Taking my grandson Noah to our local park is always one of my daughter Sara’s favorite things to do, but there are differences about him that some might find “unusual.” 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 backyard, 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 seems to prefer sitting close to the outside of the perimeter and watching all the action from there.
What he does like to do, though, is hunt for small piles of leaves. Or mulch. Or gravel. Or sand. 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.
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 they stay in the middle of the pond, which doesn’t interest Noah much at all. If they’re not right in front of him, he doesn’t take notice of 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 always seems to have 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, magically finding 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, it doesn’t matter that we think Noah 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 observations in things many of us may not 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 often wants to touch and feel and experience every texture, smell and taste of every new object he sees.
Every. Single. One.
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.
The point I’m trying make is this: A trip to the park with Noah may not be your “typical” trip. I feel 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.
Noah reminds us how easy it is to find the beauty in the things we can 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 is on the autism spectrum, and he said he thought it would be fun to hang out with him, but Sara had some reservations. She understands what many people think a trip to the park is “supposed” to be like, and she knew this trip likely wouldn’t be like that.
What would this friend of hers think? Would he think it was strange? 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 be. 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 Noah’s 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 Sara. She put Noah down, along with the 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 five 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 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 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 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 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! To Noah, that was 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-and-a-half-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 very 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 on anymore and came home. Happy.
I’ve had a couple of days to think about that day — about 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-seeming 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 at the cool 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 children on the autism spectrum? 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 who 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 I know 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.