Embracing the Beautiful Mind

If you don’t know anything about autism, I’ll share one thing for you to always remember:

It is not a cookie-cutter condition.

When people say, “My child is on the spectrum,” it means exactly that. There are varying degrees of autism, and every child is such an individual, as are his or her challenges.

In our case, with Asperger’s Syndrome, we’ve had a tough year at public school with bullying issues and little support from administrators and teachers. And my child is very aware that he is different. In his case, his place on the “spectrum” is that he is highly functioning and also very in tune that he’s not always perceiving social cues from his peers correctly.

As his parent, I’m always on the receiving end of comments and attitudes from others who don’t understand him or my parenting decisions that are tailored to his needs.

And you know what? That’s okay. Because at the end of the day, when all is said and done, I tell my child, “You have a beautiful mind, and Mom is going to help other people understand it and appreciate you.”

I suppose that’s one reason I opened this blog up to the public. Originally, I was just going to post some photos and captions for grandparents and aunts and uncles. But then I got to thinking about it. I realized that our experience was significant, not just for how Clearwater Marine Aquarium and its beautiful animals affected Neil, but also because it helps for others to see and understand why.

These photos below pretty much sum it up.

You see my child, standing off by himself, watching the dolphins swim in their tanks.

The amazing and calming effects on him were profound. The ability to see and communicate with a creature so gorgeous, uplifting. The compassion and energy devoted by the aquarium’s staff, encouraging.

But most of all, the chance to just be at rest, to sit and watch dolphins glide gracefully, jump playfully, chirp happily and gaze intently …. simply soul-enriching.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our tale about “Dolphin Tale,” told from our perspective. Feel free to ask questions about autism or our experience.

And thanks for giving us the privilege of sharing it with you.

–Heidi and Neil.






Did We Mention New Friends?

One of the side benefits of attending dolphin camp of course was the opportunity to meet very cool people.

On our last day, I did some antiquing in nearby Dunedin with two new friends while our kiddos went snorkeling. Afterwards, we went to this great “indoor wave” attraction near Clearwater’s Pier 60! It’s really worth it if you make the trip!

Here’s Neil with his little friend and some shots of him catching a wave or two. 😀

We had a blast!

Tune in for some concluding thoughts about dolphin camp and why this memory will stay with us for years to come.

Dolphin Emotions

Earlier this week there was a news story about a dolphin that was “mourning” the loss of her baby calf. She was carrying it on her back, and some fishermen in China caught it on video.

I would have been dubious that this dolphin actually was experiencing an emotion of sadness. Except, while we were at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, we witnessed an encounter with Winter and another dolphin named Panama.

Panama is estimated to be about 40 years old. There are four dolphins at the aquarium: Winter, Panama, Nicholas and Baby Hope (who is in the banner photo here with Neil). We soon learned how to tell the differences. Winter’s was obvious, of course (no tail). Panama was large and had markings on her tummy that the trainers explained were age spots. Nicholas was very dark, and he had pink spots on his back, which were identified as sunburn. And of course, Baby Hope, being the baby, was the smallest and a real clown and a show-off.

On our fifth day at the aquarium, we came in early as usual so that Neil could whistle to Winter. (see previous entry, “The Magical Whistle” about that story)

But on this particular morning, we discovered a large crowd of people in scuba suits sitting on the ground in a circle. And in the middle of the circle, on a large tarp, was Panama.

We asked one of the staff members what was going on, and it was a regular medical check-up. But it required all of those people to lift her from the water and sit around her while it was going on, and then it required all of them to put her back in.

While I was snapping photographs of this (which will be below here …), Neil was whistling to Winter. She was whistling back. And then all of a sudden, she stopped. Panama was being lifted back into the water on her tarp.

Winter swam over to a small gate to the adjacent tank. She put her nose right up against the shut doorway. And she didn’t move.

“Mom,” Neil tugged on my arm while I was snapping the camera. “Mom, look at Winter. She stopped whistling. She’s worried about Panama.”

Sure enough, as soon as Panama was back in the water, Winter swam away from the gate and started whistling at Neil again.

We both were touched and amazed at these creatures. How did she know her “friend” was out of the water? There would be no way for her to see what was going on. But the minute that the other dolphin was in, she was fine again.

Here are my photos of the procedure of getting Panama back in … and lastly, a photo of Winter as she waited for Panama to be put back in the tank:

You Put de Lime in de Coconut ….

Did I mention they have amazing coconut sorbet from South Africa in their little snack bar at the aquarium?

As Neil would say … “O.M.G.H!” (He started saying OMGH to represent, “Oh my gosh” so that I’d stop fussing at him for saying OMG ….)

This stuff is FANTASTIC.

Take a mini break from the story with this little snapshot of the truly terrific tastebud memory ….

Stingray Therapy

When you have a child on the autistic “spectrum,” any moment of peace is a moment to be cherished.

One thing that really amazed me about Neil’s time at the aquarium was its calming effects on him. To look at the place, it’s not at all like a Disney World or Sea World experience. There isn’t any glitz or glamor, flash or fanfare. The paint is chipping. The passageways have puddles. The stairwells are crumbling. The physical surroundings are that of a place struggling to make it, despite all of the hype and crowds that the movie has generated.

But there is soothing music constantly playing from the movie soundtrack.

And despite the numbers of people, you have the one-on-one contact with the sea creatures.

Neil would stand at these tanks and just stare. Most children would stick their hand in a tank and scurry off. But Neil concentrated on the animals’ graceful gliding through the water. He’d gently touch the edge of a stingray’s “wing” and then wait patiently for it to circle around again. He’d speak quietly, coaxing, whispering, whistling. And the sea creatures always responded.

I took to calling it, “Stingray Therapy.”

I didn’t rush him. As hot and uncomfortable as it was, this communing, as it were, was a time belonging to Neil, one upon which I did not want to impose.

After the horrible bullying he experienced in our public school this past spring, these peaceful encounters were like nourishing cold water after a lengthy trudge through the Sahara.

Here are some photos from one encounter with stingrays. They’re a little hazy, but I was snapping the camera non-stop, to try to capture the give-and-take between Neil and his new friends:

Asperger’s Syndrome Meets a Photo Shoot

Neil has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.

As a result, when it comes to something as magnanimous as getting your photo taken with a dolphin who starred in a major motion picture, you can see there would be a lot of dynamics at work. For a regular kid, the excitement is enough to send them through the roof. For a kid like Neil, who is extremely meticulous with detail and who expects plans to match his expectations, this is more excruciating than exciting.

Nonetheless, I endeavored to make arrangements for a photo shoot with Winter, which according to the Web site, would cost $40. I had a long conversation with a reservations clerk the Wednesday before we left on our trip. She told me that Neil would have his photo made with Winter on the 4th of July.

“I’ll bet this will make this 4th of July memorable for him!” she said. I couldn’t have agreed more.

The only problem was, unbeknownst to us, the aquarium no longer allows photos to be made with Winter, because of her health issues. And the directions from the reservation clerk about what to do on the day of the appointment were nil.

So two days before this occurred, I stopped in to the guest services office to find out exactly where we were supposed to go. The aquarium is packed with so many people that I didn’t want us to get lost in the crowd.

To make a very long story short, we stood by this pole, waiting for someone to get us, for 45 minutes, surrounded by people, in intense heat, and with no clue whether we were forgotten. Having Asperger’s, Neil is very insistent, so he proceeded to ask different trainers and staff members when his photo shoot would take place. Everyone pointed to the same pole in the middle of the tanks and said, “Stand there.”

We stood.

And stood.

And stood some more.

Finally, Neil approached a couple of trainers, who told him with much exasperation that his photo wasn’t even going to be with Winter. It would be with another dolphin named Hope.

Are you a parent of a child with Asperger’s? If you are, you will completely understand the eruption that ensued.

To the rest of the world, it would have looked like a badly spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum and a laissez-faire mother with absolutely no discipline in her parenting repertoire. But if you have an autistic kid, you already get that this was practically a death knell.

We were instructed to go back to Guest Services, and the polite grandmotherly ladies there explained why Winter couldn’t be photographed with Neil. Neil is one of those kids who, if provided rational and respectful discussion, will immediately grasp the information and decompress and accept it. We were fortunate in this instance that the Guest Services ladies knew how to communicate. The dolphin trainers, on the other hand? Given the volatility of the situation and my obvious bias, I’ll leave out my opinion on that one.

In the end, we did get the photo opportunity, and here is Neil with Hope. I guess I decided to blog this one negative experience out of the entire positive series because I do want people to hear and understand that kids with Asperger’s just need a little extra TLC. They’re very smart, but in our case, this could have turned out much worse than it did. So many thanks go out to the Guest Services department at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Here are the photos …. you’ll see that all ended well:






The Magical Whistle

We were early for Dolphin Camp one morning and were just about the only people in the aquarium besides the staff. Neil and I decided to stand next to the tank containing Winter.

“Mommy, I have an idea,” Neil said, looking at the dolphin, who was on the farthest side of the pool away from us. “I’m going to whistle at Winter, just like Sawyer did in the movie.”

For those of you who haven’t seen, “Dolphin Tale,” Sawyer is the boy who finds Winter stranded on the beach. He whistles while he waits for the rescue team from the aquarium. Winter whistles back in response until she’s taken away.

Later in the film, Sawyer arrives at the aquarium to see her. Winter whistles when she hears his voice.

So Neil decided he’d whistle, too.

And you know what?

Winter whistled back.

They ping-ponged this way for about 10 minutes. Sometimes Winter would stay on her side of the tank and whistle and wait for Neil to whistle. Other times, she swam to the corner of the tank where Neil was standing and then move her head so that she could eyeball him. She’d whistle again and then would go back to the other side. She did this about three times.

Here’s the cool thing: For the three days after that, whenever we could get a chance to be near her tank, Neil would whistle. And Winter would respond. Ironically, some other children picked up what Neil was doing, and they whistled, too. But our perspective was that Winter only responded when she heard Neil’s specific call. Who knows???? We’d like to think we had our own special connection with her.

I took some photos during one of these exchanges, and here she is, swimming back and forth towards and away from us:






A Dash of Hollywood

Expect movie props galore at Clearwater Marine Aquarium when you visit. This shark head was kinda cool ….

And if you’ve watched “Dolphin Tale” a million times like we have since the DVD came out in December, you’ll see lots of signs of places you recognize in the film … like this one. It shows you the scene where the two kids hung out in sleeping bags with Harry Connick Jr. while they “babysat” Winter for her recovery:

Then you step back and gain your perspective and see exactly where those dudes were sitting:

And throughout the place, there are occasionally video scenes that play and replay, so you can get the full picture that Hollywood actually sprinkled its pixie dust here:

But of course the best part of all is the interaction with the movie’s real star:

Check back for part 5 of our tale, when we’ll share exactly how this wonderful dolphin made a personal impact on Neil.

A Tight Space

Halfway there!

Because of the ending of the movie, “Dolphin Tale,” which told a story of a rich guy bailing out the aquarium and giving them the funds they needed, I naturally assumed that this place was a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art, Disney-esque facility.


I really have to hand it to the folks here. They’re running a well-oiled operation in a run-down building.

You know how,  in the movie, the aquarium looks a little raggedy on the edges, with chipped paint, crumbly stairwells, small tanks and open non-air-conditioned spaces?

Well guess what?

What you see on the movie screen is exactly what this place looks like in real life.

In fact, it is the aquarium in real life!

The only difference is, in the movie, the aquarium was hardly known to the public. But today, because of the movie, it’s teeming with people! Today was our last day there, a Friday, and it was so difficult to move around that I was actually relieved to be leaving.

Now if you’re an aquarium supporter, don’t take this the wrong way. I’m very impressed with what I saw and with the camp that Neil attended, actually, more so now, knowing the challenges that persist.

That’s why I took a photo of Neil standing in front of this fundraising sign. Even with all of the people pouring in, even with the gift shop sales, even with the dozens of day campers like Neil … they’re still only halfway to their fundraising goal, as you can see.

I’ll be honest. I approached this trip with a little bit of trepidation, having read some online reviews. One in particular that stands out in my mind said, “This place was not worth the money,” and then continued on to trash it.

That type of evaluation is just not fair.

You get to see these gorgeous sea animals up close, with no glass in between you, and sometimes, you even get to touch them. And as you’ll see in upcoming entries, you may be as fortunate as we were and have personal encounters that will stay with you for life. Remember, this is an animal hospital. It was never designed to be a Sea World or even something akin to the aquarium at Disney World’s Epcot. Its main objective was never to entertain the masses. That has just come about because of the success of a Hollywood film.

In my book, the staff is handling everything with much aplomb.

Yes. I witnessed a bit of grumpiness occasionally. But I had to remind myself that these people are caring for sick creatures. I might be a little grumpy, too, if all of a sudden thousands of people were showing up, expecting me to be as cheerful as a Disney princess.

In the next few days, I’ll show you some of the ways that we personally benefited from being on site during Neil’s camp with Winter. And I hope that by the time you finish reading, you’ll agree that this aquarium deserves support.

Tune in for part 4 of our adventure!

Turtle Power & “TED”

Yes, yes, we know you want to know all about Winter and Neil’s adventures, but before we get to that ….

It’s not all about dolphins at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This place is all about rescuing sea animals in distress.

For example, check out this cool contraption, known as “TED” — or, Turtle Excluder Device. The aquarium has one large enough through which munchkins can crawl. But these actually allow a captured sea turtle to escape fishermens’ nets.

We also had a chance to hold a turtle skull and learn about its head structure.

One of Neil’s favorite animals at the aquarium is a sea turtle named, “Bailey.”

This is NOT Bailey, but she was easier to photograph 😀 —