Barry and I consider yoga to be a big part of our lives. I have been attending classes 3-4 times per week for over 3 years and I feel like it has changed my life. Not only is it a great way to build strength and endurance, it is also an amazing way to view the world. The basic premise of yoga is to focus on the present moment. Whether it is joyful or painful, it is important to stop and observe what you are feeling in the moment and experience it. Yoga provides the wisdom to know that each moment is transient. If you let your past experiences or future plans take over your thoughts (like most of us do) you will miss what is right before you. I believe that this is an attitude we all should aspire to.
For Gray (and many children with autism), this is not an aspiration. This is a reality. From a very young age, Gray has naturally assumed yoga postures. At any given moment, he might be sitting in full lotus or stretching in a downward dog, or kicking up into a handstand preparation. I believe that something inside of him knows when he needs to experience the sensation of these postures and his flexible little body just goes there. Gray does not plan for the future and he does not dwell in the past. He just is. Right here. In the present.
When Zoe lost her first tooth, it was a very stressful experience. She would alternate between excitement and panic. She would wiggle the tooth and light up with hope that it might come out and then she would get hysterical if there was any blood or pain. For days, it consumed her. What would happen? Would it be disgusting? Would buckets of blood poor out of her mouth? Would the tooth fairy bring a fortune? Our whole house was on-edge waiting for the big moment.
When Gray lost his first tooth, it was a very different experience. First, it was wiggly, then it was VERY wiggly. He would push at it with his tongue or touch it with his fingers, but his interest was short-lived and the prospect of a wiggly tooth didn’t concern him much. He had no fear or expectation attached to the event, it was just a new situation and sensation that he noticed and moved on. Eventually, it just got so wiggly, it fell out during lunch. He calmly handed the tooth to me and kept on eating. There was no blood and no drama. It made me think about how often we make events so much more stressful than they need to be. How many situations have fallen short of our expectations, both good and bad? The planning and excitement for some fabulous event falls short. The anxiety and the hand-wringing for some unpleasant event turns out to be unwarranted.
We all encounter situations that we have no control over. We often make ourselves crazy trying to DO something or calculate our reactions. We could all benefit from a little less struggling. A little less planning. Just observing and experiencing. This moment will pass. In the meantime, just BREATHE!
Hope was born on September 19, 2010. She came to us about 4 months after she turned 2. At 8 weeks of age, she started her training to be a service dog. This included basic obedience training and socialization so that she would be comfortable out in the community. Of course, I cannot speak to the details of her training because I am not a trainer and, frankly, I don’t need all the details. My point in bringing this up is to say that Hope has spent her entire life training for the job she has now. People often ask me if their pets can be trained to be a service dog. My answer is, “Probably not. The training has to start from early puppyhood.”
Also, let me clarify terminology: Hope is a service dog. That is different than a therapy dog. A service dog is meant to guide and assist a person with a disability to navigate the environment at home and in the community. A service dog is a highly trained animal that is allowed by federal and state laws in any public place. They are assigned to one individual for their role as a lifetime assistant to the person with the disability. A therapy dog is meant to assist with emotional or psychological stress associated with disability or trauma. These animals help patients work towards specific physical, social, cognitive or emotional goals. A therapy dog is not usually assigned to just one person. They generally work in facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, schools or psychiatric offices to help many patients. If you have a well-trained pet with a very calm demeanor, this kind of full-grown dog can be trained to be a therapy dog.
During her training, Hope learned the difference between the times when she has her service pack on and when it is off. When her service pack is on, she is on the job. She knows this and will always exhibit exceptional behavior as well as a rock-solid calm demeanor. She is not distracted by other animals or food and she remains focused on her boy at all times. She knows her job and she takes it seriously. But, when her pack comes off, she is just a well-trained house pet. She runs around the yard, barks at squirrels, plays with the kids or other dogs and loves chewing on bones while she relaxes on her dog bed. It is important for us, as a family, to help find the balance between giving her “time off from work” and still remaining calm to maintain her calm demeanor. That is a challenge in my household, but we are working on it.
When she is wearing her service pack, no one is allowed to pet her besides Gray or the adult who is her handler. This is a hard one for people to understand. I hate telling people “no” when they ask to pet her. I especially hate telling people to stop when they have already touched her without my permission. I do it anyway, though. It’s important to keep her focused on her job. I tell people, “how well could you do your job or school work while a stranger patted you on the head?” I hate to appear rude, but I’ll be damned if I will let an eager dog-lover ruin the very expensive and time consuming training that she has mastered.
We did not name Hope. ASDA received puppies in groups from various breeders. Each group of puppies are roughly the same age and start training at the same time. This allows ASDA to hold regular training sessions for the puppy raisers that will be relevant to everyone at the same time. In order to keep the groups straight, ASDA names the puppies in alphabetical order so that all of the dogs in the group have names that start with the same letter. Hope was part of the “H” class. It is pure serendipity that we received a dog with such an appropriate name. We could have just as easily ended up with Heidi, or Hazel, or Haley or Hunter. But, we didn’t. We got Hope. The perfect dog for Gray.
Studio Movie Grill here in Dallas is one of my favorite movie theaters. It is a place where you can sit at a table or counter and order a meal while you watch your movie. I love seeing movies there and I especially love the company because they do a “special needs screening” whenever a new kid movie comes out. Usually, the second Saturday after the movie opens, they will have a showing at 11am for kids with special needs. The kid with special needs and their siblings are free and anyone accompanying them is just $6. During their special needs screening, they only lower the lights halfway and they bring the sounds levels down to help out kids with sensory defensiveness. Also, the rules of civility are not as strictly enforced so that parents can feel less distraught if their child has a meltdown or can’t stay in their seat. That says a lot about this company. Any company that puts that much thought into the needs of their community and takes into account the financial stress of caring for a special needs child deserves my support.
But, we didn’t go to the special needs screening. The schedule didn’t work out for us and Gray was looking mellow, so I decided to just go for it.
Actually, the decision wasn’t quite that simple. I agonized a bit about making the right decision. On one hand, I knew that I would feel comfortable in the special needs screening. I knew that I wouldn’t have to apologize to anyone and our crazy crew would fit right in. On the other hand, I considered the fact that Gray is not defensive against sensory stimuli. He really enjoys stuff when it is loud and crazy. I also considered the fact that we are getting pretty good at outings now. Gray is clearly understanding that, when we go somewhere and there are chairs at a table, he should take a seat and remain there. I didn’t know if I might risk him learning some bad movie etiquette or set up expectations of movies always being semi-lit with soft sounds. I also didn’t know if the full-on movie experience might turn out so badly that he would develop an aversion to movies overall.
In the end, I decided that the risks were small and the possible payoff could be really big. Lena is just getting to the age where she likes to go to the movies. This was my shot to get a good rainy-day family activity on the menu for everyone to enjoy. Here’s what I did to make the trip as successful as possible:
1. We went to the first showing of the day. I figured that, special needs or not, anyone who is coming to this showing probably has young kids and does not expect perfect behavior.
2. This theater has reserved seating. I purchased tickets at the counter on the aisle. I figured a counter invites less squirming than a table and obviously the aisle allows for a fast getaway (just in case).
3. We arrived 10 minutes after the movie’s start time so that we missed the previews and were just taking our seats as the movie started. I actually think Gray wouldn’t mind the previews, but I wanted to keep the sitting time to an absolute minimum.
4. I brought extra snacks in my purse to keep him busy until the real food could arrive.
5. I tied him to a 50-pound dog so he couldn’t rush the screen or climb over the seats to assault other movie-goers. -Very important detail!
All I can say is, it was miraculous. I tried hard to keep my eyes on the screen so he would see what was expected. About 5 minutes into the movie, he looked over at Zoe and Lena (who were both watching the screen) and he looked at me (pretending to be watching the screen), and then he did the same. He sat nicely in his chair and ate his snacks and watched the movie. About 15 minutes before the end, he started playing with his iPad, and then he fell asleep on top of the iPad. Works for me!
Bring on the rainy days…we are ready.