“You guys should definitely check out the Deerfield Fair tomorrow,” our server told us on Saturday night. “Just get there early so it won’t be too hot.”
Giddy and stupid from a pomegranate martini, I turned to my husband Joe and exclaimed, “The fair! Let’s get up early tomorrow morning and take the kids. They’ll love it.”
So, folks, I wanted to share with you about our day with five kids and autism at the fair. For organizational purposes, I decided to break it up into two versions.
This is the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram version:
I woke early and bounded out of bed. I took our puppy, Wolfie, for a short walk, and while the kids watched a little TV and Joe showered, I selected coordinating outfits from their drawers so we could keep track of them in the crowd. Their drawers were kind of messy, and I made a mental note to review the importance of staying organized with them.
As soon as we walked in and smelled the roasted peanuts and warm pretzels, I remembered just how much I love fairs. The food! The Ferris Wheel and the interesting people!
We giggled about how the seven of us have no problem getting to a fair three towns over by 8:40 on a Sunday morning, but we struggle to make 9:00 am Mass ten minutes from our house. Tee-hee! We were a funny, special family.
Despite the heat and the crowd, we experienced moments of gratitude, small spotlights of appreciation in the midst of a busy outing.
Fun, right? Now I’ll tell you the real version.
I rolled over in bed as soon as I heard Wolfie whimpering in his crate. It was 6:02. Joe was snoring, and I had a headache.
I rifled through each of their drawers, which were a disaster; shirts and shorts and socks tangled up into balls. I found a spoon buried under five-year old Henry’s underwear.
I walked into the bathroom all five of them share, only to notice someone didn’t flush the toilet. Even worse, there was no toilet paper because for some reason no one in my house can change a single roll independently.
I swore a bunch of colorful curse words and made a mental note to yell at them later.
Determined to still have a nice morning and surprise the kids with a spontaneous trip to the fair, I took a deep breath and called them all together in the family room.
“Hey guys! Guess where we’re going this morning! To the fair!”
“Aw, that’s not fair. Get it? Get it Joey?”
“No. No fair. I hate fairs.”
“Jack! Do not say ‘hate’. Say ‘I don’t care for fairs’. I put out all of your clothes – we need to wear the orange shirts.”
“What? No! Why! Why do we always have to match?”
“Because,” I said slowly, deliberately. “I don’t want to lose any of you in the crowd. That would be a doggone shame.”
“Why you voice all funny?” Henry shouted.
Forty-five minutes later, we pulled into the grassy parking area. We walked in, giggling about how much easier it is to get to a fair than church, and settled in for some breakfast sandwiches.
But as usual, it didn’t take long for the wheels to come off the bus.
I use this phrase a lot. But I want to take this opportunity to explain that, in our family, the wheels don’t just come off. They blow off. It is fast and it is furious, and very unpredictable. This time, it started with Diet Coke.
While Joe ordered seventy-nine sandwiches and I ushered the kids towards an empty picnic table, Jack spied a bottle of Diet Coke in a big cooler of beverages. And he started to chant.
“Diet Coke, Diet Coke, Diet Coke.”
“No, Jack. You are not getting a Diet Coke.”
I have no idea why he would want Diet Coke. We have never given him Diet Coke. To my knowledge, he has never even tasted Diet Coke. In fact, he doesn’t even care for soda all that much.
But there we were, in the middle of one of the state’s largest fairs, with throngs of people threading around us while my son with autism screamed, “Get me Diet Coke or I will. DIE!”
“Jack,” I whisper-screamed in his ear. “Stop it or I will bring you to the car and we will leave.”
“Ok. That is good. To leave.”
“Oh no, Jack,” Joe said firmly. “We are not leaving. Settle down.”
Joe and I tend to lapse into this weird good-cop, bad-cop routine on family outings, except our routine is disorganized, unplanned, and completely lacking in purpose.
Joe: “Come on, let’s get them ice cream.”
Me: “Enough with the ice cream already! It is 10:30 in the morning and we just had doughnuts! They do not need ice cream.”
Fast-forward exactly eleven minutes later, when I was standing in the line for French Fries. I bought a huge order that for some reason came in a bowl resembling a dog dish.
“I thought you said they didn’t need anything! Why are you getting French Fries?” Joe asked when I wandered over to him, balancing a cardboard cup of cheese on top of the hot fries.
“I don’t know,” I answered defensively as the kids surrounded me like a pack of wolves. “Let them have some treats, we’re at a fair for heaven’s sake. Here, try one, it will put you in a better mood.”
He glowered at me.
Now, it is true that we’ve been working on gratitude with the kids, and encouraging them to take a quiet moment in the middle of a busy day or activity to give thanks and appreciation. But this time, the moment of gratitude looked like this:
Me: “Get over to that bench and sit down THIS MINUTE.”
Them: “Why? We’re hot/thirsty/hot/hungry can we go on the Ferris Wheel again how many tickets do we have left when can we get cotton candy?”
Joe: “You guys are in for it now.”
Me: “Everyone needs to sit here for a minute and think about how grateful we are to be here. Stop asking for things constantly. It’s annoying! I mean, why would we bring you anywhere? Your drawers are a mess and this morning there was no toilet paper in the bathroom again. How hard is it to change the toilet paper roll—“
Them: “I told Henry to do it I did change it but it fell in the toilet this fair is fun I’m hot I’m trying to be grateful can we see the cows soon those llamas were weird.”
Jack: “I want. A Diet Coke.”
Joe: “What Mom is saying is be happy for what you’re getting today. It’s a special treat to come to something like this.”
They grumbled their apologies and we trundled over to the rides. Gratitude over.
While we waited on line for the large slide, Jack positioned himself next to the sign listing the ride’s rules and proceeded to read them at the top of his lungs.
“No SMOKING on this ride. No one with a HEART CONDITION. No PREGNANT WOMEN.”
He cast a disparaging eye down the line and rested his gaze on a woman who was, well, a little on the rounder side.
It was as if, for one tiny second, I could see inside his actual brain. I could see the neurons and synapses firing, autism racing non-autism down to Jack’s vocal cords and out of his mouth; racing and sprinting and throwing elbows to the finish line.
It looked hopeful for a second. Jack hesitated and he appeared to be thinking, considering, deciding. And then autism pulled ahead and reached for the win.
“Jack,” I warned.
“WHAT? You can’t be PREGNANT for this ride. It is the RULE.”
At that moment, I desperately wished we’d bought him that Diet Coke.
By this point it was about 900 degrees, and the place was teeming with strollers and toddlers and people eating enormous turkey legs wrapped in tin foil. After we spent five minutes looking for Henry only to realize he was actually holding my hand, we decided it was time to head out.
And through the crowd we weaved once more, through the sticky, hot midway and out into the open parking lot. As soon as we all sat down in the car they all started to talk.
“That was so much fun! Can we go to Disney?”
“Yeah! Disney! That would be awesome!”
I opened my mouth to tell them no way, we were never leaving the house again, when out of nowhere Joe good-copped me.
“Disney is definitely on the list. Now let’s count all the cars we see waiting in line!”
This pretty much sums Joe and I up when it comes to the kids; I get aggravated over the little, day-to-day things like toilet paper and unfolded t-shirts and rules, and he teaches gratitude and spontaneity. He teaches that we don’t leave the fair just because someone is throwing a tantrum about soda.
He steps in when I am finished, and, most importantly, he lets me have the French Fries when he really wanted ice cream.
Joe is big picture and I am little picture, and together we paint our picture. Together, we will figure out how to get them to change the toilet paper and appreciate treats and use nice words. It just might take a while.
The kids all clapped and cheered and started to count. Just then I heard a little voice that may or may not have been in my own head.