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


“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.

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.





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!