My family took a break from the chaos of our trans-continental move adventure this past weekend and headed to an amusement park in our new home town of Stockholm. Right inside the gates, our niece, an experienced park visitor, insisted we try out the park’s fun house.
A classic vintage fun house, this one was delightfully creepy, in that old school clown-and-carny sort of way. It played tricks on my senses and despite the domestic setting—it was meant to be a house, after all—I was quickly disoriented by the awkward uneven staircases, distorting mirrors, wobbly floors, rooms pitched at unbelievable angles, optically confusing paint job, psychedelic sounds and what felt like miles of switch-back turning curves. The closest experience I have outside the amusement park is that strange feeling of walking up an escalator that isn’t moving—times 100.
My brain tried to find sensory equilibrium but simply couldn’t. By the end, I felt tipsy and and dizzy, stumbling along to keep up with the kids until we were ejected from the building on a piece of carpet down a long slide. We giggled with relief as we tumbled into the day light.
It struck me that being in the fun house was so like my experience of parenting a child with special needs, especially in a new country. Looking from the outside in, the recognizable elements are there: the kids, a school, a pediatrician, the toys, the hopes, the dreams. But take a step in and the floor starts to shake.
With my typically developing child, things are for the most part as they seem. They started school within 72 hours of our arrival, making friends easily and requiring surprisingly little support. (The response to my query of how the first day of school was: “Fine.”)
But with my son, who has complex special needs, everyday activities often provide a distorted backdrop for a confusing and vertigo-inducing experience. Two weeks after we landed, he was still sitting at home, starting school at a snail’s pace after many bureaucratic obstacles had been overcome. We spent hours on the phone and in doctor’s appointments trying to get a simple medication refill, but were still empty-handed as we reached the end of the bottle.
As a mom of a neurotypical child, I usually feel pretty confident, but parenting my son I’m often confused, disoriented and running to stay upright, just like in the fun house.
The day went on passed and we hit the roller coaster, the carousel and old-time cars. Eventually we found the bumper cars, my son’s favorite. As we got our seat belts on, the tough-looking guy who runs the ride approached us and asked my son, “How many times do you want to ride?” Confused, I answered on his behalf what I believed would be my son’s truth. “As many times as we can.” The mom in me wondered why he was making small talk with us. Sensing my bewilderment, the man explained, “When kids with disabilities ride on my ride, I like to let them take a few extra turns. When the ride ends, don’t leave.” He looked at us both. “Have fun.” And that was that.
More pitching, turning, whiplash, smiles and nausea ensued. This amusement park life of mine definitely isn’t what it seems. That’s not always a bad thing.