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.


Darth Vader, Spiderman and Wolverine Battle Stingrays … and a Dolphin

I have to be honest with you.

I really did not think my kid was going to have a great time at Clearwater Marine Aquarium this year. I wasn’t saying it publicly, because I knew a lot of people were checking here for updates on our visit … and frankly, I was afraid that we wouldn’t have a positive story to report.

That’s because we’d just come off of a raucous week at Disney World, Universal Studios and Lego Land. And let me tell you — we did it ALL. We were up by 6:30 a.m. every day, hitting the ground running (literally — you have to run to Space Mountain if you want to beat the hour-long-or-longer wait) … and there were some days that we stayed at the parks for a full 12 to 13 hours. We didn’t stop.

On top of that, it was my kid’s birthday last week, and he’d chosen his destination celebration place as Disney Hollywood. We got into the “Jedi Academy” that day, and he battled Darth Vader on a stage with light saber moves that (I thought) would have put Luke Skywalker to shame.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention momentous meetings with his favorite super heroes at Universal, Spiderman and Wolverine.

The list was endless.

After such a week, was it even possible that a dolphin could hold his interest? If you put Darth Vader, Spiderman and Wolverine in a ring against sea water animals at an aquarium … who would win the battle of charming the child?

But as soon as we walked into Clearwater Marine Aquarium, I wondered to myself why I had even worried.

The reason that this place is so great for children is that here, your kids do get to interact up close with creatures they normally would never see. We paid an extra $5 for Neil to feed stingrays. At our 10:30 a.m. appointed time, we stood at the tank with everyone else while an aquarium staff member lectured about the myths surrounding stingrays, as well as what to do when you pet them (did you know that they’re slimy because they’re covered in a filmy substance akin to Neosporin, which protects them from infection?) … and how to feed them. Then the moment of truth came: Neil was given two fish to feed the stingrays. I have to hand it to him. I never would have picked up one of those fish, much less put my arm into the water and waited for a stingray to snatch it out of my fingers. But he was such a trooper and waited patiently (albeit nervously) while the stingrays circled his arm and then deftly yanked the fish away.

I thought back to two years ago, when we were at that same tank, and Neil didn’t want to leave. He loved watching the stingrays glide through the water. Their motion was so calming, and they actually do interact with the children, lifting their “wings” to touch tiny fingers dipping into the water.

What also surprised me was how the dolphins were also still just as fascinating as they were a couple of years ago. The tweeting/chirping of Winter and the playful antics of the younger dolphin, Hope, were so pleasant and enriching. Just to be near these beautiful animals is an enriching opportunity.

We actually spent seven hours at the aquarium and the downtown museum filled with movie props.

That’s right.

Seven hours.

What did we do there, you may ask?

Absolutely nothing … nothing but enjoy the interactions with some of the most beautiful animals on our planet.

It reminded me of how we chide our children today about playing outside … how we say things like, “When I was your age, I caught lightning bugs and rode bicycles and played hide and seek and climbed trees. Step away from the video game and go outside!” My child in particular fights this like crazy. So I honestly thought that after the high-tech entertainment we’d experienced at the theme parks, plus the excitement of meeting super heroes and villains alike, there would be no way he’d enjoy his visit with Winter like he did before.

Boy, was I wrong.

Not only did he enjoy it … but he was the one begging for “five more minutes” when I announced it was time to go.

Who knew that stingrays and a dolphin would kick Darth Vader, Spiderman and Wolverine to the curb?

Tomorrow we’ll talk about some of the changes to the aquarium! Stay tuned!

And here’s a photo of Neil with the stingrays.Image


Visit Locked for June 24!

We are so excited to be returning to Clearwater Marine Aquarium!

We will be there on June 24-25 to see our old friends Winter, Hope and Nicholas, plus Bailey the Sea Turtle and a couple of very playful otters.

We’re looking forward to seeing how the aquarium has changed and grown since we were there two years ago, too!

Our plans are to hang out in Orlando for one week first, where we will celebrate Neil’s 11th birthday, and then drive to the Western side of Florida to catch up with our favorite sea creatures. We’ll plan on updating the blog then with photos and our observations about how the aquarium is different!

Thanks to everybody who keeps checking back to see what’s going on. We follow our blog statistics and know that we have visitors worldwide, which is super fun.

Your blog visits bring cheer to our days!

Stay tuned for more to come!


“Dolphin Tale 2” Is Coming Out! (And We’re Returning to Clearwater!)

We are so excited!

We just saw the preview for “Dolphin Tale 2,” which is coming out this fall … and the star of the show is Baby Hope!

Hope is the dolphin you see pictured with Neil in the banner of this blog. On our day for our photo shoot, we’d discovered Winter no longer did the photos, but Hope was the chosen dolphin for that day. Hope is a carefree dolphin — and I know that dolphins are carefree and playful by their very nature, but this dolphin is so full of personality.

When we saw the preview, we gave each other high fives in the theater, and Neil shouted, “We have to go back!”

So yes, we’ll be headed back down to Clearwater this summer to see how the aquarium has changed and also to see any updates with how the second movie was filmed there. It should be tons of fun! We can’t wait to see our “friend” Winter and her friends again.

Stay tuned for more!

A New Plug for Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Needs

Recently we’ve been church shopping, and ironically, something happened during one of these Sunday morning excursions recently that made me think about the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

We were trying out this large mega-church. It is a giant facility, and it has all kinds of programs for kids (which I liked a lot), as well as state-of-the-art technology and cool music (which I also liked a lot).

The problem was that I found out that this place is building ANOTHER large facility across town. The pastor stood up and gave this long sermon about how people needed to give money … and the irony is that he’s not even going to preach there. He’s going to preach at the current place, and they are going to do a satellite feed over to church #2 on a big screen.

And the cost for all of this?

Get ready, because this is going to knock your socks off.

$36 million.

That’s right.

Now, I walked out of there, and other than the fact that I was personally affronted at this obvious waste of resources (which could be devoted to feeding starving people in a Third World country, among other things) … was that there are really great places out there that DO deserve your attention and money.

I was comparing in my mind how this church had every conceivable tool and gadget … and how the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was busting at the seams. Yes, they are caring for animals, not people, and some could make an argument that people are more important. But when you see how these animals touch lives like my child’s? Well, to me, there’s just no contest.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is trying to raise funds for a better facility. When we were there in July, they were halfway to their goal — $12 million.

That’s right — by comparison to that church that wants $36 million, this amazing place caring for sick dolphins just needs $12 million. They’ve received about $6 million.

The Hollywood film made it seem like a rich guy had taken care of all of the needs. That was a fictional part of the feel-good story, but I have a feeling that it might have done some harm to the fundraising efforts, because people think the aquarium has been taken care of.

It hasn’t.

So if you do have some extra cash sitting around — and I know it isn’t easy with this economy — but if you can spare a little, please consider giving to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

And in case you’re wondering … we’re not returning to that church I mentioned. If they can’t devote resources in a responsible manner, I also question whether their teaching is correct. But that’s for a different blog.

I can tell you as a first-hand witness, however, that the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is doing right by the money it is receiving. You can be assured that your gifts will be used to brighten the lives of kids like Neil.

Thanks for your attention.

Winter Camp on a Single Mom’s Budget

Many of you who follow this blog already know I’m a single mom. How, you wonder, did I afford to do this? I’m certainly not rolling in money at the moment.

I thought I should do a post about this in case you’re in the same situation and would love to expose your child to this experience.

First of all, the camp isn’t expensive — about $250 for a full week — Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to noon. If you enroll your child for a full day, it goes up to around $400. I know there were parents who had children in the full-day camp, but my observation was that they were Clearwater residents and were using this as part of summer day care while they went to work. My feeling was that Neil had enough of the experience if he attended morning sessions. In the afternoons, we went to the beach, played a round of putt-putt golf, went to an indoor wave surfing attraction and sometimes just cocooned with a good Disney DVD and popcorn. At Clearwater Beach, you’ll enjoy Pier 60, which has family-friendly attractions and a wonderful cafe (great Grouper sandwiches!). And, Clearwater has a wonderful trolley service. For $5 per person, you can ride the “Jolly Trolley” all day and choose your area of the beach for relaxation. Next to the Clearwater public library on the beach is a public pool ($5 admission), and Neil and I spent the afternoon of July 4 there. It was a great break from the sand and surf, and hardly anyone was there!

For Dolphin Camp, there is an extra $50 cost for a back pack filled with snorkeling gear, a beach towel, an underwater camera and sunscreen. You don’t have to buy it, but let me tell you — it’s really worth it, and it’s great to have a back pack and towel as a souvenir (plus, the snorkeling gear is nothing like what you’d find outside of Florida).

As for lodging …I have a lovely uncle who is a New York snowbird. He spends half of the year in Clearwater, and he graciously gave us his home for the week for free, because he was going to be in New York for the summer. That said, if you’re on a tight budget, you might call around to Realtors in Clearwater who handle rental beach properties or even home owners’ associations where snowbirds live, to see if any rent out their homes when they go North.

Because we stayed at my uncle’s home, I was able to save further on meals. This allowed me to have extra cash on hand for souvenir shopping and anything touristy that we wanted to do.

There are plenty of things to do in and around Clearwater as well, but as I’m on such a tight budget right now, I convinced Neil to stick with beach time. The day after our last day of Winter Camp, we drove across Florida to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where for $80, both of us had admission to two days’ worth of out-of-this-world fun.

Rather than fly down, I also chose to take a two day road trip. My AAA membership helped save with lodging. All told, I just spent money for two nights in budget hotels during our 14-hour drive, one night at Kennedy Space Center, gasoline and meals … and the Dolphin Camp admission.

I planned this trip about eight months in advance (starting in October 2011) and saved up a little each month so that I could just pay it without a credit card.

Great fun!

If you want budget saving tips for your trip, let me know.

If I as a single mom can do it, I promise that you can, too!



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: