FatherSon Ventures

Building a Relationship through Adventure

Dixieland Concert

Written By: Scot Butwell - Sep• 04•12

It’s a Sunday, and I suggest a family picnic to L. Manhatten Beach, a neighboring city, hosts a summer concert series, so it will be a picnic on a blanket and Dixieland jazz music circa the Roaring 1920’s.

Technically, going together as a family, this will not be a true father-son adventure. But, after we find a spot for our blanket on the hill, and D eats meat sticks and yogurt, we both take off running for the playground.

He runs straight to a twisting, fifteen-foot high, enclosed tube slide. It looks guaranteed to create a dopamine high–for rat or human–especially after sliding down several times, as I notice a dozen kids are repeatedly doing.

D goes down the slide three or four times, and then peers into the gaping hole at the bottom, greeting each new kid as they emerge. He’s laughing at the silliest things, so much has the adrenaline buzz taken over him.

A girl lets loose a high-pitched squeal and the effect of the slide, fellowship with other kids, warm sunshine, cool breeze and the squeal brings forth an effervescent happiness in D, and I am happy to see him so happy.

It’s right at this moment my phone rings. L is calling to tell me the concert is starting, and I have a quandary. The question is, “How do I interrupt D’s fun and get him back to the blanket?”

My previous experience tells me this will not be easy, and I am met with pinches and scratches. D has difficulty with transitions, and this is his mode of communication when he’s upset.

The multiple scratch marks on both my arms reveal his struggle with transitions. “Let’s go see the tuba,” I say, knowing how much he likes tubas from the Veggie Tales theme song.

This is the one strategy I’ve learned through parent training in his ABA therapy to help him deal with transitions: Present a positive reinforcer to gradually ease him towards a compliant behavior.

And it works. The mention of the tuba calms him down, and we reach the blanket–and then after one song–L says she wants to leave. Suddenly, I understand, the reason for D’s difficulty with transitions: anger.

One moment the Dixie music had transported me to a park in America’s heartland, of families spread out on blankets, young girls running barefoot in summer dresses, and boys lazily tossing a football back and forth.

The next moment my reverie was shattered by L wanting to leave, and I wanted to continue listening to the whimsical Dixie music as it wafted up the hill to our blanket where D was laying with his head on my hip.

But now I understand why it is so important to “prime” D before a transition from a “preferred” activity to a less desired one. This is what I needed–some priming–to not get so angry when L wanted to go home.

Yes, I was angry for twenty minutes.

However, I am grateful for this glimpse into my son’s world of emotions, and I plan to prime him before transitionsto help him learn to regulate his emotions better.


I also realize D has a right to express his feelings whenever he is upset, but to not lose his emotional equilibrium at the point of a transition from a “preferred” to a less exciting activity.


“Emotional incontinance,” Rupert Isaacson called his autistic son’s volatile tantrums in his memoir, “The Horse Boy.” He took his wife and five-year-old son, Rowan, on a horseback journey across Mongolia to meet shaman healers to exorcise his son of these neurological firestorms.

But was it the shamans or the adventures of the horseback journey that helped his son overcome his emotional and his physical incontinance? Was  it the courage the journey required to adapt to a foreign land? Or was it just a case of it being time? Development. Or was it a combination of all these elements?

And would his son’s emotional and social progress (he made his first friend) stick once he returned home? Or would it regress and his gains be lost once he left the wilderness of Mongolia and his adventures with shamans and the Reindeer people?

D’s difficulty with transitions has been a matter of me applying what I’ve learned from his therapists, and it was probably the same for Rupert in Mongolia-just practiced thousand of miles from his family’s Texas home.

When his son started to press his chin hard into his skill as usual deep into their horseback journey, Rupert said as he had to his son hundreds of times, “You know, Rowan, the chin on my head is ouchy. But a hand would be nice.”

And it worked. Just as priming has with D. Priming works because–as I’ve learned in recovery–it addresses the underlying root cause of his difficulty with transitions: the emotions triggering his external behavior.


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