Her Autistic Son's Magical Trip on the Polar Express

The classic story had comforted her 18-year-old son his entire life. Finally getting to experience the train ride in person was a dream come true. 

Posted in , Oct 15, 2020

Illustration of a boy waiving to a train conductor

“Look at this,” I said to my husband, Lloyd, handing him my phone. “The Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel in Flagstaff has a real-life Polar Express train.” When he pressed “Play,” the ad burst to life with a train whistle.

Our 18-year-old son, Ty, ran into the room and grabbed the phone from his dad. Ty stared at the screen, a huge smile forming on his face.

“Do you want to ride the Polar Express?” Lloyd asked.

Ty nodded.

From the moment he was born, Ty was different. He never cried, not even to eat or have his diaper changed. Tests showed damage to his frontal lobe. He was diagnosed with autism.

We took Ty to one therapist after another, trying to find someone who could help us. I quit my job to stay home with him. The meltdowns started in his toddler years. Ty couldn’t speak and struggled to communicate. He threw himself down and banged his head on the floor in frustration. I would try to hold him, to protect him. But Ty didn’t understand. He fought back. He was three years old when he headbutted me in the face and broke my nose.

One of our doctors encouraged us to put Ty in a home for children with severe disabilities. “I’m sorry, but he will never be able to do anything for himself,” the doctor said. “It would be best for everyone if you institutionalized him.”

That wasn’t something Lloyd and I were willing to even consider.

In 2009 we moved to Arizona for Lloyd’s job. I worried what the change would mean for Ty. When we met his new teacher, I explained about his outbursts. She’d worked with students like Ty before, and their parents. She taught us how to recognize when Ty was getting agitated and what to do.

When I saw the signs of an impending meltdown, I stood directly in front of him without touching him, spoke softly and slowly moved him away from whatever was upsetting him. It worked wonders. Within just a few months, Ty’s violent meltdowns had decreased dramatically.

That same year, my mom gave Ty a picture book for Christmas, The Polar Express. I’d never seen him connect with something so strongly. I read the “choo-choo book” to him multiple times a day.

“Choo-choo!” he’d cry excitedly.

Since Ty said only a few words, I treasured each one.

They’d made The Polar Express into an animated movie, starring Tom Hanks as the conductor. We’d bought Ty the DVD. He loved the song “Hot Chocolate” and hummed it even when it wasn’t playing. He learned to recognize Tom Hanks’s voice in other movies. He watched The Polar Express so often, we wore out the DVD and had to replace it. When we got Ty a service dog—a shepherd mix—they watched The Polar Express together. Ty’s interest hadn’t waned to this day. So when I saw the Polar Express ad on my phone, I just knew we had to go to Flagstaff to see the train in real life.

We booked the holiday trip many months in advance. I planned everything down to the letter, even purchasing matching pajamas for Ty and his service dog. Ty was so excited that we had to make a calendar to count down the days.

The drive was long, but when we checked into our hotel room, a surprise awaited. Ty was thrilled to see that our window looked out over the railroad tracks.

This is going to be the best trip ever, I thought.

We ate in the hotel restaurant, then we went out to the train platform.

“All aboard!” the conductor called out as the Polar Express pulled in.

Ty stiffened. He was reacting to the loud noise and bright lights. Before I could do anything, Ty dropped to the ground, put his hands over his ears and screamed. People backed away and stared.

I hadn’t seen a meltdown coming. 

Ty banged his head on the ground. His service dog moved toward him, but I wanted to handle this on my own.

Lloyd held the dog as I tried to talk to Ty. He swatted me away, then pulled off his shoes and threw them.

“Ty, can you do this?” I said softly. “Can you get on?”

Eventually he calmed down and we moved toward the train. But there were people in line ahead of us. We’d have to wait a little longer.

Ty dropped to the ground again. Instead of deflecting him from the source of his frustration, I tried to coax him up. I knew how much he wanted to do this. I was sure that if we could just get him on the train, everything would be okay.

When it was our turn, the staff tried to help, offering to use the wheelchair lift to get Ty on. I could hear his dog whimpering behind me. With a jolt, I saw tears streaming down Ty’s cheeks.

I’d only seen my son cry actual tears one other time in his life, when he’d said goodbye to his grandpa before we moved to Arizona. I’d pushed Ty too hard.

“Do you need to go back to the room?” I asked him.

Ty threw himself at me and hugged me tight. I looked at Lloyd and shook my head. “It’s time to go.”

I handed Ty to Lloyd and walked ahead of them toward the room. I didn’t want Ty to see me crying. I felt like a terrible mother. I should have taken cues from Ty instead of pushing him to do something that was too much for him.

That night, as I was reading The Polar Express to Ty, someone knocked on the door. It was the train conductor. He asked if he could come in and talk to Ty. My son’s face lit up.

“I’m really sorry you couldn’t get on the train,” the conductor said. “But I have something special for you.”

He handed Ty his pocket watch, a replica of the one in the movie. I’d never seen Ty so happy.

The next day, the railway invited us to come back, free of charge. They made some accommodations, giving us a private train car with softer music and dimmer lights. With a rare dusting of snow on the ground, Ty boarded the train with his service dog. I watched in awe as he interacted with the conductor and with Santa. He’d gotten his dream trip on the Polar Express.

We all had.

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