The Walk in the Woods That Helps Calm My Son With Autism and ADHD
It’s a hot and sticky summer afternoon. My younger son is napping and my older son, W, is on the loose — tired, defiant and bouncing back and forth from one activity to the next. He got stung earlier this morning while walking barefoot through a field of blooming clover, adding now to his crankiness. He needs to get out of the house. Now. We both do.
“I’ll take him to Discovery Park,” I tell my husband, who nods his head in agreement.
There’s a trail there he loves. No matter his mood, when we start walking through those trees, he calms down. Instantaneously. Like he’s been scooped up into the arms of his guardian angel. She rocks him and hums an unearthly tune close in his ear, with skills of calm and soothing I will never possess. I inhale deeply, intensely grateful for the comfort and reassurance this place gives my son. And then I sigh heavily, even more intensely aware of how often I fail at that very thing. He doesn’t mention the bee sting again but trots on. And on and on, pausing only to ask which way we should go when the trail forks.
W has always been one of those “quirky kids.” Barely 2 years old, he could count past 100 and memorize the entirety of Ernest Thayer’s 1888 baseball poem “Casey at the Bat” with ease. Shortly thereafter, sitting in his highchair, cheeks smeared with spaghetti sauce, he’d tell bemused visitors the difference between an octagon, a trapezoid and a rhombus.
His chattiness and our “first-time parentness” meant he wasn’t diagnosed with autism until his 4th birthday. A year or so later, he would also be diagnosed with ADHD. In retrospect, I’m surprised this didn’t come first; the behavioral checklist for kids with ADHD reads like a table of contents for the book of our boy. W never stops moving. He gets up from the table easily 10, 15, 20 times during dinner. His beatific smile hastens the sunrise, but his temper — which his father reminds me he inherited quite honestly — is easily ignited and burns hot. So confinement, bee stings and the dog days of summer do not a peaceful afternoon make. For any kid.
W and I climb out of the car near the trailhead. Hardly a soul can be found in this part of the woods, even during sunny summer afternoons. Most people in Seattle flock to Discovery Park for the bluffs and glorious, sweeping vistas of Puget Sound. The enormous meadows and wide open sky. Not us. Our quiet path is lined with decaying nurse logs, native berry bushes and licorice ferns. Towering maple, yew and cedar trees filter the sunlight into a cheerful yellow and green checkerboard.
A series of ponds sit just off the main trail, fed by small streams we cross over numerous times along the way. The largest one is oddly and delightfully green, completely covered with the tiny remnants of giant flowering alder trees overhead. It is quiet and undisturbed, and we stop so he can throw rocks into the water. Each stone makes a satisfying plop and briefly breaks through the bright green skin to show ripples of darkness beneath.
There’s a little wooden footbridge over the stream, and soon W busies himself collecting fallen leaves, dropping them upstream off the bridge and then trotting around downstream to watch them bump and float into the pond.
Suddenly, a great blue heron flaps loudly down from the sky, all wings and honking in an ornery manner. It startles us both, and W shouts and covers his ears for a moment. But when the large bird settles in quietly to keep vigil in the branches overhead, W too settles back down.
He putters. He collects. He looks up at the sky dreamily for long moments. He quietly sings bits of songs to himself. He throws more rocks and floats more leaves. And it goes on and on, quietly and peacefully in a way it almost never goes on anywhere with walls, doors or a roof. Two or three times he stops, walks over to where I sit watching him, takes hold of both my arms and looks up at me silently.
He just smiles. That smile of his. Its radiance makes flowers bloom and clouds flee the skies. I always have to catch my breath.
After an hour or so, he steps too far into the water and his left shoe gets soaked and muddy. With a wail of dismay, the green and yellow spell is broken. It’s time to go home for dinner anyway. He takes off his shoes and socks, and I’ll have to tote him back to the car. It’s OK. He’s 6 years old, but I can still carry him easily with one arm perched on my hip. It seems as though the heron might weigh more than W does, but he, too, is built like a bird. Perhaps he belongs more to their species than to mine. To flight and the feeling of motion and the wind on his face. He belongs more to the trees and the sun and the sky than to me. And if he put his extraordinary mind to the task, he could learn how to fly. I believe he could. And it wouldn’t be my place to call him back down to the ground.
On our way back up the trail, we stumble upon a blackberry patch. W loves blackberries. Like the quiet green pond, it seems this spot is also largely undiscovered. We stop, I push through the thorny tangles and he eats his fill. Then he climbs onto my back and we continue up the hill. The bee sting is still forgotten. I carry him mostly in silence until the next, “Which way should we go, Mama? Right or left?”
I don’t much care either way, my beautiful boy. Just so long as we take the path that keeps us in these woods forever, with the heron, the remarkably green pond, the blackberries and your guardian angel.
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