Last February, Philip’s preschool class concluded a unit on dinosaurs with a visit to a natural history museum.
Philip didn’t go.
Last year, Philip wasn’t ready for such a field trip. There would have been few interactive displays for a boy who, we were just learning, craves sensory input. That is, he craves it until it overwhelms him. We couldn’t envision how much he would learn from sitting in the car for the hour plus drive there, being expected to sit and listen to a presentation and then walking around looking at things he couldn’t touch before the hour drive home from Cleveland. That’s why he didn’t go.
Since that time, things have changed. Philip has changed: he tolerates longer car rides and he demonstrates joint attention. I’ve changed: I’m learning how to prepare for longer trips and excursions in public. And Cleveland has changed: it is now home to The Greater Cleveland Aquarium.
So when I learned that the “Ahoy, There!” unit in Philip’s class would culminate yesterday with a field trip to the aquarium, I eagerly signed up. Things were bumpy, but I would still call the trip a success.
Philip, who struggled to fall asleep the night before thanks to the arrival of another head cold, woke up at 4:21 am. I thought for sure he would nap during the drive to Cleveland, but he only nodded off for a couple of minutes.
Our drive to The Flats was uneventful. We parked and entered The Powerhouse, the home of the aquarium. The historical brick building once served as a power station. Philip was a bit intimidated by the staircases in the four-level building, but recovered once we reached the lobby to await our tour. One of his classmates, a girl who also doesn’t talk much, ventured over and greeted Philip by gently touching his head. Another girl shouted, “Philip’s here!” when she spotted him entering the room.
On Wednesday, Philip’s teacher had forgotten to send home his iPad. This turned out to be a bit of good luck because it gave Mrs. T, his speech therapist, a chance to create a vocabulary set especially for the aquarium. She found us when we arrived and showed Philip some of the new options.
I was excited to observe this process. Had it been left up to me, the iPad would have stayed at home so it couldn’t get lost, stolen or damaged. Also, I’ve still been intimidated by the technology and worried about using it “wrong” with Philip. Watching Mrs. T work with Philip really inspired me to think about setting up a vocabulary set just for home so that Philip has more and more opportunities to use it to communicate. I realized that the only wrong thing I can do is not give Philip more access to the device.
Before the tour began, our group gathered in a large room for a welcome and overview. Our guide explained the layout of the aquarium and a few ground rules for the exhibits (hands out of all freshwater displays, use only two fingers in the touch tank, no flash photography). Before departing, we were given permission to move at our own pace-whether that be faster or slower than the group was up to our children’s needs.
Philip started out with his own entourage. In addition to myself, Mrs. T was by his side with the iPad, and Grandma had joined us on the field trip to provide an extra set of hands. We let Philip set the pace, but I purposely let the rest of the group out in front of us before we entered the exhibits. I knew Philip would want to linger (especially when he saw bubbles!), and I didn’t want him to be overwhelmed by too many people.
After about fifteen minutes, our group entered an area that became crowded. I thought taking Philip for a diaper change would get us out of the bottleneck. It was good timing was since the restroom was vacant except for Philip, Grandma and me. Unfortunately, Philip still became anxious. The anxiety, combined with his cold and fatigue, had lingering effects. He cried. He wanted me to hold and carry him. He lost interest in looking at the displays. Mrs. T decided to put away the iPad since talking to Philip only seemed to prompt tears.
At this point, Philip only stopped occasionally in the galleries. Otherwise, I could tell that he wanted to go. He did not want to stop, did not want to go back, he just wanted to go.
My mom, seeing the time, suspected Philip might be hungry. Philip cried as we climbed the stairs to the second floor. There, we made our way to the cafe and the area in it set aside for our group. We were the only ones there and had our choice of seats. We opted for a booth overlooking the concert pavilion. Philip calmed as he ate up pepperoni and fruit snacks and watched the snow fall.
Once Philip ate his fill, we decided to return to the aquarium. Philip got anxious about going back down the stairs, so our second trip through didn’t seem to be going any better. He walked on his own some more, but was still pulling ahead. I knew that he was tired and decided we would leave as soon as we made our way back to the exit.
Fortunately, our second pass into the coastal zone revealed easy access to the 11,000 gallon touch pool. I rolled up Philip’s sleeves and let him play to his heart’s content. This finally brought a smile to his face.
After he splashed all of the adults observing him for the third time, we moved to the tropical reef displays. I let Philip linger as long as he wanted. Finally, he was comfortable again, like he had been at the beginning of the visit.
We finished our second circuit with a stop at the gift shop. I was under orders from Peter to purchase a t-shirt for Philip. I was worried that Philip wouldn’t let me look at the options, but he was happy to check out the merchandise, too. He didn’t even get upset when I would say “Put that back” or “Don’t touch.”
As we drove home at the end of our two-hour visist, I was surprised that Philip was still awake. Grandma and I sang songs to him. I’ve always known he liked music, but I hadn’t appreciated how much joy he gets from hearing people sing. He had a huge smile on his face as we sang “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” About five minutes after we stopped singing, I heard a quiet “E-I-E-I” from the backseat.
Several miles later, he was asleep.
My dad sent me a text message as we were heading back. The message said, “Is Philip catching fish?”
When we were stopped, I sent him a picture message in reply: