I was a senior VP of Investments and Certified Financial Planner with Smith Barney (now Morgan Stanley) for more than 20 years in Houston, Texas. I got married at 35 to my 42-year-old husband and cranked out two adorable boys – time was a wasting after all. When you have a full time stressful job (is there one that isn’t?) it truly takes a village. We relied heavily on the kindness of not only strangers but also family and hired help.
Our second child, Elliot, was all of 4 weeks old when I felt that something wasn’t right. He didn’t make eye contact (when he nursed!) and seemed to be in perpetual motion. I knew in my gut he had autism. This was 1997, and autism was just starting to be on the radar, as opposed to the full blown epidemic it has since become. Being the kind of person who believes “everything worth doing is worth overdoing,” I jumped into overdrive and surfed the internet until 2 am every morning researching every possible intervention known to man. We did gluten- and casein-free diets, sound therapy, supplements, skin brushing, as well as the traditional speech, occupational, and “floor play” interventions. By this point, my son was living in the back seat of my car and therapists’ offices. Needless to say, it was a crazy ride. Not so great for the marriage either, which is another story.
Then along came 9/11 and after some serious soul searching, I realized I wanted to spend whatever time there was while my kids were still young raising my own children (at this point, we had two full-time nannies) and living in a place where they could play outside without being covered by mosquito bites from head to toe in minutes. We researched various cities that met our criteria (should be safe and have clean air and water, an educated community, and four seasons) around the country. We assessed our financial picture and where we could cut back, and took a leap of faith. We relocated the family to Boulder, Colorado, which had good public schools and more than its fair share of quirky kids. I figured mine would fit right in. Plus we loved to ski. Elliot was then in 1st grade.
Elliot is an amazing kid. It pissed me off when others whispered about him, or didn’t invite him to the birthday parties. Or the worst – was when kids came up to me (I was in the classroom a lot) and said “What’s wrong with Elliot?”
For many years I had talked with my mom about creating a children’s book (she’s a writer, of sorts) that would be geared towards kids NOT on the spectrum to better understand the goofy kid in the classroom that was always humming, or putting things in their mouth (that shouldn’t be in there) or saying super funny but sometimes inappropriate things.
The goal of the book was to have young kids better understand, and ultimately embrace, other children who may not act exactly like they do.
A few years back, I ran into a friend of mine who introduced me to his wife – Sue Baer, who, it turns out, is an award winning children’s book author! Clearly the universe provides when you put it out there – she agreed to write my book for a partnership interest. We worked on the book collaboratively for a couple of years. Then one day while having lunch, I ran into a friend (casual acquaintance really) and mentioned the book and she said that her husband was a publisher who had published children’s books! I called him, pitched it – and he TOO agreed to publish and distribute for his cost plus an equity position in the book!
I should mention that Elliot ALSO helped consult on the book and in the electronic “enhanced” version (soon to follow the print) is featured in a cute video!
Elliot is now successfully navigating college in Sarasota Florida – frankly, something we couldn’t have imagined even 5 years ago. Miracles happen.
While my son was the inspiration for this book, he had only a few of the characteristics we’ve portrayed on these pages. This story is a representation of the behaviors of many children on the spectrum, combined in the person of one child. We hope that children reading it can better understand the different types of behaviors they are likely to see when they look around the classroom. And will celebrate the different kids – because different isn’t scary, once you know the person.
Here’s how Elliot put it on his own FB post about the launch of the book:
I would like to thank my mother for not only getting this (book) together with me, but for never giving up on me, and for raising me to become the man I am today. I hope that the book is successful, and that people take the time to accept that different is good, and that no matter who we are as people, we all have our traits that make us who we are.
I couldn’t be prouder – of Elliot or this labor of love.
To purchase a copy of “Just Elliot”, you can find it on Amazon here:
Maybe your summer was filled with exotic locales and trendy hot spots.
For me and my little guy, this summer’s big travel itinerary didn’t feature beaches, resorts, or wild rides. Nope, our big summer fun was braving a cross-regional road trip: 11 days, 10 nights, 6 hotels throughout the scenic farmlands of Kansas, Missouri, and northern Arkansas. One driver (me) and one 4.5-year old co-pilot, and many, many bathroom stops along the way. It was Mama and W’s Big Adventure, and it was surprisingly manageable and … even fun.
Perhaps you’re a seasoned expert at kid-friendly road trips, maybe you’ve got a streamlined system ready for a patent. Me, I’m just a left-foot-right-footing it mama who had a couple of big family events and a deep love for other people’s stories. Pre-kid, my husband and I regularly blazed a handful of routes across the midwest to see our spread-out family. We’d blast some great music, or listen to an entire (grown up) audio book, making necessary stops with incredible precision and speed.
“I’d like to see that someday,” I’d remark wistfully as we’d whisk past the World’s Largest Prairie Dog and the Historic Carousel attractions. But we always had a schedule to keep — and really, those places are just tourist traps, right?
This time, with just me as the driver and sole kid-wrangler, I decided my main rule would be to attempt to enjoy the journey. And, strange as it might sound, part of enjoying that journey was a hefty amount of pre-trip planning. I decided that I didn’t want to spend more than 4-6 hours per day actually driving — and I wanted to add a buffer for fun and interesting stops. Like an expert travel agent, I researched towns, historic landmarks, parks, museums, and interesting diversions.
To engage my co-pilot (who prefers plans to spontaneity) I crafted a spiral bound book with a map for each day, a picture of our hotel/lodging and the planned stops along the way. I added a mini-review section for each page, “Good, Just Okay, and Not Good” with a space for comments and notes, but reminded him (and myself) that we’d stay open to other possibilities along the route.
I’ve never been great at packing light. Like a good Girl Scout, I just like to be prepared. Ask anyone who knows me — I’ll likely be the one in the group who can pull just about any random thing you might need out of my bag. Extra t-shirt? Snack? Water bottle? Bandaid? Wet-wipes? Toys? I can’t help it. So, even though the weather report predicted triple digit temperatures for most of our trip across the Heartland, I stuffed our rain jackets, sweatshirts, extra pants, and even my favorite puffy vest into our family’s largest and heaviest suitcase. I mean, what if a freak July snowstorm really did occur? My eye-rolling husband would feel silly then!
As it were, weather.com was on the money. Temperatures ranged from 92 – 106 degrees (even at night!) for most of the trip and my favorite green vest sat mocking me in that enormous suitcase the entire time.
I might have overdone it on the clothes. But I got it right on the toys. I cleaned out my gym bag and filled it with gallon-sized ziplocs of: legos, little tiny dinosaurs and animals, matchbox cars, markers, crayons, and art supplies and tons of other toys I can’t remember. Perhaps the most important item of all: rolls of colored painter’s tape, perfect for making roads and cities on hotel room carpets.
Packing the car
My main strategy for car packing — ease of access. Food, snacks, wet wipes and special needs items occupied my passenger seat. The ever-useful portable potty (Pottette Plus) and compostable liners/ bags were stuffed into a drawstring backpack and tucked just behind the driver’s seat, ready for emergency deployment. The gym bag turned toy-palooza sat just under W’s feet where he could hook it with his left toe and procure any of the items he needed. For quick access to books and coloring supplies, I filled an old Duplo Lego bucket and wedged that atop the rear armrest next to his carseat. It was perfect! I was so proud… at least until I took that first hard left turn and sent everything flying across the car.
And of course, the most important/useful item in the car: my trusty prize bag. Whenever we travel, I always prep a small bag of surprises. Little trinkets picked up from the dollar bin at Target, treats W doesn’t usually get to eat, and even a few extra special things like a harmonica (#whatwasithinking?). My grandmother used to do that for my brother and me when we were kids. She put a lot of thought into hers: each small treasure would be stapled inside of a brown paper lunch bag — labeled with the mile marker or landmark where we would finally be able to open the goodies.
Following in Grandma’s footsteps, the first set of W’s prizes on this trip looked lovely, so nicely wrapped in tissue paper. Christmas in July! Genuine glee in the backseat, I tell you! As the trip progressed though, the surprise bag dwindled. So, the little guy and I picked out inexpensive prizes together from museums, a Dollar Store, and a couple of Walmarts. At prize picking time, W would close his eyes and fumble around the bag. “I’m gonna pretend I forgetted what we buyed, okay Mama?” he’d say earnestly.
On the Road
Knowing my little co-pilot would need to stretch his legs (and empty his bladder) frequently, I tried to plan for a multi-purpose, relatively fun stop every couple of hours. Our first official destination (not counting the quick bathroom tour in Arriba) was Parmer Park in Burlington, Colorado. Prior to this trip, Burlington, to me, was simply a blur on Highway 70. People, let me tell you, if you have small folks in your car, Burlington is worth a few minutes of your time.
With a rocket ship-themed playground and a rather impressive splash pad, Parmer Park earned a “Super Good” in little W’s review book. If we would have planned ahead, we could have enjoyed the adjacent swimming pool for just a few bucks, and that would have been a nice way to relieve the 96 degree heat.
Energized after our brief play break, we turned the car east and headed toward the Kansas line. The next pit-stop on our list? One of my favorite gas spots — the beloved Colby Travel Oasis. Boasting a small playground, clean bathrooms, kitschy souvenirs, a Starbucks, a Quiznos and a Qdoba, Exit 53 is always a welcomed sight. After gassing up, little W bounded out of the car toward the scorching playground and I relished a few minutes to check my email under the shade of the tiny picnic pavilion.
Sweaty and worn out, we grabbed some sandwiches for the rest of the day’s drive to Hayes, Kansas where our hotel, and more importantly, the swimming pool, was waiting for us.
That first evening, I knew I made a mistake with the suitcase. It was unbelievably heavy and awkward. Erick never would have packed it that way. I hate it when he’s right. I had to lug the giant suitcase filled with every season of gear (really, what was I thinking!), plus the toy bag — because, toys! — and my computer backpack, and the food bag — because, food! — and the giant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle accompanying us on this journey. It wasn’t pretty, and it looked like we were moving in, but I did it. And though I was tired to the bone, I kept my swimming promise and even had fun in the pool.
Post pool-time, I shuddered when I realized that I couldn’t actually stay up late to write or work or relax — because we’d be hitting the road early in the morning and I had to pack up all of this stuff that had somehow exploded around the room.
The next 11 days are kind of blur, but in a good sort of way. It was never easy, and I was certainly tired. But, I was surprisingly not miserable. Having a checklist of fun stops each day, helped my little guy (and me, too) stay focused on the journey rather than the tedious miles. And sometimes, it was the littlest things that made W smile. On Day 2, in the breakfast area of Holiday Inn Express, we spent 10 minutes watching pancakes emerge from a futuristic-looking contraption.
“Pancakes from a machine? Are you for reals?” little W asked me skeptically.
Apparently, it’s true. Holiday Inn Express has entered a new era of efficiency. No more spilled waffle batter. At this hotel, we simply pressed a button and watched in surprise as a tidy little pancake pushed through heated rollers out onto our plates. The 4 year-old budding engineer was definitely a fan. “Can we buy one of these?”
After stuffing all of our luggage back into the car, we charted course for the day’s first adventure: the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. We got in free with our Denver Museum of Nature and Science card (yay for ASTC reciprocity!) and had a great time touring the impressive dinosaur habitat, the kids’ area, and the decidedly cool Titanaboa exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian. This massive predator was 48 feet long and weighed roughly 2,500 pounds.
That museum stop tided us over to Wichita, Kansas. The promise of a Chuck E Cheese date with some family friends was a decent incentive for the little guy to curb his “Are we there yets” long enough for me to stay sane. Along the way, a gas station with a sub-par restroom received W’s only “sad face” rating of the entire trip. For me, double sad face, maybe triple. Chuck E Cheese, though, was surprisingly delightful. Maybe it was the long drive, maybe it was all the extra tickets the hostess handed the kids in our group, maybe it was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. Regardless, the pizza wasn’t bad, the games were fun, and the company was great.
After cashing in over a hundred tickets on funny sunglasses and tiny toys destined for the odd corners of my car, we loaded up for the day’s final destination, Hampton Inn in Hutchinson, Kansas. There, for the second time, I cursed my need to be prepared for any kind of weather. Why couldn’t I have just packed that stuff in an extra duffle bag and taken the smaller, lighter red suitcase? Seriously. And for the second night, I kept my promise to swim in the pool (even though I was exhausted) and miserably failed on my promise to work on my writing.
In Hutch, we endured the 100+ degree heat (and seemingly 50 percent humidity) to visit wonderful family and some great local attractions. A cute play spot in a mall cooled us off, the free local zoo full of several rescued animals, and many endemic species was informative and educational. It also had a fun little dinosaur-themed play area which was mercifully covered with a sun shade.
We had hoped to also visit the Kansas Cosmosphere or the Dillon Nature Center but we ran out of time. Plus, I was hungry and I really wanted a coffee not made in a hotel lobby. So, we headed to historic Main Street and stumbled upon Brewed Awakenings which served up a good cup of cappuccino and some tasty sandwiches. Next door, we found Smiths Market, an adorable, old-fashioned grocery full of gorgeous fruits, vegetables, specialty food items and interesting toys.
The next day was the best. We donned our hard hats, joined up with family, and explored the Strataca Underground Salt Museum 650 feet below ground. The ride down was admittedly unnerving; a dark, crowded elevator with no way out? Claustrophobia anyone? Fortunately it was quick and the guide had a headlamp. When we piled out of the elevator, we saw what seemed like miles of tunnels and caverns. Exhibits tucked into corners here and there elaborated on the history of mining and methodologies. Little W “oohed and ahhed” over dynamite blasters, and cutters, and other strange machines whose functions I still don’t understand. To his delight, we rode the underground train, touring some of the original areas of the mine. Looking back now, I realize that we really should have opted for the additional special “dark ride” for just a couple of extra bucks. On that one, visitors get to see other tunnels and ‘mine’ their own salt rocks.
Next on our itinerary? Pratt, Kansas. A quaint farming town with historic homesteads and some really nice people. I got to meet a cousin I’ve only really known on Facebook, enjoyed being regaled with tales of my dad’s high school antics, and was treated to a special family tour of The Pratt Education Center, part of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. W loved the fish hatchery, the aquariums, the snakes and salamanders, and the many displays and mounts.
Keeping a tight schedule, we high-tailed it to Joplin, Missouri. Or, at least we tried. On the map, US Hwy 400 seemed like a pretty straight forward choice. Direct, dotted with small towns. I imagined it to be picturesque and perhaps slightly less-traveled.
In actuality, it was desolate. And none of those map dots seemed to be anywhere near the highway. I think we saw one town, one gas station. My first clue should have been the pre-trip Internet searches for a hotel. I couldn’t find anything enroute (with a decent swimming pool) closer than Joplin. Well, that’s not true. I did find one hotel that seemed like it would work out okay. But when I checked the photos online, there were mirrors above the beds — which kind of creeped me out.
Maybe it was the long drive, maybe it was the stale car snacks or the Raffi on repeat, but when I dragged our giant suitcase into the lobby of the Homewood Suites of Joplin, I think I heard angels sing. For a regular hotel, this property was amazing. And though we pulled in past 9pm, the blazing fire pit, the outdoor putting green and the saltwater pool (all open til 11pm) made my little guy’s eyes sparkle like he was on a real vacation. Each room was a mini-apartment, with a separate sitting area and kitchenette so it really did feel a bit like home (especially after the toys came out).
I bought a bottle of Perrier from the front desk and stuck it in the freezer so it would be nice and cold. Then fed the child, went for a whirlwind swim, quick round of putt-the-golf ball, and warmed up by the fire. With little W finally tuckered out and tucked in, I remembered my sparkly water waiting in the freezer. Except it wasn’t. It had exploded everywhere. What was I thinking? For the next half hour, I questioned my brain power while picking out every shard of green glass from the freezer.
My own major gaffe aside, this place was a lot of fun. They had a great breakfast and really lovely staff. Be aware, though, this is a pet-friendly facility. I didn’t know that when I booked it, though I am sure it said so in the fine print. My little guy is often scared of dogs, but he found riding in the elevator with them to be refreshingly fun. So, hooray for that.
The next day of our big adventure we headed toward our second major destination: a surprise anniversary party for Nana and PopPop in northern Arkansas. Along the way, we finally made it to one of W’s most anticipated stops. The Discovery Center of Springfield, Missouri — or as the little guy called it, The Mouth Museum (the website has a photo of a giant, walk-through mouth as part of one of the ‘human body’ exhibits). We used our ATSCA / Denver Museum of Nature and Science card for free admission (yay!) and enjoyed the place so much we added it to our itinerary for the way home. There was a dinosaur dig pit, a giant Operation game, a small magnetic crane, an airplane flying game, an interactive human body exhibit and so much more.
From the museum, we had a rather manageable drive to the beautiful old farm where dear friends put together a lovely celebration for Nana and PopPop. The drive was worth it just to see the smiles on their faces as we snuck across the field. Our Arkansas days were full of family, tractor rides, chigger bites, garden visits, and hammering projects in PopPop’s workshop.
Too soon though, little W and I were hitting the road again, homeward bound. Nana escorted us through the hills and hollers past their house on Bull Shoals Lake up to Branson so we could all play tourists. We visited the Butterfly Palace, which actually does kind of look like a palace. W loved the reptiles and amphibians area, but even more, he enjoyed bolting through the kids’ stuff — a mirror maze (which was surprisingly effective) and a jungle maze made out of bungee cords meant to emulate banyan tree roots. Personally, I enjoyed the tranquil butterfly aviary, which was filled with colorful butterflies, moths, a few birds and the soothing music of a hammered dulcimer.
By this time in the trip, I was feeling pretty good. Like, “Mama, you got this!” We had a rhythm, W and I. We had the snacks flowing, the music playing, the prize box full of surprises … Then it started pouring in Springfield. Big, heaving chunks of sky assaulting the car. I have a thing about driving in storms in the midwest. It totally freaks me out. I got caught in the edge of a massive Kansas storm cell of a tornado back in 2008, and it has kind of left a mark. Eyes scanning the sky for signs of dropping clouds, I squealed into the nearest Starbucks for a coffee and a chance to catch my breath.
Much later, when we finally pulled into Topeka, the friendly desk clerk couldn’t find my reservation and the hotel was solidly booked (summer vacation travelers, maybe?). Turns out, I’d accidentally mixed up the dates for the last couple of nights on the trip. Really? Who does that? Fortunately, with A+ customer service, a few prayers and a fair bit of luck, little W and I were able to finagle ourselves into decent rooms for both nights at two different hotel chains. And even though it was almost 10pm, we went swimming. Hooray.
The next morning, I just couldn’t do another hotel breakfast. So we splurged and found a nearby Denny’s. W must have been hungry, he ate everything in sight, pancakes, bacon, cheesy eggs — gone. My finicky carb-loving kid found his culinary paradise. “Can we come to this awesome restaurant again sometime, Mama?”
Growing a little weary of the car, we dragged out the morning a bit chatting over the last bits of sticky crumbs. First on the agenda of our penultimate morning: the Rolling Hills Zoo and Museum in Salina. Honestly, I didn’t have high expectations and planned to cut the visit a little short. The car temperature gauge was reading 106 degrees and I was starting to feel the pull of the greater Denver area.
But, I had promised; it was in our little trip-tix book and everything. So, we stopped. And I’m glad we did. The spacious facility was clean, with good habitats and very engaging staff and volunteers. We opted for the tram ride — and had the whole thing to ourselves. It turned out to be the best (and perhaps only) way to see the zoo on such a brutally hot day.
And while the zoo itself was nice, it was the museum that was truly impressive. Huge, semi-interactive dioramas featuring animatronics and real waterfalls, on par with what I’d expect to see in a major museum. Separated by regional habitats, we toured Southeast Asian rainforests, the African Savannah, the Arctic Tundra, South Asia and more. We would have toured the bat habitat, but W got too engrossed in the kids area which featured a giant Connect Four game, a reading loft, games and toys. It was a great stop.
When we pulled into Hays at nearly 5pm, we went straight to our last destination of the day: the town’s aquatic park. With several pools, many waterslides (including a kiddie, frog-mouth slide), fountains, a lazy river, and floating animals to climb on, it was a refreshing respite (marred only by the very faint smell of cows). Definitely a solid smiley face from the little guy for this attraction.
The next morning, we made sure to pay tribute to Hays’ herd of Bison before setting our sights on Colorado.
Later, on our return pass through Burlington, we opted for a quick ride on the Kit Carson County Historic Carousel (25 cents!) and a bit of fun in the nearby (very shady) Outback Territory Park. This park was absolutely magical. A giant wooden structure filled with nooks, crannies, slides, bridges and obstacles. A stones’ throw from the Interstate, it was time well spent.
Just a few hours, and a couple of potty breaks later, we were home. We did it, we survived. We had fun. Hooray!
I count the trip as a success, but there are several things that I’d change if I could do it over again. Namely:
Check out new DVDs and music CDs from the library for the little man who decided on day one that he didn’t like ANY of his videos in the case anymore. I didn’t want to deal with online renewals and overdue fines. Just buy some on the road, you savvy travelers might suggest. Trust me, I scoured every gas station, truck stop and Walmart during the trip for copies of the kid-friendly documentaries he’s fond of. Not a single “Garbage Monsters” or “How Do They Build That?” to be found.
Pack a bit more wisely. I should have packed a small travel suitcase of the stuff I knew we’d need along with an extra duffle bag of all the “just in case” items I was afraid we couldn’t live without (we didn’t need any of them).
Buy more prizes ahead of time. I should have taken the time to hit up the Dollar Store for little trinkets for the whole drive. The prizes worked fabulously, but it was a pain to stop several times to add to our bag. Plus, W really liked being truly surprised.