Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mall-y Old Saint Nicholas

Way back when this blog was new and shiny I posted a question about autism charities worthy of my tax credit contribution.  The overwhelming responses I got (not necessarily indicated by they underwhelming number of comments) were 1)  don't give to Autism Speaks and 2) find a local charity more directly involved with the autism community.

Lydia over at AusticSpeaks suggested A.B.O.A.R.D.  I had given to them the previous year, and they are local, and they had helped Lydia (who is also local) personally, so I felt like that sort of sealed the deal.  I gave to A.B.O.A.R.D.  They send out a weekly (or so) newsletter to contributors.

Within about a month of my donation, I received an announcement from them via their newsletter (sent to everyone on their mailing list).  Don't bother reading through it, the title pretty much say it all.  The mall was closing, but leaving Santa and his helpers in place, dimming the lights, providing activities, leaving the play area accessible and giving time slots for Santa pictures all to spectrum kiddos who registered.  

My wife got a similar email and we took turns sending each other identical emails saying what a good idea it was and asking each other if we thought it could work.

We agreed we wanted to get Lily to see Santa, and this looked like an awesome way to do it.  A day or two before the event, my wife called ABOARD (i'm not typing the periods anymore) and found out that all 50 of the time slots were all full, but to come anyway and talk to them and they'd see if they could get Lily in to see Santa.  We're such slackers.  I don't know why neither of us read about the registration.

Don't you touch my puppy or I'll cut you.
This past Sunday was the big day.  When we showed up, we got a number, 37.  That's a big number.  We were there about 15 minutes, listening to the story being read by a woman from . . . well I never found out where she was from, but she had a giant fuzzy bear with her so I figured she was probably going to be okay in Lily's book.  Lily didn't want to sit, and wasn't particularly interested in the story (although it's one we read to her on occasion about Curious George visiting a hospital on Christmas) but she digs furries.  

We hung out on the mat for a bit, dancing and spinning and occasionally revisiting our lounging bear friend, until it became apparent that additional entertainment would be necessary.  While my wife (have you noticed I never give her name?  It's a privacy thing, but honestly, you'd think I'd just ask her if it was okay and get an answer so I could include it wouldn't you?  I never remember to ask.  She follows the blog, maybe she'll read this and tell me) and Emma checked out the crafts, I took Lily to see the train, the malls version of the Polar Express (which wasn't running that evening).

At the train we walked back and forth from the engine to the caboose.  I asked her what color it was and tried to get her to count the cars (four) and identify engine/caboose etc.  She says caboose so friggin' adorably.  

"Let's go to the caboose, Lily!" 

"CABOOOOOSE!!" *run run run*

"What color is the caboose, Lily?"

"It's geen, caboose is geen!"

"Good job!  Let's go see the engine now!"


"How many cars are there on the train?" *silence* "One. . . "


And so on. . . 

After we'd played that game out, I approached the line with my ticket and asked how far along we were.  

"We're calling 12, 13 and 14 right now," was the reply.  

Oh.  Oh dear.  So we made our way over to the play area.  We were the first family to utilize that particular time killer, but were quickly joined by other families in the high twenties and low thirties (ticket numbers, not age. . . well. . . maybe both).  

Emma and Lily walked up the steps of one of the play bridges (meant to approximate the bridges over the three rivers here in Pittsburgh) and slid down the other side countless times.  Each time Lily climbed she would stand and chatter happily at the top of the bridge until Emma would prompt her, "Okay, Lily, time to go down the slide," at which time she'd dutifully plop down, slide to the bottom, then spin around, run to the other side of the "bridge" ascend once more, and wait for prompting.

A family with an NT son and AS son arrived a bit later.  It was cute the way their interractions mirrored Emma and Lily's.  The sons were older than our daughters were, but the NT son stuck really close to his AS brother.  He may have been 14 or 15.  The spectrum thing struck me then.  He seemed really coordinated to me.  He was running all over the place, jumping and somersaulting down the slides and steps, gracefully, even acrobatically.  He was so much more developed than Lily from a gross motor perspective, but he was completely nonverbal, and eventually (after much running around) he got a bit overstimulated and you could see him shrink into himself.  He became visibly upset, his face a mask of sorrow, and his parents asked him if he'd had enough and wanted to go home, and he signaled his assent.  They tied his shoes and he sat in a stroller.  He was completely wiped out.

It's just such a huge autistic world out there.  This kid was SO different than Lily.  As they left, the boys' mother gave me their ticket (we'd compared numbers when they joined us, they were 32).  My wife had taken the kids up to the bathroom while I held down the fort (purses, pink sling bags, coats) and I texted my wife that I'd meet her back at Santa, because a few moments earlier one of Santa's elves had been looking for "28" so I knew at 32 we were getting close.

Maybe we weren't as close as I thought, but we weren't TOO far off.  Emma crafted a letter to Santa on behalf of Lily and herself while Lily and I returned to the train and waited.  "31" was a gigantic group of kids from one of the local special needs schools so they took forever.  "28" had never been found.  We were next.  I tried to get Santa's helper to let us fill out the paper work BEFORE our turn but to no avail.  If I have any complaint with the process it would be that. . . kids on the spectrum/ADHD/whatever. . . let the parents fill out the paperwork before hand, because we had at least 45 minutes, then there are no stumbles at the finish line. . . the promised land. . . The North Pole in Pittsburgh.  BUT. . . Lily was a champ.  No stumbles there.  Just sayin'.

Sir, please remain a respectful distance from Mr. Claus
And take a look at this badass Santa.  Every year the Ross Park Mall gets a kickass Santa, but this Santa is the best I've seen.  
Santa Checklist:
Real snowy white beard - check
Eyes, how they twinkled - check
Dimples, how merry - check
Cheeks like roses - check
Nose like a cherry - check

Finally we were in the home stretch.  Lily's biggest issue was being confined to Mr. C's lap.  She was not afraid of him, and she honored his personal space enough not to tug on his beard (although she did give the little snowball tuft at the end of his hat a tug once or twice).  

After they sat (and the professional photogragher got three pictures from which we selected) Emma bent Kris Kringle's ear about puppies or some such while Lily, freed from his lap, orbited in fascination until Emma got down.  

When it was time to go she told him (prompted) "Merry Christmas" and (unprompted) "I'll see you soon".

The money shot.  Is. . . is that appropriate in this context?

On the way out we sort of let Lily walk ahead of us; pointing the way, and letting her go.  The mall was closed so there was ZERO mischief she could get into.  At one point Emma started laughing and saying "she is SO far ahead of us" and indeed, she had like an 1/8 of a mile head start on us.  I ran to catch up.  Lily, seeing me chasing her, ran to get away.  Emma and Lily and I went tearing ass off through the mall, giggling like maniacs until I finally collected her, whooshed her off her feet, then set her back down like an already spinning top, to tear ass off again, while my wife sauntered unconcernedly down the length of the mall.

When she finally caught up, I left Lily to her while Emma and I approached the exit.  I tried to get a picture of this, but failed.  Emma and I stood at the entrance, which goes west about 50 yards before T'ing with the rest of the mall. . . left (south) is Macy's, right (north) is the mall at large.  Standing at the exit, looking back, Lily was running away from her mother towards Macy's, giggling.  Her mother was looking at us, also giggling, running after her.  Then they disappeared around the corner of the T, before re-emerging, Lily again in the lead this time running north, my wife again trailing. . . still giggling helplessly.  *DING*  like a duck in a shooting gallery, reversing then *DING* re-reversing AND SO ON!!!  This must have happened like five times.

At first I thought she was playing with her.  But Lily was legitimately eluding her, like when Scooby and the gang are getting chased by the monster, and they keep emerging out of different doors sometimes being chased, sometimes chasing, until they all crash into each other in the middle of the room, and they pull the mask off the monster and the guy underneath says "And it would have worked too if it wasn't for these darn kids!"  Only they didn't crash.  My wife needs to get on the treadmill, or Lily is a future Olympic sprinter, because it was PATHETIC how long she was able to stay just out of her grasp.

The whole event was very cute, and really our first time capitalizing on an event in the "community".  I embraced it as an opportunity to do more than pay lip service to my acceptance of all of this.  It occurs to me from time to time, that the same sense of community I feel reflected in the people who comment/read this blog, and whose blogs I, in turn, comment and read also exists in "real life" (no offense intended, I'm aware you are all real as well).  And that the enjoyment/encouragement/support as I get from the people here (in this blog) exists "out there" in my community, down the street, at the mall, wherever.  So this was nice for me.  I'm much more outgoing here than I am in person, so it was a small step, but maybe next time at the next event I'll recognize the family who gave us their number and give them a "hellooooo" and offer the secret Autism Handshake and chat them up the way I chat you people up.  Seems reasonable, right?

The event was nicely done and organized.  I already feel good about having given to a charity that is involved directly in the community and helping kids with autism develop and have fun, adults with autism cope and get jobs, and parents of kids on the spectrum, participate and feel less "judged".

Emma sometimes complains when we split the kids up one kid per parent, to their respective events.  She likes when we're all together as a family.  This was a great chance to do that.  She loved seeing how Lily reacted to Santa.  And she was so proud of her for not yanking his beard, spitting in his face, or poking his eyes out (she is TOTALLY on the "Nice" list now).  

It was comfortable and fun and I never even ONCE looked over my shoulder to see if I needed to scowl malevolently at some douche for judging my daughter for spinning and dancing or judging me for allowing it.  That alone was worth the trip.

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