Breaking Free of the Cage at the Zoo

When Tyler was a baby, we started taking him to the zoo. At first it was in a stroller, but very soon we were able to let him walk around. Those first walking trips were very enlightening. Tyler didn’t want to look at the animals. He would pick a couple trees and just wander around them and look at them. If we tried to get him to do anything else, he became very upset. I love going to the zoo because I love to see the animals, so having to change my goal of doing what I wanted to do and doing what Tyler wanted to do was a little disappointing. Needless to say, we didn’t go to the zoo very much during this time because, honestly, you can find trees to look at closer to home.

Then Ash was born and we decided we needed to go more often. We would make it to the howler monkeys and the elephant and then Tyler would become very upset. Tyler had decided upon a specific route that had to be continuously followed. If we paused or strayed from the path, he would start crying and then yelling. He would grab my hand and keep pulling. When I resisted, he would collapse on the ground and cry even harder. This is when we would leave the zoo with me walking very quickly while holding a screaming child and my husband following behind while trying to show Ash as many animals as possible as they passed them on the way out.

As time we on, we were able to make it farther and farther into the zoo. The zoo opened a penguin exhibit. Tyler never attached to any specific toy or stuffed animal, but the first one he would sometimes carry with him around the house was a stuffed penguin that he called “Buster.” I was delighted to see him finally form an attachment to something, so when the penguins came to the zoo I was very excited to take him to see them. That is now the first place we go every time we go to the zoo. It is also the only exhibit he will pause at to look at the animals. So now it is the penguins and then the elephant.

The highlight of every zoo trip!

The highlight of every zoo trip!

The reptile house is after the elephant and this was always a place where Tyler will become very upset if we linger or try to go inside. He will become very insistent that there are no animals over there and grab my hand to pull me along. We used to try to encourage him to go inside because we like the reptile house but after having to leave the zoo so many times over this issue, I finally decided that we were not going to press him anymore on this.

Then we would go down the hill to the pond to look at the turtles and waterfowl. Tyler does not actually stop to look at anything for more than a second. It is like he is not there to look at the animals, but to get to the finish line. Once down to the pond, it is fairly easy to get him to walk along it past the flamingos. At which point he discovered a playground! Tyler’s most favorite thing in the whole world. Tyler is happiest if he is sliding or climbing something. Usually he will play on a playground for as long as possible, but not at the zoo. Nope, this one is good for one or two slides and then we are off again!

The petting zoo area is hard each time because Tyler really doesn’t like it but Ash loves farm animals. So this is usually where Tyler is pushed to his limits the most and he is practically running to move on by the time Ash has looked at all the chickens, goats, and cows.

Then we would get to the circles. Two exhibits at the zoo are in a circle pattern. The small carnivores and the bears. We would get to the small carnivore exhibit and start going around. Then we would get to the end and Tyler wouldn’t understand that we had finished the circle. He would have to keep going around and around the same exhibit until we got to the end (curse circles!). This became another hot spot for meltdowns which resulted in leaving with a screaming child. This was my least favorite place for a meltdown because I literally had to walk the entire length of the zoo with a screaming child and every time I paused to readjust him he would yell, “Car! Car!” A couple of places on the path he could see a parking lot through the trees on the other side of the fence and would be even more upset that we couldn’t walk straight through to it, so then I would be holding a screaming child who was fighting and kicking me. My mom was with me once when he had a circle exhibit meltdown. I think it really helped her to understand why I usually don’t take the boys places by myself. One person cannot handle an autistic child in meltdown and another toddler at the same time…especially if you have to walk the length of a zoo.

Eventually, we were able to help Tyler understand the concept of the circle exhibits and move on to the full zoo experience. It was still a whirlwind trip. Tyler won’t stop to look at the animals and Ash loves to stop and look a them. Zoo trips have a minimum requirement of two adults, but I prefer three. Get four and the other two start talking and somehow I end up alone on the far side of the reptile house with a kicking, screaming Tyler and I want to kick and scream at my friends.

But if we kept to the path and kept moving at a reasonably brisk rate and kept encouraging Tyler to wait for Ash, we could do an entire zoo experience and leave happy! This was wonderful! But it was definitely “Tyler’s Train” and Tyler’s show.

Last weekend we went to the zoo with some new friends. They had actually never been to the zoo in our city so they were very excited to be going. As we were going through the entrance, one of them tells me she wants to do the rides. My heart rate went from normal to freight train in about 1.5 seconds. This wasn’t good. I was going to be leaving the zoo with a screaming child. I looked at my husband and he gave me a look back that said, “We can’t tell them not to do the rides.” So I decided to be on top of my game and do a lot of distraction and what I call, “happy talk.” i.e., Oh look, a tree! What an awesome tree! Do you think a wolf lives there? Let’s go look for a really long time! This is good for about 5 seconds. But what other option did I have?

I could tell pretty early on that we were going to have some problems. There was pausing and discussing and Tyler was already getting a little upset. I kinda tried to slip a few comments about how important it was for Tyler to do his thing so we wouldn’t have to leave the zoo with him upset. We made it to the penguin exhibit and the elephants. And then the reptile house came up. Our friends wanted to go into the reptile house. As we approached, my husband tried to distract him by getting him to look at the crocodiles that were in a pen right outside the door. “No animals in there! No animals in there!” Tyler kept saying. In an attempt to refuse looking at the crocodiles, he went with our friend into the reptile house. Huh.

My proof that it happened and wasn't just a dream!

My proof that it happened and wasn’t just a dream!

After that, we did a little more pushing against the normal routine. There were still some times when he would become very upset about a change and I would let him have a break, but I was really interested in seeing what we could get him to do. We even made it into the bird house at the end before we got to the monkeys and were able to look around for about five minutes.

In a house full of birds and they are looking at the waterfall.

In a house full of birds and they are looking at the itty bitty little waterfall.

We also were able to finally play on the big playground by the food area. For some reason we when we go, it is always closed. But not last time and I think this play time really helped Tyler blow off some tension from the farm area and the circle exhibits.

Yes, this is the type of thing Tyler likes to do.  And yes, I will probably need HPB medicine at an early age.

Yes, this is the type of thing Tyler likes to do. And yes, I will probably need HBP medicine at an early age.

I knew that going to the zoo was stressful for Tyler because of his autism. I knew that he would need to have some control over the situation in order to keep everything from overwhelming him, and that allowing him this control was the only way to keep from having to leave the zoo mid-meltdown. What I experienced this past weekend was something new. He has the routine now. He knows the path and what to expect. So maybe now that so many of the elements of the zoo have become more familiar and more constant, he is able to handle a little improvisation.

And then I worry, what if he was ready for this the last time we went to the zoo (or the time before that), but my own anticipation was holding him back. I didn’t want to leave the path or to pause because I didn’t want to have the zoo trip ruined. I wanted everyone to have a nice time and I didn’t want to go through the experience of watching Tyler become so upset. And then I have to tell myself to shut up. I love Tyler and would never intentionally hold him back on anything.

But at the same time I cannot become comfortable with where he is in his development. I have to keep growing with him and keep my mind open to trying new things as he is able to do them. I am constantly working with him on his emotions and speech, but places like the zoo and big, crowded, crazy places can be outside both of our comfort zones.

One year ago I do not think I could have imagined being where we are today with Tyler. His ability to talk with us, to hug us, and now to reach a little further outside of his comfort zone. I am very encouraged about what this can mean for us as a family and what it can mean for Tyler as he begins school in a couple of months and as he grows into a man. As I grew up, I learned what a hollow phrase “You can be anything you want to be” can be. Some people will not get into medical school and become doctors. Some gymnasts will not make it to the Olympics. But now I realize that being a doctor or an Olympic gymnast isn’t “who” that person is. “You can be anything you want to be” doesn’t mean Tyler will fit in at school or be able to easily express himself if he tries hard enough. It means Tyler can fulfill his potential if he keeps reaching for it and that no matter what it is, it will be beautiful and wonderful and very Tyler.

Just as I mourn the child locked inside Tyler, I would mourn the Tyler I know if he were to wake up tomorrow and be “normal.” Tyler is autistic. That is something very fundamental about every part of him. It will be something that contributes to him growing into the person he was ultimately born to become. I will do everything in my power to help him reach his potential and to always help him overcome his obstacles in life.

We are so blessed as a family that Tyler will have so many opportunities to grow and improve and reach out to the world around him. That is why I want to do as much as I can for the other families in Arkansas who will not experience the same opportunities with their loved one. Many autistic individuals will not be able to do the things that Tyler will be able to do. If today, Tyler had still not said, “I love you,” or started hugging me, or been able to do a few extra things at the zoo, I do not know what my heart would look like. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for struggling caregivers of children who will never say, “I love you” in words. They say it in other ways, but something about those words is so sweet to a mother’s ears. There are ways to help autistic children learn to communicate better, but they are expensive and more research needs to be done if we are to hopefully see a day where every autistic child can say the words, “I love to” to their mother or father. If you would like to help these families, please consider donating to my Walk Now for Autism Speaks fund or directly to Autism Speaks ( or AAROC ( My Walk Fund is

Thank you for reading my blog!

(C) Rachel Flinchum 7/1/2013


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