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Autism Doesn't Mean the Sky Is Falling

December 28, 2011 | Comments: 0 | Views: 139

"Help! Help! Ayudame! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" Zachary yells. I hold onto him, recognizing the lines - 'Help! Help! Ayudame!' from Dora the Explorer, in which a baby jaguar clings perilously to a rock atop a waterfall, 'The sky is falling!' from Chicken Little. He's scripting - reciting lines from television, books and computer games, a typical autistic trait.

But that's not what's bothering me at the moment.

What's bothering me is the fact that we're at the top of a seventy-four-year-old rickety fire tower, the wind is strong, and Zach, six-years old, refuses to come down. My hands are full, and whenever I try to coax him, he flops onto the metal landing, screaming.

What at first was a picturesque view of Pequot Lakes in the distance, and the forest below, now makes me dizzy. The one-hundred-plus steps that brought us up here have exhausted me. I've tried everything I can think of to get Zach to start back down the steps.

Paige, his seven-year-old big sister, is already slowly making her way down, tackling the vertigo-inducing steps on her butt. The steps are a latticework of steel, the kind you can see through, all the way to the concrete base at the bottom, and the railings seem to be made of pipes, beneath which hangs chicken wire. The gussets supporting the tower are coated with nearly three-quarters of a century of rust. Why hadn't I noticed this on the way up?

Just twenty minutes earlier, as we stared up into the guts of the fire tower, catching our breath from the half-mile hike through forest and up a steep hill, I asked both of them if they were sure they wanted to climb the thing.

"Yeah!" Paige said, excited at the prospect.

"Zach? What about you? Do you want to go up the steps?"

"Yes," Zach said in his succinct and particular way.

At the time, the wind didn't seem so bad, and there were sure to be some great views up there. We climbed up to the first landing, Paige in front, Zach in the middle, and me taking up the rear, just in case a random child rolled backward down the steps. Pausing, I asked, "What do you think? You want to keep going?"

Paige nodded. "Uh huh!"


He looked at my chest. "Yes."

And they were off, climbing valiantly, higher and higher. I could barely keep up. I remembered for the umpteenth time that day why it would be a great idea to try and lose a few pounds. I held a digital camera in one hand, a full water bottle in the other. At every other landing, they waited for me, and I asked again if they wanted to continue. And they again flew up the steps.

I should've known better. What was I thinking?

Of course I was thinking, what a great experience. And besides, it would get me some good shots for the article I was working on about the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway. Shots of the great view, shots of my kids bravely scaling the old fire tower.

And it was great. Until we got to the top.

Up at the top, the wind grew tentacles. As I looked down into the fire tower's metallic bowels, my hands trembled. I sure wish I didn't have this water bottle in my hand. And I didn't really want to have both hands off the railing at the same time in order to unscrew the cap and gulp it down.

"Daddy, I'm scared," Paige said.

Me, too, I thought, but didn't say.

"Okay." I took a deep breath, trying to quell the sense of vertigo creeping into my stomach. "Let's head on down."

I started down first, feeling Paige behind me, her hand on my belt. As we stopped on the first landing on our way down, I looked back. Zach was still at the top landing, now on his stomach.

"Come on, Zach. Time to go."

That's when the screaming started.

"Help! Help! Ayudame! Ayudame! The sky is falling!"

Four years earlier, it seemed as if the sky was falling around my wife Melissa and I as we finally received the official diagnosis that Zachary had autism. We'd been expecting it for some time, but to actually have a developmental specialist confirm it for us...

It was a punch to the gut. It seemed like our future had been pulled out from under us, Zach's future stolen. It wasn't fair to Paige - we were so excited for her to have a sibling to play with, to argue and fight with, to grow with, to love. But now, how could we give them both the different types of attention they needed without taking something away from the other?

Like many from my generation, our main point of reference to autism at the time was the movie Rainman. Would Zachary know how to perform parlor tricks like counting cards and memorizing phonebooks, without being able to return our love? We'd heard other horror stories about autism, mostly involving hitting, screaming, kicking, biting, punching holes in walls...

Were we destined for a life of misery?

Fortunately, we soon learned that the answer was no.

Absolutely not.

As Paige made her way bravely down the fire tower, I set my bottled water on a step to free a hand for Zachary. The wind grabbed the water and hurled it off the fire tower, and I heard it explode below. "Everyone okay down there?" I yelled, praying it had burst on cement instead of bone.

Someone called up, "We're okay." A small crowd had gathered below. Where had they come from?

"C'mon, Zach," I pleaded. I grabbed hold of his foot and tried to pull him across the landing to the first step. He screamed louder, grabbing onto the tower's frame.

"We have to go down," I told him. "We can't stay here."

"Help! Help!" he screamed. "Ayudame!"

Would we be stuck up here for hours? Would we have to be rescued? Would we be on the evening news?

"I'll help you, Zach."

"The sky is falling. The sky is falling!"

"I'm right here, Zach. We're okay. I'll help you. You can hold onto me. I'll help you down."

Finally, I got him to stand up. Finally, I got him to put his arms around my neck and bury his face against my cheek. His tears and sweat soaked into my collar. I held onto him with one hand, the camera dangling off my wrist, and gripped the railing with my other hand.

"C'mon, Zachary. We can do this."

Finally, he took a step. Slowly, I guided him down to the next landing.

"You did it, Zach! See? That wasn't so bad, was it?"

And we descended the fire tower like that. One slow and careful step at a time, one landing at a time, each set of steps getting a little easier.

And finally...

Finally, we were on the ground. Terra firma.

About twenty strangers were there on the ground, cheering us, an unknown woman I'd never met saying, "Way to go, Zach!"

We made it. He made it. One step at a time. We conquered that fire tower.

The sky didn't fall after all.

And that is how we deal with Zachary's autism. One day at a time. One step at a time. And along the way, we've discovered a sweet, wonderful boy who has brought us unbelievable joy. A boy who has taught me a lot about myself, a boy who has taught me not only how to be a better father, but how to be a better person.

And one thing I've learned over and over again is that the sky hasn't fallen.

And we won't let it.

Joel Arnold - horror, mystery, travel writer -

Source: EzineArticles
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