For the first time as a family, we are taking a vacation. We rented a condo on the Jersey Shore for a week. My daughter with autism, aka Bunny, loves the ocean. Her face lights up when she sees it. She throws herself in, whole body, not caring about the rough surf, getting a mouthful of salt water and sand or losing her bathing suit. She emerges from the sea with her signature cheshire cat grin and infectious giggle. She is part mermaid, I believe. She won’t walk on the sand and asks us to carry her from the water to the beach blanket. She won’t even walk on the sand with her shoes on. She loves the sound of the ocean, the feel of the water on her skin and reflection of the sun. It is where I see her most happy and at home.
On the flip side, her neurotypical sister is afraid of the roaring water and stays on land to build sand castles and chase seagulls, which she calls “eagles”. She won’t even dip her little toes in the sea foam. A true earth sign – a Taurus, whereas Bunny is an Aquarius through and through.
This morning we trekked to the beach with our gear. Bunny shuffled and dragged her feet until she saw the shoreline. Her little sister whimpered that she was too scared to swim. Two older ladies glared at us while we set up camp next to them. I didn’t want to crowd them and I asked if our distance was sufficient. One of them answered in her Philly accent, “as long as your beach umbrella don’t interfere with my tan!” I set up the blanket, digging in with my feet and adjusting my firm grip on Bunny as my husband prepared to go in the water with her. I have a method: I thread my arm through her bathing suit top so she cannot run away, into the ocean. She was pulling me toward the shoreline, trying to step on my feet and random beach blankets to avoid contact with the sand. My husband struggled to secure the umbrella while I struggled to hold on to her. The ladies snickered. “Please hurry!”, I urged him. I knew it was a matter of seconds until Bunny bolted towards the water. He scrambled to get his shirt unbuttoned and the ladies smirked and gave each other glances, mocking our situation and rolling their eyes. Finally, my husband carried Bunny through the sand to the water.
“Are you all set now?” one of the ladies smirked. Her tone was sarcastic.
I stared at her for a second. How could she be mocking us? It just took all my energy to restrain my daughter and prevent her from bolting.
I said, “For now, yes. My older one has autism and she loves the ocean so much she can’t contain herself. My husband has to handle her because the surf is too rough for me.”
She stuttered, “Oh, I was wondering why you were holding on to her.”
“Yes, she’s a water seeker. She is drawn to water. The bigger she gets, the harder it is for me.”
The lady whispered something to her friend. She turned around to face me, “Can I help you? I didn’t realize she had autism.”
I realized she felt bad for making fun of us.
“No, I’m good. My husband is with her and I’m going to entertain the three-year-old.” I pointed to my neurotypical daughter who was playing in the sand with a bucket and shovel, “She is scared of the ocean and won’t go near it.”
The lady laughed nervously and her friend stared at me blankly.
I realize we look odd. Our words are tense and our actions rushed. We look ridiculous. If Bunny was a toddler, it would be acceptable to behave like harried parents. However, we have an older child, who theoretically should have self-control. We spend every moment, at home or in the community, anticipating potential disaster. We cannot rest for a second. We remain on guard. There is no relaxation. There is no downtime. I am always on alert because if I take a back seat, there will be a disaster. We are the opposite of laissez-faire parenting or free-range parenting. We are hyper-vigilant.