I don’t always share the more challenging parts of our lives with Autism. But I have wanted to tell this story for a few months now.
In July we took a vacation back to my hometown of Superior, WI /Duluth, MN. While we were there a good friend offered us complimentary tickets to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. We happily accepted and made plans to come on down to tour the museum and let the kids see the trains. When we arrived our friend said, “did you want to ride the train too?
We had not planned on this added bit of generosity but happily took her up on the offer, even though the train left in 15 minutes which gave us no time to prepare. We decided we had enough supplies in our stroller to make it through the 75-minute journey and headed down to the ticket booth for the North Shore Scenic Railroad.
I was excited to take my family on the train because I was one of the original employees of the railroad when it first opened in 1990. I had many jobs during my 5 years there- tour guide, merchandise manager, waitress/bartender, Brakeman and Conductor. It was a huge part of my life and I was looking forward to sharing it with my kids.
I had been on the train with John and Canyon two years earlier, but Canyon was too young to remember that now. We picked up our tickets, left the stroller with the ticket agent and went to board the train. And that’s when the screaming started.
Canyon was terrified. River and Raven boarded the train with no problem other than the usual trying to get two year old twins up into a vintage passenger train. But Canyon sometimes has problems with new experiences or transitions and something set him into fight AND flight mode. Maybe it the sound of the train, the confined space, the lights-I don’t know-and he can’t tell me–but it sent him into panic mode.
The train cars were full of families and tourists out to have a good time. We walked through the first car, me struggling to pass through the narrow aisles with River and Raven, a large diaper bag, my camera bag and a snack bag. Apologizing for bumping into people we made our way to the second car and tried to set up camp.
Canyon was screaming and sobbing and hyperventilating. John tried to hold him and calm him down but nothing was working. People were staring. This particular train car was two-levels, so there were people seated above us as well as all around us. The windows did not open and Canyon’s screams were loud. Children and adults were peering down from above us like monkeys, trying to see what was happening. River and Raven wanted to run off and explore and I struggled to keep them in their seats.
The train was not moving.
I felt bad ruining everyone else’s trip so I traded places with John and took Canyon into my arms and we walked through the car into the next. We stood in the vestibule between cars and I showed him the open window, trying to explain what was happening and how much fun we would have. He just tried to climb out of the window. I saw that the next car up was almost empty-just a family of four and an older couple. I struggled back to the first car and told John to bring our bags and the twins and we would move back there.
Canyon was still screaming and the family turned to look at me. I rocked Canyon close to me and announced to the car, “I am so sorry. He has Autism. He will be fine in a few minutes. I am so sorry.” I was using all of my being to calm him and soothe him and just wanted so desperately to make it all better.
To be honest, at that point I wasn’t really sure he would be fine. I worried that we would get underway and that he wouldn’t stop crying and that I would have to ask the conductor to let us off somewhere along the tracks and we would have to hike back to the van.
Canyon was still sobbing and the train was still not moving. John took him and they went to the back of the car, as far as they could go. I tried to contain River and Raven. At this point I was so overwhelmed that I was barely holding it together myself. I feel so sorry for Canyon. It’s just not fair that everything is so hard for him. He deserves to be able to be excited about riding a train like other four-year-old boys.
The older couple decided to move to another car. I do not blame them. I was actually relieved. Then they stopped when they got to us. The woman said, “We understand. Our daughter has Autism.” Then she leaned forward and said, “You are doing a great job.”
And I started to sob. So many people are cruel to us when Canyon is struggling in public. So many people make comments about his behavior, or that he drinks from a baby bottle or rides in the stroller. Or sits under the table. We gets looks. We hear comments. No one had ever been so kind. And it was too much.
I don’t remember what else they said but I know it was good. Poor John was in the back with Canyon and all he could see was that they got up to leave, said something to me and that I started crying. He didn’t know what to do!
The other family in the car turned to me and said, “Don’t worry about anything. We are OK!” I cried some more and smiled. They went on “I hope you didn’t think we were looking at you to be rude, we just wanted to make sure you were OK!” I assured them that we were and that I appreciated their comments.
Now that the back of the car was clear we moved to those seats so we could give them some peace.
The train finally signaled that we were leaving the station. The train started to move. Canyon sniffled a few times and stopped crying. He looked around.
“Do you want some snacks” I asked. He did. He ate potato chips as we backed out of the rail yard. By the time we were moving forward he was also on the right track. He was loving the train ride!
I took him for a walk through the train. I laughed to the family of four-“See! He loves it now!” They were obviously happy for us. We walked through the next car. I was happy to show the kind couple how his mood had changed. When we found them I started to tear up again as I told them how grateful I was for what they had said and how much it meant to our family. They were also happy to see that big smile on Canyon’s beautiful face.
The rest of the trip was just as it should be for a family trying to travel with three children ages 4 and under.
It was work, but they all had fun. We took pictures.
I told way too many “Back when I worked on the railroad” stories.
We survived. But I still cry when telling the story.
I tell this story because I always read those Facebook posts and blogs and quotes about trying to be kinder and less judgmental when you see families struggling out in public.
I can’t help but get angry when someone posts on Facebook or Twitter about a child who is too old to be in a stroller or too old to be using a pacifier. Or that someone walked out of their door and saw a family changing a little boys pants on the street. Or that a baby was crying on an airplane. Or a child was having a tantrum in the grocery store. Or whatever the complaint might be. Being a parent is hard freaking work-special needs or not. No we don’t need your approval but a sympathetic smile or a kind word can make a huge difference in our day.
I always use the quote “Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.
That day it was us. I was drowning that day on the train and that couple saved me with their compassion and empathy.
Think of me and Canyon the next time you want to make judgements about someone’s parenting or a child’s behavior. Instead of being frustrated, annoyed or thinking about how you might make this persons troubles seem funny on Facebook, think of us. And give that other family that little bit of encouragement that just might help them through.