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A roller coaster ride with my autistic son reminded me that when we don’t understand what we’re going through, focus on the relationship, not the ride.

At Holiday World Pre Roller Coaster
At Holiday World in 2016. Before the Roller Coaster Ride. Trust me, he’s excited.

“Connor understands more than he lets on.” If I’ve heard that once I’ve heard it 1000 times. I believe it’s true. Autism might have left my son’s world silent but his mind is very active. People who spend any time interacting with him soon come to realize that there’s a lot going on upstairs.

But how much does he really understand? How much can he comprehend this world around him? That’s always a big concern for us and it was at the forefront of our minds when we took 14-year-old Connor and his sister Grace to Holiday World.

When we sit Connor down in a restaurant and he knows exactly what to do–wait for food. Take him to a park and he knows to go play on the slides and swings. But could he understand roller coasters? Could he comprehend a tilt-a-whirl? How would he react to a place designed to make you squeal, laugh, and take your breath away?

Enjoy the Ride?

It was a little late to be asking those questions when we stood in line for The Voyage, one of the best wooden roller coasters in the world. We didn’t know what would happen, but Connor has been pretty agreeable all day. At very worst we thought we would probably get to the front of the line and find out that he didn’t want to get on the roller coaster.

And then, what his mother feared the most happened. He wanted to get on the roller coaster.

Connor on a Roller Coaster
Connor loved the roller coaster. His mother . . . not so much.

He loved it! He snuggled up tightly next to me with a big grin on his face he squealed and laughed and enjoyed the ride. We even got a souvenir picture because he loved it so much.

But here’s the thing, I still don’t think Connor understands what a roller coaster is. I think he has no idea why we went up so high in the air or came down so fast or went around those curves at breakneck speeds. I think there’s only one thing Connor understands and I think that made all the difference.

His daddy was sitting next to him.

Connor loves me, and he knows I love him. Connor trusts me and he knows I would not harm him. And I believe when he can’t comprehend the situation he can still comprehend the relationship.

Like a roller coaster, life has its ups and downs. It can take us on twists and turns that we never imagined. We end up asking a lot of questions. “Why this illness?” “Is there a reason for my pain?” “If God loves me, why am I going through this?” Like Connor, I don’t know that we will ever fathom this ride we are on. All we can do is know the one who is going through it with us.

When he can’t comprehend the situation he can still comprehend the relationship.

Connor and Father on Roller Coaster
Look at that smile! Connor’s is big too!

We cling to Romans 8:28 and we rightly should. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” The mistake we make is spending too much time looking at the “all things” and not enough at the One we love, the One who calls us.

The next time life takes you on the ride you’re not prepared for, just remember, your Daddy is sitting next to you.

Don’t focus on the ride, focus on the relationship.

One of my favorite scenes from Parenthood. Grandma describes her roller coaster ride

Full Disclosure

This is not a happy face
This is NOT a happy face!

Not all roller coaster rides with Connor have been as fun as that one. In 2019 we took a ride that didn’t go so well, but we still learned something from it. I accept full responsibility! You can read about it here.


  • Lindsay Guyer Wilson says:

    Love this! Thank you!

  • Jessica Johnson says:

    Wonderfully written! Glad you all enjoyed the ride!

  • Casey says:

    What a beautiful story! As someone who has dedicated my life to providing therapy and education and support to families and individuals affected by non-speaking autism, it is wonderful to see Holiday World and Splashing Safari feature this story on their Facebook page! I would love to speak to you about your son and what I’ve learned about the Neurologic differences in autism that impact movement/motor planning, and therefore speech. My guess is your son is longing to have a reliable conversation with you about that ride on the Raven! Please reach out to us at Optimal Rhythms / ACCESS Academy in Newburgh, IN. We have a website and Facebook page. 812.490.9401