We recently spent "a day out with Thomas," something we have done for the last several years, and it caused GFCF Mommy to become, well, a little introspective, but in a good way. So I thought I'd share our experiences with the useful little blue engine over the years, since I know Thomas is the beloved unofficial best friend of many Princes with ASD. Maybe it will help some of you with young children learn what to expect should Thomas visit your city.
But back to the train museum. Although there is a small, traditional exhibit with photographs, displays and the like, the main attraction are the real trains that visitors are free to explore. You can roam the tracks, climb inside some of the trains that have been restored, and even take short rides on a diesel or two, or a "kiddy-train." In its former life, the museum was a naval air station during WWII, the three tracks and hangers were reincarnated in their current charming form. There is also a room/exhibit with several hand-on Thomas tables, a big screen TV that plays Thomas shows continuously, and several model train collection setups, with one or two usually running.
For years, a treat for us on a rainy afternoon would be to go to the Thomas room. There we would meet others of "our kind," children and adults, diagnosed and not diagnosed. It has always been a very ASD-friendly place, perhaps unintentionally so, but nevertheless, a safe and happy place for our kids.
So, at the height of "Thomasmania" at our house, when the Prince was 3 years old, we were excited when "A Day Out With Thomas" came to our local museum. At that time, we had only been doing the therapy go-round and the diet for about a year. The Prince could hardly speak, was not potty-trained, and had very-heightened sensitivity to noise. But undaunted, convinced our little Thomas aficionado would adore the experience, we bought tickets and anticipated an idyllic family outing with great photos to share with the relatives.
That year, it didn't quite turn out that way.
I am sure the "Day Out With Thomas" differs from venue to venue. At our local museum, there is a fair-like atmosphere that somewhat resembles the seaside amusements at the Island of Sodor. There are bounce houses, food booths (none GFCF, of course), Sir Topham Hat roams around and is available for photo opps. There are organized Thomas-related crafts and games. One coach shows Thomas videos. You can buy any Thomas train, toy, apparel or merchandise of your desire. But the highlight is watching the full-sized little blue engine puff into the station, followed by your ride on Thomas' coaches, and there are more than just Annie and Clarabell.
We ordered our tickets in advance, and arrived, as suggested an hour before our train departure time. Unfortunately, we went straight to the loading area, only to stand in line for an hour. The ambient noise and the waiting were too much for the Prince. By the time Thomas arrived, he was an overstimulated unhappy camper. Next, we boarded the train. Throughout the coaches they are playing the happy songs you hear on the show, loudly. By the time the ride ended, The Prince was in full-blown melt-down mode. So much for our photo opp with Thomas.
The following year, when the Prince was 4. We just skipped it, though we continued to be frequent visitors to the Museum. To our surprise, when the Prince was 5, now potty-trained and very verbal, he requested that we attend "A Day Out With Thomas." We reminded him of our previous experience, but he really wanted to go. By this time, he had 3 years of therapy (OT, ST, some ABA), 2 years of special ed, and the GFCF diet. We also had 3 years of ASD parenting experience and had learned to make accommodations and lower our expectations for events like this.
To our delight, it went fine. We opted not to stand in line as suggested, and arrived at the last minute just to see our blue friend pull into the station. We brought headphones for the ride. We sneaked in our own snacks. We spent more time in the open-field area where the booths were located, hence, less crowd noise. The Prince came home with a few new trains, a James tattoo, and a big smile on his face.
Then there was this year. Thomasmania seems to be on the rise again, but instead of just enjoying carrying around the little trains, one in each hand as he did as a toddler, the Prince takes great pride in using his tracks to create elaborate train runs, throughout our entire house. At age 6, he was looking forward to attending "A Day Out With Thomas" to add to his collection. He rarely watches his Thomas videos anymore, since he is more interested in his track-creations.
So once again, we brought headphones, snacks, and lowered, though hopeful, expectations. We didn't need the headphones. The Prince sat in the coach, chatted with some of the other children, and listened to the Thomas songs. Afterwards, he did say that the noise made him tired, and that he needed a break. We grabbed a picnic table, had a snack, then hit the merchandise area. The Prince even allowed me to take some photos with Thomas, something he could never do in earlier years. It was a family outing like I imagine typical families have. I almost had to pinch myself to make sure it was not a dream.
As I sat in the coach listening to those happy children sing the "Thomas and Friends" song, I almost cried. Perhaps some of the emotion is due to my newly discovered existential awareness which comes from fighting cancer. But I thought back to all the other "days out" we had attended and marveled at how far the Prince, the Professor, and I had come. And I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything.