Adventures in Autistic Parenthood

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Kennywood is a local amusement/theme park (has nothing to do with Kenny Rogers) in South Pittsburgh that has been open in one form or another for 111 years. (this is not a history lesson, just bear with me) The company I work for had its yearly Summer Picnic there and Dude, Raine, and I, lured by the promise of free tickets, free drinks and a meal (also free) roused ourselves at the crack of noon and made the 2 hour, 32 mile journey. Yep, you heard me right 2+ hours to get just over 30 miles. Unlike the four or five other theme parks I've visited, Kennywood is nearly impossible to get to from almost any angle. Here's a park that's the Pittsburgh equivalent of Worlds of Fun or Busch Gardens and there is NO 4 lane access that comes closer than 12 miles away. That's 12 miles of narrow city streets, vertical hills, and the only bridge across the Monongahela (mon-on-guh-hay-la) River for 10 miles in either direction that's been under continuous construction since the last time we went to the park 6 years ago. (the same two lanes, it's amazing really, even for Pittsburgh) Dude was very patient through the whole thing, although there were some grumblings from the backseat of the Suburban Assault Vehicle (Blazer) to the tune of 'We gotta get to the Park' or 'Ya wanna ride the coasters?' and every time any one of the 200 traffic lights turned green he was right there behind me 'Go it's green!'. With our DPS (Dude Positioning System) in full working order we finally made it to the Park.

One of the first attractions of KW is when you park in the free lot at the top of the hill there's a ski-lift style ride to the Entrance. Never knowing how Dude will react to new things we approached the lift with some trepidation. I needn't have worried, Dave was all about it from the start. All I heard from him on the way down the hill were things like 'Prepare to go down!' and 'This is a long way up here'. But when I asked him if he liked it he immediately said 'This is So Cool!' so we soon reached the bottom and began our adventure.

As we walked into the Park, Dave walked up to the turnstiles like returning royalty and greeted the ticket ladies with a hearty 'Hey babes, how's it going?'. I almost tripped over my jaw and then started laughing so hard I was getting looks from Rain who hadn't heard what he'd said. There was a brief episode about Raine's shirt with one of the metal detector Nazi-cheerleaders, but it didn't prevent us from entering the park. Briefly, the Steelers (6 time Superbowl champs) and the Penguins (3 time Stanley Cup winners) both won world championships this year and she was wearing a shirt that said 'On Ice or Grass, We'll Kick Your Ass' with logos for both teams. (check the Logjammer pic) The upshot is, we ignored this Tipper Gore mini-me, entered the park, and throughout the day received compliments on the shirt and inquiries on where they could get their own. Including some from other KW employees. Enough of that, on with the show.

One of the many reasons that Kennywood is one of only two theme parks on the National Registry of Historic Places is the fact that it has Three unique wooden roller coasters. The Thunderbolt, the Racer, and the Jackrabbit. (once again, not a history lesson) Dave has always been fascinated with things that move, and has always stopped in his tracks any time there's a show on Coasters or I crank up the toy roller coaster that I got him for Christmas many moons ago. So on our first trip to KW 6 years ago, we immediately went to Raine's favorite coaster the Jackrabbit. One of the cool things about the coasters at KW is the fact that most of them make use of the ravines and valleys to add height to what would otherwise be a mostly average coaster. The Jackrabbit in particular uses a very narrow valley to add a bit of depth to its 'camel hump' or 'double dip' drop on the return where the track levels out briefly and then drops again making you think you're about to be flung out of the car. And therein lay the problem. Everything was more than 'fine' with the whole experience right up until that point. From that moment on he wanted nothing to do with the whole Coaster experience. He couldn't be drug within yards of the start of a line leading up to a roller coaster. Didn't want to talk about roller coasters and couldn't have cared less if John A. Miller had ever been born. (premier wooden coaster designer and patent holder in the early 1900's)

Luckily for us we tried something next that he absolutely loved, and that was the flume-ride called the Logjammer. This was Dave's kind of deal. It had no rails, you got wet at the end, and it had no vomit-inducing bumps that threatened to send you into orbit. We almost couldn't get him off of it. So, armed with this information, and not being able to find the Picnic Pavilion where my company had set up (they moved it) we immediately crossed the park to the Logjammer. After two hours in hot traffic we were in dire need of three things 1) BATHROOM! 2) A quick cool off, and 3)Free food and beverages . So after hitting the restrooms closest to the gate we went for the Logjammer for the cool off, and while we were waiting (impatiently) in line we looked over and found the Pavilion where American Bridge (my employer) was holding our picnic.

It was so cool to be behind Dude on that ride. I had a shock to my brain about halfway through the first hill when I suddenly realized I was in the one place in the area that I didn't have to curb Dude's enthusiasm. He was excited and bouncing around and I didn't have to do a thing except join in. Which I enthusiastically did. By the first drop we were both yelling and waving our arms in the air. Luckily for Raine she was in the back of the 'boat' and wasn't in any actual physical danger from our waving limbs. We were able to step directly (after dragging Dave out of the boat) from the ride exit to the picnic which we all found to be terribly convenient.

Afterwards, refueled with cheeseburgers and side-dishes we leapt back into the fray. We dithered a bit over our next choice of ride knowing Dude was probably still afraid of coasters even after all this time. So what did I do? You got it, I picked the tallest, hairiest, scariest and only steel roller coaster in the park... The Phantom's Revenge. Every time we passed the Phantom, Dave was mesmerized. He tripped over Raine three different times looking up at it whenever he heard the ratchet sound of the chain-dog (a John A. Miller invention) as the cars were pulled up the hill. I asked him several times, "You want to ride that one, Dude?" to which he instantly replied, "No." Despite this I figured that once I got him on a coaster that actually held him down to the seat he'd be fine. Or at least unable to bail out and run away. The amazing thing was that Raine decided to go with us on the only ride in the park that she actually disliked. Once we were going up that first hill both my reluctant riders decided this might be all right. After dropping 160 feet whipping around, up another hill then dropping 228 feet, passing through the Thunderbolt twice and about half a dozen 'double bunny hop' hills and returning breathlessly to the beginning one had changed her mind. While she decided that 'it wasn't so bad' there were still things she didn't like about it and it would probably be another 8 years before she tried it again.

Now there's a peculiar thing about one of the medications that David takes. Prolonged exposure to the sun and heat really wipe him out. So even though we hadn't been at the park all that long (5 hours) the two hours in the truck on the way down and the park time was starting to take its toll. (Raine's problem with the outdoors is entirely different. The sun is her enemy and the house is her cave and place of safety) So after a repeat spritzing at the Logjammer and some more free sodas we decided it was time for Raine and Dude's favorite part of the trip. For Dude it was the Tram-ride back to the truck (I mean, fun is fun but the games are at home) and for Raine it was the stop to buy fudge at the strategically placed candy store on your way out of the gate. (1/2 pound of chocolate and 1/4 lb each of vanilla and chocolate/peanut butter)

All in all it was a successful trip. Despite the difficulties getting there and back out again, and the brief time of our stay, any time we can do something on the 'normal' side with David we can't help but feel satisfied. Now it's time for me to drag out my soapbox and do a tiny bit of 'preaching' (if you fall asleep during the sermon please don't snore too loud, you might wake someone else up) The amazing thing about raising a 'special needs' or 'atypical' child is the often innocuous nature of the things that bring you satisfaction. I mean, we were happy that Dave had fun at the Park, but the most satisfying part had to be the fact that he had a day were he could bounce around and be loud and babbling when he was exited and not be 'different'. Everybody was bouncing around and babbling and excited. A kid in line the second time through the Logjammer engaged Dude in an intermittent but extended conversation and his mother didn't even flinch. People with the kindest intentions still don't often know how to deal with kids like Dave and it shows as reluctance to interact. But for that time, in that place Dude was just another excited kid, in a place for excited kids. I know David couldn't care less, but it's something that everybody that loves Dude or any kid like him aches for to some degree or another. Today David was just another kid having fun at the Amusement Park and that was 'fine'.

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