An Aspie’s Video Tour of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

I almost didn’t publish this video, but on reflection, I decided it was really important to highlight what things look like through the eyes of a child on the Autistic Spectrum.

Neil has Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. He really wanted to do his own video tour of Clearwater Marine Aquarium. At first, I wanted to hold the camera and follow him around and interview him. But he insisted on doing it himself.

You may not be actually able to watch this video in its entirety (i.e., motion sickness, galore). You’ll see how quickly he moves, and most of the time, the camera is trained on the floor or on other people’s legs. But there are snatches of times when Neil focuses on the animals and tries to interact with them, particularly Winter the Dolphin.

Be aware that this video was taken on a full dose of his medication.

You will also hear Neil’s speech impediment. He has difficulty pronouncing his Rs, and that has been a source of bullying for him.

The reason I feel it’s important to post this is that those on the Autistic Spectrum are rarely, fully understood. Neil has a very high IQ and made straight As during the past academic year. However, you will see the world through his eyes — a rushed blur, where we move very quickly from one thing to the next. The difficult thing, for me, as his mother, is knowing that *he* knows about his challenges. He realizes that he relies heavily on medication to function like the rest of the world. And yet, even with the medication, you’ll see that he definitely is not like other kids.

This further underscores why a place like Clearwater Marine Aquarium is so great for a kid like Neil. This is a place where he has seen that a dolphin without a tail is a superstar and that even though she’s not human, she has overcome so many challenges. He is inspired by her story, and this has fueled his own determination to succeed. He loves to see Winter, because she is a constant reminder to him that no matter what is faced in life, it is possible to survive and thrive.

I actually don’t expect anyone except for family members to watch this video all the way through, and like I said earlier, I almost didn’t post it. But if by seeing even a part of it, you glimpse the world through the eyes of someone on the Autistic Spectrum, I hope it will open your own eyes to how a child like Neil operates.

I hope it will open your own eyes to the beauty of a child’s wonderment and awe and the inspiration that a dolphin has sparked in that child’s mind and heart.


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: