We’d made it. After a long day of driving from Phoenix, a quick dip in the hotel pool at the insistence of my son, and eating hotel lobby cookies instead of a proper dinner, we had arrived at the amphitheater in front of Carlsbad Caverns in time to watch thousands of bats depart the cave in search of their evening meal. When I was a child, I had the opportunity to see this spectacle during a cross-country road trip with my parents and sister. The magnificence of it – on par with the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China – had stayed with me throughout my life. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to share it with my two oldest children.
As soon as we sat down, I could tell my eight-year-old son was antsy. The amphitheater was crowded and noisy with sounds of conversation and a Park Ranger attempting to lecture over the din. He kept asking to go back to the hotel, not understanding what brought us to this place in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Soon he was standing up and speaking loudly, insistent that he didn’t want to be there.
When we embarked on this 4500-mile trip to our new home on the east coast, I was uncertain how the challenges of autism would manifest themselves. He had struggled to understand why we didn’t arrive at our ultimate destination in “The Virginia” within 49 hours after departing our home, since that was how long Google Maps said the trip would take. During our drives, he would randomly ask “Time?” and I would dutifully show him how much longer the to the next hotel. “Three more hours, champ.” Invariably, he would seek to negotiate a faster arrival. “Two hours?” “Sorry, buddy. I can’t alter the time-distance equation that significantly.” But all in all, my son had done quite well to this point. Despite the hectic pace of our journey and the constant change in environment, we had managed to maintain rudimentary routines to provide an adequate sense of constancy for him. He was content.
Until we got to Carlsbad Caverns. The Park Ranger had just finished explaining the importance of being quiet while viewing the bats, and requested that parents take any noisy children outside the amphitheater to avoid disturbing the animal’s echo-location. Judging by some of the looks I was getting, I’m guessing some of our fellow visitors were disturbed as well. Now I was caught in a dilemma. If I took my son out of the amphitheater, would my daughter be all right on her own? It was going to get dark during the viewing, and ultimately be night by the time the event finished. Was it fair to deny her the opportunity to see the bats because her brother was being obstinate? Didn’t her life already have enough limitations due to her sibling with special needs?
I checked with her that she would be ok sitting by herself, explained to her where she could find us after the show, and led my son up the steps and out of the theater. Our purgatory for the next hour was the landscaped walking paths between the parking lot and the amphitheater, which he explored and re-explored with abandon as I hustled to keep up with him. I was hoping to be able to at least sit on a curb with him and catch a glimpse of the bats, but he wasn’t giving me even that.
I hadn’t been so frustrated with my son in a long time. Most days, the fact that we have a child with autism is just something that lurks in the background of our more quotidian struggles. But his behavior on this day brought things into stark relief, combined with the fact that the stress of my self-imposed timelines on the trip was catching up with me. I wished he was able to sit still for an hour. I wished that he could understand when I said “be patient, it will be worth it.” I wished my son could be as captivated by nature as he was with the videos on his iPad. I wanted to scream, “Why can’t I just have a normal son?” and I knew right then I had reached a breaking point, indicated by my use of that blasphemous adjective in blatant violation of autism parenting orthodoxy.
And in that instant, my son gave me what I needed. I suddenly heard him say, “Hello friend!” He was on all fours, giggling as he inspected a centipede that was crossing the path. The insect zigzagged on the sidewalk, much to my son’s delight. I crouched down and watched my son watching his new discovery. He was totally captivated, and even after the centipede left the path and crawled into the dirt and shrubbery, he followed his friend’s journey with rapt attention and encouragement. “Go to your home, friend!” Overhead, thousands of bats swarmed overhead, leaving the caves in search of their evening food, but my son and I stayed focused on the ground beneath us.
Every day of fatherhood is a much-needed lesson in patience, selflessness, and perspective. My son had done such an amazing job handling the demands of the trip on my terms. And the one time that he needed me to approach things on his terms, I failed him and got frustrated. Those five minutes on our hands and knees in the New Mexico desert, watching a centipede scramble home, turned into one of the best moments in my life. That was when I learned to see and appreciate things from my son’s vantage point. I am so incredibly grateful for him and the journey he has taken me on as a father. My only hope is that I’m somehow able to return the favor, and teach him as much as he has taught me.