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Riding the Ferry with Zack

If we lived in the Midwest this story might be titled Riding the Combine with Zack. If we lived in Europe it would probably be called Riding the Train with Zack. But we live in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by water that is often traversed on ferry boats. Fortunately, those have become Zack’s favorite mode of transportation.

Zack has ridden on ferries all his life. At first the loud blast of the ferry’s horn brought shouts of anger and covering of ears; the steep staircases leading to passenger decks prompted tears and biting and the yanking of whoever-was-in-range’s hair, especially going from top to bottom; and the rumbling motors brought on general anxiety. It was easier to stay in the car and attempt to cushion him from the grey, steel world outside than to step into it. If not for grandparents living on an island only accessed by ferry, we would not have ridden these beasts. But visits with grandparents are important, so we rode despite tantrums and episodes of throwing up from sensory overload.

It was during the spring of 2014 that Zack began to point toward the water when I picked him up from daycare and say, “ferry boat.” His grandmother, Mimi, was dying, and I went every Friday to help her. Once school was over for the year, I began to take him with me.

His enjoyment with the ride from Edmonds to Kingston grew. Though Mimi is no longer living, we still regularly drive to downtown Edmonds, park in a three-hour zone, walk to the terminal, slide our tickets through the code reader, maneuver the turnstile, and head up the ramp to ride to the other side.

Going Zack’s Pace

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Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Let me enlighten you. After running for the boat too often, I now give us 20 minutes to make the usual 5-minute trek from car to ferry. That way, we can go Zack’s pace, which is half the speed of a stroll. I wait at every corner for him to push the button that makes the orange hand turn into the white person so we can cross safely (a teaching opportunity).

Then we cross the dicey parts—railroad tracks, which hold a constant threat of the unbearable sound of loud blasts and whistles; and the stretch without signals from one side of the car loading ramp to the other. At these, I take hold of Zack’s coat (or hand if he will let me) and pull with most of my strength, except on rare occasions when he will put his hand on my shoulder and we can move steadily together through the danger zones.

Once we make it safely to the terminal, we are practically home free. After the turnstile, we meander up the ramp and walk on board. I usually take a dozen photos or more—always the same view—of my man-boy peering over the edge to watch each car drive on, his hands up to his mouth as he rubs them back and forth and squeals with delight.

When it comes time for the ferry worker to put the movable fence in place and retract the loading platform, we are ushered to the other side to continue watching. The workers are getting to know us now and soon we’ll be on a first-name basis, but we’ll still have to move. Protocol demands it. Zack doesn’t mind for the most part, and his easy agreement is a blessing, as parents of children with autism can attest.

After the cars are all loaded, workers pull another movable barrier across the end of the boat and the ferry moves away from the slip, churning up water with increasing speed as the jointed car bridge rises. And we’re off. The churning water is one of Zack’s favorite parts.

In summer, we stay outside, but when it’s too cold we go in for the 20-minute voyage. There are often puzzles set up that we work on. I keep my phone in my pocket during these trips, even when my impulse to play a game or text is strong. It’s Zack-time and I want to give him my full attention. He initiates interaction more now than he ever has, which makes it easier for me to focus on him. But in the past I had to keep the interaction going, because he would not demand it. That meant I could live in my own world and let him stay in his, which wasn’t good for either of us.

I’ve come to learn is that no one is going to work harder at communicating with Zack than I will. If I, who love him most (aside from his dad, who loves him just as much), don’t keep him engaged, why would someone else—even if I’m paying them to do so? They will for awhile. But many stop trying. So I am taking back this misplaced responsibility and trying my best … which means riding the ferry and being fully present with my son.

How do you like to spend time with your child?

What music do you blare in the car when you’re all alone?

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Coping with Sensory Overstimulation

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