Back in my more adventurous days, I traveled to New Zealand with a teacher friend over summer vacation. The first Lord of the Rings movie had been released six months earlier, and I just HAD to see this beautiful country for myself. I was not disappointed! New Zealand is just as magical and breathtaking in person as in the movie, but far safer, as it is freer from goblins, orcs, and trolls than the movie implies.
One thing that I wanted to try while I was there was bungy jumping. If ever I was to bungy jump, Queenstown, the “Adventure Capital of New Zealand” was the place to do it. According to the guidebooks, New Zealand took adventure-sport safety VERY seriously and I, being of a nervous disposition, liked the sound of that.
On that chilly, July morning, my friend and I arrived at the Kawarau River Bridge just outside of Queenstown. I was strangely set in my decision to jump, but I still asked plenty of questions to satisfy my anxious, practical side. The people at AJ Hackett Bungy were used to nerves, and Alex, the bungy jump guy, (not his real name) answered all my questions and quoted their safety records as further proof that they knew what they were doing. He weighed me and asked if I wanted a “regular jump” or a “splash down” where your head goes into the water at the bottom. Holy crap, “regular jump”, please! Then he showed me how he calculated the correct amount of bungy cord based on my weigh. Math – very reassuring!
We walked out to the bridge that spanned a gorge through which a turquoise blue river snaked around corners and out of sight in both directions. The view was spectacular, and between that, the crisp, winter air, and the thought of what I was about to do, I had never felt so alive as that moment.
And “alive” is a pretty great thing to be! So what the hell was I doing jumping off a bridge in a country halfway around the world?!
I took a deep breath and continued to follow Alex. He led me to an area near the edge of the bridge that had a platform sticking out over the water. I commented (several times) that the rocks below looked very close and was he SURE I wouldn’t hit them? Even if I were to swing a little too far to the left? And he was positive that no one had ever hit those rocks before? You know…because they looked REALLY close.
Alex just kept smiling and promising that I would definitely not hit the rocks or the side of the gorge or anything else because he had done the math, and checked the ropes, and secured all the equipment, including a safety harness around my waist, and I would be fine.
I noticed that he was wrapping the cord around my ankles. “What if my hiking boots come off?”
Alex paused, winked at me, and said, “Then you better make sure they’re laced tight, Jennifer!”
It was time to jump.
With both ankles tied together, Alex helped me shuffle to the edge of the platform. As I got to the end, my heart was pounding and my knees were shaking. He told me to look out at the mountains in the distance, and when he counted down to zero I should dive straight out towards them, not down. I looked at the mountains, and he counted down in an enthusiastic “I-love-adrenaline-and-this-is-so-awesome” voice. “5…4…3…2…1…”
And I jumped.
The feeling was unreal those first few seconds. My eyes were closed tight. I was in total scary darkness, my body plummeting toward the rushing water below. When the bungy finally caught me and I went shooting back up in the air, I was hooting and hollering, not just because it was fun but because I was so frickin’ happy to be alive. “Waaaahoooo!” (Thank God, I survived, and the cord didn’t break, and Alex is super-good at math, and I didn’t hit those rocks over there!) “Yeeeaaaaah!”
Proud and exhilarated, I bounced several more times and then dangled upside-down rather unceremoniously while I waited for a boat to come and rescue me.
In so many ways, our son’s diagnosis of autism was like leaping off a bridge into the unknown. We spent a lot of time waiting and looking over the edge. There was no way in hell we were jumping until the experts arrived to help us.
Three months after our son’s initial testing by Birth-to-Three, he was tested again by the Autism Specific team. As we expected, he was given an “educational diagnosis” of autism. This diagnosis would qualify him for educational services, but it was not an actual medical diagnosis. We asked plenty of questions, but there weren’t many definite answers they could give us. There was no way to know when or if he would speak. There was no way to tell at this point how mild or severe his autism might be. There was no way to predict what types of therapies might work or not work. What they did know was that “early intervention” was the key in improving our son’s prognosis.
OK. So far there was no way of knowing how far the drop was, how much rope was needed, or if there were rocks below. This leap was going to be a bit scarier than I thought! At least we knew “early intervention” was the jumping off point.
When I thought of “early intervention”, I imagined therapists coming to our house several hours a day, five days a week, working intensively with our boy doing whatever it is that therapists do, and performing some “early intervention” magic on our son, who would then make miraculous and speedy progress – like a cavalry of autism experts riding in, tipping their hats, and saying, “Not to worry, folks. We’ll take it from here.”
The type of program we received was actually more of a “parent-training” model. An early childhood educator DID come to the house to work with our son, but the goal was to teach ME about autism and intervention strategies that I could use everyday to help him.
This sounds good in theory, but I felt completely overwhelmed. It was as if I had arrived to bungy jump only to have them say they would show me how to calculate the correct rope length, how to set up the safety gear, and how to attach the rope to my ankles, but I would be expected to do all those things myself before leaping from the bridge. Standing on that ledge, I couldn’t help but think that some things are best left to the professionals.
Five days a week a person from the early intervention team would come out for an hour, teach me techniques for working with my son, answer questions, and try to troubleshoot solutions for problems. They were all wonderful, knowledgeable, and caring people, and I tried my best to follow their instructions. But working with my son was not easy. I struggled to get his attention and keep him focused on an activity. It was difficult to slow his constant movement and calm his body long enough to play with a toy or do an activity, my hand guiding his. He would fuss, and scream, and try to get away; I would feel defeated.
As the parent at home, it fell on my shoulders to do most of this therapy. Months went by with no improvement in my son, and the guilt began to weigh heavily in my chest. Soon my anxiety took over, and I felt absolutely paralyzed. I would watch him running back and forth, back and forth, transfixed in his activity, lost in his own world, and my mind would go blank. I felt helpless. Early intervention was the key to a better outlook for my little boy, and precious time was slipping away.
Back and forth he ran, like the swinging of a clock pendulum.
What was wrong with me? All my life I met challenges and difficulties head on. Why was it so difficult for me to find the courage to be my son’s therapist?
As his mom, I just wanted to love him, care for him, and keep him safe, healthy and happy. But I was also supposed to “fix” his autism, and I was failing. I was failing my son, and the pain was almost unbearable.
I had become close with one of our early intervention therapists, and she suggested that I attend a support group for parents of children with special needs. I actually started going to several support groups, some weekly, some monthly. Every meeting I went to I met new moms, learned about strategies and therapies that might work, and got names of specialists and doctors who could help. Sometimes I met a mom only once, and other moms became good friends, but they were all amazingly strong ladies – their strength gave me courage.
It turns out that the “experts” my husband and I had been waiting for on that bridge were moms just like me, moms of children with special needs who had already been in my position before. Some helped us put on our safety gear and warned us about the rocks and obstacles we should avoid below. Others told us how to find experts who could calculate the rope length we might need. We learned that it was good to hope for a “regular jump”, but it was also important to prepare for the possibility of a “splash down” because you never know the future might hold.
This jump has been a lot more terrifying than the last one. We’re flying through the air, waiting for the moment when the cord will catch – that’s when we’ll know everything will be OK. When that happens, you can bet there will be lots of hooting and hollering and celebrating. And then I’ll head back up to help the next mom.