“Justin, look, the tram is coming!” I say with enthusiasm to my eight-year-old son with moderate autism, who at the moment is attempting to make a break for the parking lot. I have one arm wrapped around his torso, and the other gently turning him so he can see the open-air vehicle that thankfully has made its return to home base, and is about to discharge its passengers. This is our first time at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, and along with my youngest son and my mother, our family is going to give a nighttime tour of the grounds our best shot. It was a bit of a risk, given that we couldn’t reserve a spot on the tram and had no idea how long we’d have to wait on line for one. I’ve been feeling lucky these days however, so we decided to try the tour, knowing that if Justin made it onto our designated transportation he’d be entranced by the beautiful lights and myriad structures gracing the grounds. I figured it was worth taking the chance.
And despite having to wrestle with my child for the eight lousy minutes we had to wait for our ride, it was.
Once Justin realized we were actually going to do something other than wander around a building looking at funky structures encased in glass, he was completely invested in the experience. My mom and Zachary quickly snagged the front bench once the vehicle came to a stop, and as we approached from the opposite site I scooted my son into the middle of the resting car, and wrapped him in the blanket my middle-aged brain had thankfully remembered to bring. Zach curled up next to my mom, similarly ensconced in warm cotton, and before too long, we were off. Justin grabbed my hand underneath our soft throw, squeezing it in metered measures as I responded in kind.
I knew as long as he chose not to depart the vehicle in the middle of the woods (since his mommy would never find her way back), we were golden.
Truly, it was a lovely experience. We passed an enormous, elegant construct created by a ninety-one-year-old Native American woman that put my tired forty-four-year-old self to shame. In the middle of the tour, our guide regaled us with the story of how one artist had recently added an extra to his structure in the form of his infant self (my youngest son Zach particularly loved the baby). Toward the end we even had the opportunity to stop and examine one of the works more closely, and to my delight (and relief) Justin was happy to view a rendition of “The Scream” up close and personal, and equally happy to reboard the tram.
Quite honestly, his eager return was one of my favorite parts of the event.
There was one particular description of a sculpture that particularly resonated with me, an anecdote told to us about a six-foot plexiglass contraption created by Gloria Vanderbilt called “Heart’s Desire”. Contained within its translucent walls, among other items, are dolls, a snake, and a red crystal heart. When interviewed about the significance of the piece, Ms. Vanderbilt had once said the elements inside represented grief, despair, compassion, and hope. When asked what she hoped people experienced when they viewed her work, she responded in part she hoped they’d “see something in a new way”.
And I couldn’t help but think that many families dealing with autism not only cycle through those emotions frequently, but are challenged with viewing the very framework of family in a new way, every single day.
I am ripped from my musings by a particularly strong clench of my hand from Justin’s powerful fingers, and I look down at my son, eyes wide in wonder, clearly enjoying an experience I’d been almost too anxious to take with him. All too quickly our chariot returns to its resting place, and my eldest son practically pushes me off the seat in his efforts to return to our own vehicle, pure determination overtaking his entire demeanor. The moment of wonder is gone, but once again, despite the difficulties autism often presents to our family, we’ve managed to enjoy the event. I grasp his sleeve tightly as we head towards the parking lot, and call to my mother that we’ll meet them at the car.
And as we head back to what my son considers his security and sanctuary, I remind myself to continue to expand my framework of what my child can do, and as much as humanly possible with Justin, always to take a chance.
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