When I Thought My Son With Autism Was Stuck in a Bouncy House


It had been a long, long winter in Boston — three major snowstorms in the space of three weeks. Fortunately, my family and I were lucky enough to escape to Florida for six days during a February vacation.

As we wandered under the palm trees along the Miami harbor, we delighted in the strong sun beaming on our arms and faces. We turned a corner and came upon an outdoor arts festival — complete with an enormous kids’ area with bouncy houses, bungee trampoline and a zip line. Kid heaven!

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Navigating a tightly packed venue like this one often poses a challenge for my son. He has autism; the loud noises and physical closeness of a crowd can overwhelm his senses. When we came across an inflatable obstacle course right in the most crowded area of the park, I wanted to run the other way. However, this was the attraction that seemed to be appealing to my son, so I gave him the “go ahead” signal.

From the moment he wiggled into the first tunnel, I felt nervous. At each turn, there were walls to climb, barriers to slide under and hurdles to pass over. What if he gets stuck? What if some bigger kids come in and try to push past him? What if he gets turned around and can’t find his way out? As much as my son’s social and physical skills have improved over the last several years, I felt uncertain about his ability to hold it together if he got stuck, pushed or lost.

As I stood on the outside looking in, I forced myself to breathe. I was able to catch glimpses of my son as he made his way through each twist and turn. He had a huge grin on his face as he successfully made it past each rubbery hurdle

He was about 20 feet from the exit when he came across a little blond girl, who appeared to be about 3 years old, standing in front of a wall. The little girl was blocking his path, and my son looked uncertain about how to proceed. “Say ‘excuse me’,” I coached.

“Excuse me,” he parroted, then slung his exceptionally long leg over the wall and hoisted himself to the other side without breaking a sweat. Instead of continuing towards the exit, he stood immobilized. That’s when it hit me. I was misreading his uncertainty.

I have a habit of viewing every new encounter through the lens of my son’s disability. I’m aware of the social, physical and sensory challenges inherent in every new situation, and I try to troubleshoot as best I can so my son can be successful. I’m on the lookout for situations where he’ll need an extra boost, a helping hand or some subtle support.

That’s not what was happening here. My tall, lanky 7-year-old was standing on one side of an inflatable wall peering down at a teeny little girl who couldn’t reach the top even if she stood on tiptoes and extended her arms as far as they would stretch. On second glance, I noticed tears beginning to form in her little blue eyes.

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“Uh oh,” I said to my son. “This little girl needs your help. She can’t get over the wall. Stick out your hand.” He leaned into the wall and stuck out his hand then looked to me for further instructions. “Tell her, ‘Grab my hand!’”

“Grab my hand!” he repeated in a cool, confident voice. The little blond girl reached up and grabbed for dear life.

“Now pull!” I instructed. He gave one big tug and up she came. She landed firmly on her feet, gave us a wave and bounced off towards the exit.

My son has autism. He’s often the kid who needs some extra help. He’s often the kid who needs instructions broken down for him or modifications to his environment.

While the autism is always a part of him, sometimes he’s just a kid. Sometimes he’s just a big, tall kid reaching out his hand to help a little kid over a wall.

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