I have an ongoing love affair with the Hawaiian islands. They have captivated my heart ever since my first visit at 18. I’ve been to Hawaii as a tourist, a backpacker, a honeymooner and a mother-to-be, but never before as a mother of a special-needs child.

The last time we went to Hawaii my belly was 6 months swollen. We knew it would be our last real vacation for who knows how long, so we milked it for everything we could: lots of snorkeling, going to the movies and out to dinner, lying on the beach, and reading books uninterruptedly. Since then, I have pined for the islands — the fresh winds, the warm ocean, the lush jungles, the whales and turtles and tropical fish, the relaxed atmosphere.

So when some friends offered to let us housesit at their place in upcountry Maui, we jumped at the chance. We are even missing Thanksgiving, and, trust me, my extended family is not pleased with us. But having an autistic kid is a huge challenge financially, and the opportunity to do Maui on the cheap (bonus miles air tickets, even!) was too irresistible to pass up.

I consciously tried not to lean on old memories of Hawaiian vacations. I reminded myself that Joseph has trouble adjusting to new people and new places, and that this would not be easy on him. I knew I would see other kids his age doing things with enthusiasm and joy, whereas he would be timid and withdrawn.

But, try as I did to steel myself, I wasn’t prepared for being in Hawaii with autism.

Parts of it have been okay – good, even. Joseph has surprised us in his willingness, happiness even, to hike long distances along rather difficult trails. He has some sensory defensiveness going through overgrown places – God forbid a fern should brush against him – but, overall, he copes pretty well.

Staying in one place has been a real blessing. After the first couple of days, Joseph was quite comfortable in the house. It’s quiet and peaceful here, and that has made a real difference to him.

The beach has been hard. For some reason, Joseph has always had trouble with the beach. He just doesn’t know what to do at it. He’s somewhat frightened of the ocean, so swimming is out. Unless we set him up in a role – “Joseph! Let’s build a sand castle!” – he resorts to doing his strange autistic dance with sudden, sharp movements, and singing the Pirates of Caribbean song over and over again. People look strangely at him. It’s embarrassing.

Blue Eyes signed up to finish his scuba diving certification here, which meant that, for two days, Joseph and I were on our own. I had the bright idea of us going to Lahaina with Blue Eyes for his 2nd day of diving, and staying at a resort. This way, Joseph and I could play in the resort’s pools during the day, and Blue Eyes could join us when his training was over.

So we splurged and went to one of the more fancy spots for a night. A beautiful, lagoon-like pool snakes around, inviting you to swim, relax and enjoy yourself.

But Joseph didn’t receive the invitation.

We went first to the kids’ pool. Other children, some much younger than him, went running in, jumping in, shouting and laughing with enthusiasm and joy. They splashed, they swam; they called, “Mom! Watch me!”

Joseph and I spent the morning with me trying to get him comfortable enough to enjoy the wading pool. He resisted. I resisted him resisting. He felt incompetent. So did I. A good time was had by everyone but us.

We finally retreated to our hotel room, where Joseph said he wanted to spend the rest of the day. It was 1pm.

I railed inside. Here we were in Maui, having spent a lot of money to be at this fancy resort, and he wanted to just stay in a hotel room? And play with his trains?

Ok, I reasoned to myself, let’s give him an hour. He needs some time to chill. I turned on the TV and watched Seinfeld while Joseph played. Seinfeld was funny; I laughed – I needed that – and started to let go of my judgments of Joseph and my resistances to being on vacation with autism.

It wasn’t how I wanted it to be. But, I asked myself, was I going to base my happiness on whether or not life was behaving the way I wanted it to? Or could I choose to be happy, content, with what was being given — and not given — right now?

As I got more grounded and centered in my heart, I was able to turn off the TV and be present with Joseph. I was able to love him for who he is. We sat on the patio together while he ate a snack.

I looked at him, feeling the love in my heart. He looked back; we communed deeply with our eyes. Then, suddenly, he chanted a long “Aaauuuuummmmm” and, still chanting, placed his palm on my ajna charka at the spiritual eye. He held it there for about 30 seconds before taking his hand away and smiling at me.

He’d never done that before, and I don’t know where he got the idea to do it. But it lifted me to a new place, where I realized anew that this is a great soul acting out a role. And that this is a role he has taken on as much for me, for my growth and learning, as for his own.

I’ve always loved the Sanskrit phrase smritti, meaning divine remembrance. That little act of Joseph’s has reminded me to look beyond the surface of this life – to see that the embarrassment, the resistances, the heart’s contractions – the messiness of life in general when you have an autistic child – are all leading to a place of openness, strength and ego-unraveling. A place where the channel of love can flow more freely and more fully.

So, yes, on the surface we are simply – and frustratingly — on vacation with autism. But just as diving beneath the surface of a warm Hawaiian ocean allows one to become aware of a whole different world, full of wonder and harmony, we also have the invitation to experience our vacation in a vastly different way.

This is one invitation I don’t want to pass up.

Later that afternoon, we made it back to the pools. More on that in my next post.

Aum, shanti, and aloha.