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A triumph -- times two


I pulled into the school parking lot Monday morning and saw what I expected to see: Nolan refusing to get on the bus that would take him and some of his classmates swimming at a local assisted living facility. I saw his teacher, who had asked me to help because this had happened the last two times Nolan was supposed to go swimming but didn’t and had to remain at school, trying like hell to coax him into boarding the bus, but not succeeding.


I climbed the steps to the bus and said, “Hey, buddy. Come on.” He looked at me, hesitantly climbed the steps, and sat on the edge of one of the seats in front. We looked at each other through the bus doors when they closed. I told him it was going to be okay and I would see him in a few minutes at the assisted living facility. The bus drove away, with Nolan still in it.


I did not expect to see that.


I arrived at the assisted living facility and expected to see Nolan either sitting at the edge of the pool or in a chair next to one of the paraprofessionals, refusing to go in the water. He’s become hit-or-miss – more miss – around pools over the last couple years. I expected weeping and gnashing of teeth. Instead, I saw him in the water, enjoying himself. One of the paraprofessionals told me he had gone in after hesitating for only a couple seconds. Save for two pee breaks, which he let me know he needed, he stayed in the pool the entire time he and his classmates were there. He calmly got back on the bus after everyone had dried off and changed back into their clothes, and he went back to school.


I sure as hell didn’t expect to see that. And I’m not sure Nolan’s teachers and paraprofessionals did, either.


Time and again, my son does the opposite of what people expect him to do. The only predictable thing about Nolan is his unpredictability. His adaptive physical education teacher, an awesome, patient dude who thankfully still will work with him next year in high school, told me with a laugh Nolan will do things when Nolan is ready. I told him Cindy and I know that all too well. Nolan wanted to swim Monday. I was proud of him for doing so. His adaptive physical education teacher was proud of him for doing so.


He also told me something before he left the pool area to change his clothes: Always look for the positives. They’re there.


Always look for the positives. They’re there.


Autism frustrates me more than I care to admit, but Nolan’s aversion to water over the last couple years really stung because the kid used to love it. I never learned how to swim, and sometimes I feel about as comfortable in the water as Martin Brody, Roy Scheider’s character in “Jaws.” Cindy and I wanted to make sure Nolan both enjoyed the water and knew how to be safe in it. The three of us participated in a baby swim class. He participated in a few adaptive swimming classes at the YMCA after his diagnosis. I took him to the local aquatic center a few times several summers ago. Two of his birthday parties in grade school were swimming parties. The sight of him going down the water slide with one of his therapists and getting caught up in the madness of being among 14 hyper second-graders when he turned 8 is one of my favorite memories.


Maybe it’s just a coincidence Nolan’s trepidation around water first showed up when he started having some serious gastrointestinal issues toward the end of elementary school. He had a few loose bowel movements in the pool at the assisted living facility, thus shutting down the pool until it could be cleaned. The last one that occurred halfway through fifth grade prompted a call home from Nolan’s then-adaptive physical education teacher, who told us he would not be allowed to swim there the remainder of the school year. Getting him in any type of water that wasn’t our bathtub was nearly impossible after that. He walked the perimeter of the hotel pool and refused to get in during a summer trip to the Twin Cities in 2017. Cindy tried unsuccessfully to get him to go down a water slide when we went to Wisconsin Dells for his 12th birthday. He walked several laps around the waterpark of the resort we stayed at for his 13th birthday, but refused to get in the water.


The staff at Nolan’s middle school has had a little more success the last two-plus years with getting him in the water, both during the school year and during summer school field trips, but it’s still been a struggle. That’s why I choked up when one of the young ladies who worked with Nolan last summer, his first attending a facility that caters to adults and kids with disabilities, got him to go in two different pools. I celebrated this past September when Nolan’s teacher sent me a photo of him playing with a ball and enjoying himself in the pool at the assisted living facility. I really believed he’d turned the corner.

And then came the unknown fear of the bus that takes the students to the pool. That’s where I came in today.


Always look for the positives. They’re there.


I expected this post to take on a much more negative tone almost 24 hours ago. There’s a huge scratch on the driver’s side of my car, the result of me cutting too soon as I backed out of the garage to drive to Nolan’s school. The garage door wouldn’t close after I backed out, so I had to deactivate the opener. I expected to have to drive Nolan to the assisted living facility because he wouldn’t get on the bus, no matter what. I expected him to sit with me for a few minutes by the pool before trying to drag me out of the building. I thought the possibility of a meltdown even after telling him his day wasn’t over was pretty good when I drove him back to school.


But what I got was something unexpected, and very fulfilling.

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