our condo complex and Aussie and my son darted down the long hallway. My son eagerly said, “Mom, Aussie, now we can play ball! Let’s go!”
My son had patiently waited for that moment when he could throw his ball with his dog. He had even practiced prior to Aussie’s arrival, making sure he knew how to insert the ball correctly into the mini-ball launcher. He was precise in his arm swing, making sure that the ball left the launcher at the right time.
So, he threw the ball long, hitting the wall at the other end of the hallway. His dog looked at the ball and then at him. She waggled her butt and then looked at the ball, again. “Go get it, ” he squealed, jumping up and down with his arms flapping at his side. “Come on, Aussie, go fetch the ball!” he said. After several more failed fetches, my son realized that Aussie would rather have a belly rub as evidenced in her wiggly body on the floor. And so, the giggles ensued and then the big, belly laughs.
And the giggles and laugher continued as my son and Aussie raced through the house – leaping over chairs and sliding on the hardwood floors. There played tug-o-war for long stretches of time, neither wearing out because the other had to win. There were sweet names being said to Aussie such as “my girl,” and “waggle-butt.” These moments replaced the often solitary moments of rocking back-and-forth, not knowing what to do next, or tap-tap-tapping his leg on a chair. And, of course, there were more moments when my son took Aussie into our long hallway in our condo complex, throwing the ball as far as he could, and inevitably ended up rubbing her belly and giggling.
And then the came that truly filled-up my son with his happy: Aussie chased after a ball.
It was after daily work in the hallway, throwing the ball for sometimes 30 minutes, saying ” Go get it girl!” When that didn’t work, he would throw the ball and then give Aussie a treat, whereupon she would sit and gaze-up at my son, waiting for another treat. My son also threw the ball and then ran himself to go get the ball. He crawled on his knees and hands, in dog posture as he calls it, and dog-ran to get the ball. His Aussie followed him, waggling her butt the entire time. This was the cream in the Italian soda: running together. Aussie figured out that getting a ball meant running after it (like my son did) and then picking it up (like my son also did with his own teeth) and then bringing it all the way back to the other end of the hallway. Once Aussie watched my son do so, she began to play fetch. Thus, the traditional boy-and-his dog game began.
One of the beautiful things about being on the autism spectrum, is the untethered willingness to master something. Whether my son understands it or not, his dedicated determination to teach his dog how to fetch a ball is connected to his beautiful abilities. My son is a puzzle solver and a curious investigator. If something doesn’t make sense the first time, then he looks at it again, and again, and again, … until he masters it. The same is true in this scenario. Except for one thing: he mastered the feeling of happy. The very crutch (his repetition and intense focus) that often hinders him from interacting socially or from having fun with others, is what opened up the doors of happy.
And so, when you observe someone focusing too much (or intently) on a problem or can’t stop thinking about something, I urge you to remember my son and Aussie. Remember that a beautiful gift given to many on the autism spectrum is tenacity to solve the problem or master the puzzle. This is an ability to be celebrated.
Buddy loves neon green, forest green, 10 various shades of green. I do believe that he would live in a forest green room with shelves and tables filled with his lego world creations. And if he could, and I could buy him an endless supply of athletic socks and footwear, they would all be hues of neon, emerald and army green. And, I do try to keep up with his new green-love fetish. His soccer ball, soccer cleats, tooth brush, weighted lap pad, weighted stuffy lizard, and (sshhhh) his boxer briefs, are all shades of green.
Of course, when we sat down together to begin combing through the details of everything for Aussie (our soon to arrive service pup), I clicked on the leashes and collars in the green section.
“Oooh, cool, mom!” I like all those green ones. “Oooh,” Buddy repeated over and over. “Aussie will be the coolest looking dog, ever, Mom!” my son shouted.
And then I watched him dance around our kitchen island, cheering about the new emerald green harness and leash he selected. “Aussie will be the coolest, woof, woof!” he chanted, again and again.
And, so I pushed click, activating the transaction for Aussie’s newest look in dog fashion.
During the short 3-day wait for our leash and harness (thank you to modern-day shipping), Buddy obsessed over Aussie’s arrival. He put together her safe spot – a crate adorned with a plush blanket and handmade dog toys (by Buddy and his sister). He ate his applesauce loaded with Benadryl (because of the dreaded allergy season) in the crate. Buddy read his books in her crate. And, when it was hide-and-seek time, Buddy hid himself inside Aussie’s crate. Alas, the excited energy around Aussie’s arrival could be seen in almost everything Buddy did.
So, when the harness and leash arrived three days later, Buddy opened the box and pulled them out. “Oooh, woof, woof!” he squealed! He pulled the harness around the front of his body, emulating how it might feel for his Aussie. He ran over to his sister, who was, by chance, creating a dog pull for Aussie. “Sister, look! It is green! Woof!”
My daughter looked at Buddy (her adoring brother), and said with great tenacity, “Aussie is a GIRL, Buddy!”
And then there was a blank stare from my son.
“So? She is a girl. Girls’ like green, right mom?” Buddy retorted to his sister.
“Of course they do! I’m a girl. I like green.” I replied.
“Hum,” Buddy pondered. He looked at the leash and the harness. “Mom, I never thought about what Aussie might like.”
“Oh,” I replied.
“Yea! I think her favorite color is purple. Like Sis’s favorite color is purple. I mean she has a purple color right now. I don’t want to make her sad, Mom,” Buddy said with great empathy and compassion. “And I like green, not purple. But, Aussie, she likes purple,” my son declared.”
In that moment, a huge shift occurred for my son. He recognized something other than his own likes and beliefs. He thought about his soon-to-be dog’s favorite color. For some, a color may seem very trivial (because really, what does a green leash or a purple leash really matter). However, for a child on the spectrum, taking a step to understand someone else’s perspective (even if we don’t know if Aussie truly loves purple or not), showed me that bringing Aussie into our lives was nothing short of a miracle. In the few short weeks my son has attended dog trainings every Sunday and prepared for her arrival between each Sunday, he has also grown into his true self.
And so, with a few more short clicks, we found another perfect collar for Aussie. Buddy selected a purple and teal blue collar for Aussie. When the box arrived and he opened it up, he again, played with the new collar and ran around the kitchen island, yelping woof, woof! He shouted in glee, “I like green, but Aussie likes purple!”
I will not forget that Buddy likes all hues of green. And, I will not forget the moment when he showed compassion and empathy for his dog-to-be, Aussie.
Ten months ago we learned that my son would be getting a service dog. Excitement bubbled up as my son quickly began to prepare for his new dog. He put thought into where his dog would sleep and what color ball he would enjoy catching. He pondered the size of the bowl for drinking water and the height at which the bowl would need to be placed for the dog to drink the water (without too much strain). He pronounced, “when I have my dog, I will be able to go outside by myself, right, Mom?” And, “When my dog gets here, I will have a friend to walk to the mailbox with, right, Mom?” Statements like, “Mom, do you think my dog will like me reading books to him?” and “What time do you think my dog will need to go to bed at night?”
Ten months ago when we applied for a therapy dog, we learned that our son, instead, qualified for a service dog, We learned that our son needed help preforming simple tasks, such as entering a room without having an anxiety attack; help with falling asleep at night without his body stimming and flailing; and reminders and simple nudges to stay calm. We learned he needed another layer of support – not just the emotional layer of being calm and happy when surrounded by the comfort of a furry companion.
That was ten months ago.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was sitting at my office desk one day, plugging away at numbers for next year’s master schedule for my school. My brain was twirling with information and I was focused, very focused. When my phone rang, I anticipated that I’d be connecting with a community or family member from my school. Instead, the voice on the other end informed me that my son had been matched to a dog.
Matched to a dog.
Matched to a dog.
Keeping my composure over the phone, I listened as the angel on the other end of the phone told me about Aussie. “She is very calm,” and “she loves playing with kids,” shared the voice. The voice continued, “we think she will be a good match for your son because she meets all of the criteria and requirements from your initial application and interview. …” And here is where I said a silent prayer of gratitude.
I’m sure the voice at the other end had heard mothers like me before. I’m sure she was prepared for the well of emotion, the tears to spill. However, for me, this seemed like a moment that was always too far from reach. It seemed like my son would continue to revert inward, making it more and more difficult to connect with him. My boy. I’m sure I didn’t need to tell this voice that the timing was almost miraculous because my son’s teacher is still learning about autism; leaving my son either in sensory overload or completely confused about what was next. I didn’t need to tell this voice about the short trips to-from school where my son, 8-years old, falls into a deep sleep because it is all he can do to just function during the school day. Nor, did I need to tell her about the daily tears and loud squaks and his unwillingness to eat anything other than chicken nuggets. She didn’t need to be reminded of how our family avoids going to restaurants and movie theaters and crowded parks because it is too difficult for my son.
She already knew. Yet, she listened anyway. And we made arrangements to meet Aussie.
A mere two weeks later, our non-traditional family, living in two homes and rebuilding from a disheartened past, met at Freedom Service Dogs in Englewood, Colorado. The Co-Parent and I made a rare agreement and understanding to bring a service dog, Aussie in particular, into our son’s life. And so, we shuffled into the board room and shared updates from the past school year. We learned about the upcoming 13-week training program that both of us must attend. We learned about the vest the Aussie must wear in all public settings and the treats that we should carry with us for training purposes. We learned our dog, Aussie, a beautiful black English Labrador began her training over 10-months, ago, too. Just after her first birthday, she began learning how to walk on the left side of her human. She learned how to jump with soft feet and how to use restraint from barking at nearby pups. She learned her manners in a sense. And, we learned Aussie was a girl dog, not a boy as my son requested. However, when asked by the team of trainers about there being any problem with a girl dog, my son replied, “I don’t care. I just want a dog.”
And, finally, the trainers of Freedom Service Dogs escorted Aussie into the board room. She carried a neon colored llama in her mouth and wore a purple harness (my son’s least favorite color). But she nudged her small face into my son’s even smaller hands. He giggled and pet her on the head. He turned to me and said, “Mom, this is my dog.”
Post Match Meeting:
Now we are in the waiting period for our training to begin in two short weeks. In the interim, my son looks at pictures of Aussie on a daily basis. He tells wild stories of soon-to-be-adventures with Aussie to his para-educator at school during their daily walks outside. He is working hard to transition from the top bunk to the bottom at the Co-Parent’s home because he understands that Aussie can’t climb ladders. He is practicing opening the front door of my condo complex, and holding it for his sister and me, because soon Aussie will also need help with this. He is already growing and emerging from the shell of autism.
And while Aussie isn’t even part of our lives, yet, she has brought us hope.
A BIG, Beautiful Credit to Freedom Service Dogs of America in Englewood, CO and to the Disco Dogs training program, that specializes in training dogs to serve children (over 5-years old) with autism (ASD), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy (CP) and more.