Living with AUTISM is a challenge, but it’s wonderful and rewarding. Many children with Autism thrive on routine. They depend on it. Our son Sam is one of those kids. He sets his mind on how and when things should happen. Here’s a story where foiled plans became a dream of a lifetime.
Last year we went to Niagara Falls. We found out that Marineland, an amusement park with exhibits of many mammals, had Orcas. Our son Sam has loved Killer Whales since he was about a year old. I mean, HE LOVES THEM. The walls in his room are covered in posters, and picture calendars, and we have dozens of Orca toys – plastic, plush, large, small, plus magnets, stickers, pillow cases. AND did I mention books? Countless books on whales and dolphins, but mostly Orcas. Free Willy? He’s a friend we watch nearly every day. So off we went to Marineland on Thursday, August 16, 2005.
Once in the park we headed straight for Friendship Cove, home of 4 Orcas. I can’t tell you how excited we all were to watch Sam’s face as he saw, for the first time in his life, a real Killer Whale. It was a moment to remember, followed by many more that weekend. LAST year you could purchase tickets to stand with the trainer to feed and pet an Orca. Yeah, we all did it – more than once. After a full day of fun with the family at the park Sam and I returned for a second day – 9 hours just standing at the tanks, watching the whales. Sam was in heaven. “Goodbye whales, see you next year”. From the day we departed Canada Sam started talking about returning on Thursday, August 17, 2006. If you know a child with Autism, you know that you had to talk about the upcoming trip daily, like 20 times a day.
Fast forward to this past August. Sam was ready, wearing the same shirt as last year so the whales would recognize him. His routine was working up until we got to Friendship Cove – no more ticket sales for feeding the whales. Foiled! The activity was replaced with a new Splash Show. Sure, the Splash Show was fantastic, fascinating, but I could see the despair and confusion on my sweet boy’s face. We stayed for two shows, took lots of photos and video, saw the rest of the park, went on rides, and returned to say good bye to the whales. Sam and I returned again for a second day. Didn’t take the video camera as I had enough footage, right? Bad idea. So we are there, planted into position as we were last year, to spend the day watching the whales swim around their wide open tanks. You are literally two feet away from these beautiful mammals. The Splash Show is every hour and half – so people start filling into the area ten minutes before show time, then disperse twenty minutes later, soaking wet, after the show. The trainers notice we are there, and still there, and again, still there. We talk with one of the attendants – he asks Sam about the pile of books he’s carrying. This young man, Nicholas, bless his heart, cued in that Sam is no ordinary child, and tried to keep him engaged in conversation. One thing was obvious to Nicholas – Sam ADORES the whales. THEN, just prior to the next Splash Show, the “host” of the event, Sean, came over to talk with Sam. I could feel myself leaving my body - you know that kind of moment you have when something REALLY GOOD is happening and time stands still and you can barely speak and the tears flood down your face. Sean tells Sam – I could really use a helper for the show. Do you think you could help me? WHAT DID HE JUST SAY? Dear God, THANK YOU. If I could have felt my legs at that moment I would have dropped to my knees.
The show begins. Mike and Kendra, the whale trainers, introduce themselves to this hysterical mom, with winks and smiles, KNOWING, knowing. Sean is at the microphone, introduces Sam Ward from NJ…..and Sam, who has memorized this show, mimics the trainers. He knew what to do. He knew the act. They got such a kick out of it. Sam was not afraid in the least to be in front of a HUGE crowd. He directed the whales to do their tricks. NEVER in my wildest dreams did I ever expect that Sam would have the chance of a lifetime. All credit goes to Nicholas, who had the insight, and Sean, Mike, and Kendra, who had the hearts, to give this special boy a very special day. Warm hearted thanks to our Marineland friends. I know they feel rewarded, because you just get that from our Sam.
Sam stayed behind the barricade with the trainers after the show. The two whales, mother and daughter, were still floating near the trainer area, - waiting, watching. Sam opened his books to show them the Orca pictures. Page after page. The whales didn’t swim away. Sam read to them. Sam had observed everything they did in their “free time”, and he especially loved when they stuck their tongues out. So Sam sticks his tongue out at the whales and they mimicked him! The hour and half between shows flew by and Sam was honorary trainer for one more show. Imagine my husband’s reaction when he came to pick us up outside the park at the end of the day! Thank goodness I had my digital camera and could show him and the kids all the proof that we were the luckiest souls on earth that day. Of course I wish they had been with us, but if they were, would it have all happened like it did? Maybe. Maybe not. And Thursday, August 16, 2007? You know where I’ll be!