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Gray Matter

Mom's hunt with autistic son gives hope, gray hairs

Mom and son pose at the event before turkey hunting. Mom and son pose at the event before turkey hunting.

By: Heidi Stanislawski Suchan, Special to OutdoorChannel.com

HUNTINGDON, Tenn. – Thank God for hair dye. Little boys should automatically come with it – or at the very least a ton of Nice ‘n Easy coupons in the goody bag from the hospital.

I’m sure I earned several dozen more gray hairs in the days approaching my son’s first hunt. The plan was to take him turkey hunting, and the gray hair issue was the shotgun -- I was afraid he would know how to use it.

Like most 8-year-old boys, anything longish that he can lift to his eye makes a good pretend gun. A fallen tree branch in the backyard acts as a sniper rifle as Mason creeps alongside the fence, peeking around the corner of the house and taking aim at anything that breathes.

To my dismay, he is a pro at what I call “shoot ‘em up” video games. His father had argued the benefits to Mason’s hand-eye coordination, and I have to admit I marvel at his technical skill.

Perhaps it’s his excellent marksmanship on Call of Duty that makes me nervous about a real gun.  I’m not as concerned about him hurting himself as I am his ability to take out everyone in a 50-yard radius before he realizes what he’s doing. My son has very poor impulse control. He’s not like most 8-year-old boys. Mason has autism.

Mason’s daycare provider gently pointed out his “differences” when he was a toddler. By age 2 his daily routine included physical, occupational, and speech-language therapies.  The official diagnosis came at 4, hand-in-hand with Mommy’s prematurely gray hair.

Currently, Mason is a bright boy who reads above his second-grade level and is adored by his teachers and therapists. Unfortunately, the sentiment isn’t shared by peers or casual acquaintances.

Although he is loving and eager to make friends, Mason’s poor social coordination, impaired communication skills, and sometimes impulsive, aggressive behaviors make most interactions a challenge. Adding medication last year has curbed some impulsive behavior, but the common side effect of weight gain compounds the teasing and rejection by peers.

Naturally, I want Mason to enjoy the same activities other children do. Team sports are not an option since Mason can only follow simple, one- or two-part instructions at a time. Fishing is a family favorite, but it’s too unpredictable.

Autism is usually accompanied by inflexibility in terms of structure and routine. Mason does best with concrete ideas, tangible objects, and a schedule. If prepared for a new adventure with pictures and information, he can be successful.

I learned about the Northwest Tennessee Kids Hunting for a Cure event, and decided to let Mason hunt. It was obvious he liked the concept of shooting at stuff. So began my thoughts of shotguns and multiplying gray hairs.

I was pregnant with Mason when I got my concealed carry permit; his sister Victoria was six. I sat down with her and my 9mm and explained everything about the gun, letting her take it apart and put it together. We went to an indoor shooting range, and I removed her ear protection for one firing so she would appreciate the unpleasant sound.

I told her where I would keep it, and that if she ever wanted to see or touch it, to let me know first. She asked about the gun a week later, so together we handled the gun again. She never gave it another thought after that.

Why had I treated Mason so differently? I had been afraid that Mason would know how to use a gun if he held one. I’d let his diagnosis prevent some very important safety lessons. My line of thinking needed a wake-up call.

His gun safety lessons began with a Red Ryder BB gun. Mason had to demonstrate how to carry and store it properly before being allowed to shoot. Then we took aim at cans lined up by our pond. After a few days I gradually moved the cans closer to the water. I was proud and a little embarrassed when he proved to be a better shot than his old lady.

I told him about the upcoming youth hunt and showed him pictures and videos of other kids and their turkey kills. Without hesitation he asked, “If I get one, can we put it on the wall? You know, like those deer heads?” It was all he would talk about until the day we left for Huntingdon.

We arrived at Fred Johnsey’s place two nights before the hunt. “Mr. Fred” would be our guide Saturday morning. He showed us around the cabin, and got to know about us and my concerns for Mason as we settled in.

To make the experience as authentic as possible, I’d only allowed Mason to bring his handheld Nintendo with one game. As I readied him for bed, he stood clutching it to his chest. “I want to go home. I miss my toys and my tv!”

“Honey, this will be different and fun. Without all that stuff we can spend more time together. Sometimes it’s good to get away from it all.”

He clutched the Nintendo tighter and a tear fell from one eye. “But I don’t want to get away from it all! I like having it close!”

After Mason nodded off, the adults relaxed and Fred talked about the NW Tennessee Kids Hunting for a Cure and what to expect on our hunt.

The organizers had secured enough donated land that the participating youths would not hunt in close proximity of one another. Each child was assigned their own experienced guide. Some guides were big names in turkey hunting – some were world champion callers.

Fred told me that he would have control of the weapon at all times except the moment Mason would have to shoot his bird, and even then he’d be close enough to gain control immediately. Fred wanted me to position myself in the natural blind so that Mason would be between us, which further reassured me. With two diligent adults flanking him, surely we could handle one autistic 8-year-old with a .20-gauge shotgun.

The Hunt

I am not good at early. When I remembered why I was being awakened before dawn, however, adrenaline knocked me out of bed. Mason is very slow in the mornings, and rushing him only frustrates his sense of routine and makes him take longer.

So I started bugging him right away. I rubbed his back gently and whispered, “Mason. Mason. It’s time to wake up. We’re getting ready for our turkey hunt.”

It was as if I’d said, “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!” I was still yanking my pants over one leg as I hop-chased him through the front door. He paused on the porch to allow me to button his pants, a task he is still unable to perform.

 “You can’t button your own pants, but we’re letting you use a shotgun?” I muttered as I fumbled with his button.

“It’s OK, Mom,” he said. “I know how to shoot a gun.”

“But do you know when to shoot it?”

Mason rolled his eyes. “When Mr. Fred says ‘shoot.’”

I stared at him then, taking in his camo clothing, rubber boots, handsome face and bright gray eyes. He was excited, yet he had this calmness, as if he’d done this many times before.

I suddenly forgot it was early, and cold. I forgot that my boy had this affliction, this cruel brain disorder that made him do things he didn’t understand. What I remembered was that my son was about to experience his very first hunt. And he was more prepared than I.

They were just waiting on me.

A babe in woods

We took off across the stretch of cleared property close to the cabin, into the darkened woods. Fred was in the lead, and I wondered how he could even see his own feet. I worried that Mason would be scared, but he followed quietly, content with the little light on his cap.

We walked quickly through the woods, stepping over brush and ducking branches, and heard an owl somewhere nearby. Mason walked back and grabbed my hand, and I whispered to him that what he’d heard was an owl. He whispered back that it sounded like a creepy witch. Fred suddenly stopped and we looked up.

It was time to turn off the LEDs we wore on our hats, he told us. “We’re about to walk across the field that we will be calling the turkeys to. They’re up in the trees around that other side of the field, roosting.” Fred looked at Mason. “This is where we gotta be really quiet. We are walking right to them, and don’t want to scare them off, OK?”

Mason nodded, soaking in every hushed word. I was too nervous to speak. We’d tried several new things, hoping to find an activity Mason would enjoy. Something would go wrong, in some way his sensory issues or impulsive behaviors would “ruin” the attempt, and he would never try again.

I figured any second a bug would fly at Mason’s face, and he would start swinging and screaming bloody murder. I envisioned masses of birds fleeing from the trees and our hunt ending before it began. But Mason had a respect for Mr. Fred that I hadn’t counted on. Despite the tall grass tickling his face and the strange noises around us, Mason continued quietly across the field.

We arrived at the opposite treeline and Fred pointed to the blind in a stand of cedar. It was constructed of what looked like dark chicken wire fencing with natural cedar laced throughout. The fencing made a small perimeter around a tree with a good-sized trunk and low-lying branches.

Fred quietly instructed me to go in first, and sit at the base of the tree inside. Mason scrambled in next to me as Fred quickly placed two decoys out in the field in front of us. Then he sat next to Mason and placed the shotgun on the ground between them. We sat nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning our backs against the tree.

Mason and I peeked out through small “holes” in the fencing and saw the field ahead of us and an adjacent treeline to the right. There was another clearing to our right, with a slight slope to it. The sky was getting lighter now and the critters around us created enough noise that we could speak in hushed tones.

Fred asked if we could hear the turkey hens in the trees to the right, which we could. They got louder and louder and more “talkative.” We just sat back and listened as Fred would name each new sound we heard. “Starling.” “Cardinal.” He told us the hens would keep “carrying on, acting crazy” and then the gobblers would get involved.

Eventually they’d fly down into the field and scratch around, he said, and we’d hope for Mason’s chance. I studied Mason’s face as he took it all in.

The ground was cold on our bottoms. The temperature was in the low 30s when we raced out of the cabin before dawn, and I was glad Mason had put on all three layers before he got out the door. I offered him gloves, but he declined.

To my surprise, he leaned against Mr. Fred, who put an arm around him. They stayed like that for quite some time, and now and then Fred would use his calls and exchange chatter with the turkeys in the trees. I offered Mason his Nintendo in case he was bored, but he watched Mr. Fred’s every move instead.

A jake walked out from the woods. It was followed by another. Then a gobbler. “Don’t move,” Fred said.

The jakes spotted the decoys and were marching over to check them out.

Mason fingered the shotgun as it lay on the ground. I swear I didn’t breathe for an eternity. The first jake stopped about 35-40 yards away from the decoys, but continued making quite a racket.

We simply stared as the big gobbler stopped about 70 yards away and started gobbling like crazy. This went on for three or four minutes, with the gobbler putting on quite a show.

I didn’t dare breathe - I swear I was frozen. All I could do was watch and accumulate more gray hair. Then the jakes sensed something they didn’t like. We don’t know what turned them off, but Fred said they gave an alarm putt, then retreated back into the trees, the gobbler right behind them.

“That was cool!” I exhaled, and Mason agreed.

“Man, did you see those turkeys?!?” He was all smiles.

“Yeah, they got so close to us!” We could barely contain our glee.

A moment later two coyotes appeared from behind us, and we were enchanted with them, too. The turkeys must have raised their curiosity. They entered the woods right where the birds had gone in.

Mason wondered if the coyotes would get the turkeys, but Fred said, “Only if they can learn to fly.”

We settled back and waited a little longer and were treated to a herd of deer that slipped up on us from behind. We counted 19 on the hill, all staring in our direction, and another dozen or so slowly grazed in the draw. It was an amazing sight to see.

Mason leaned toward me and asked softly, “Mom, can I shoot one?”

I laughed softly and told him we couldn’t take deer today as we watched them slowly migrate away again. We sat for maybe another hour more, listening to the hens carrying on in the trees, with Fred making occasional calls. I offered Mason the Nintendo again, and again he declined. He was content to lean against Mr. Fred.

He mentioned being hungry, and I scolded myself for having left in a hurry without grabbing a snack. I should have known better – Mason constantly eats. I was amazed that he hadn’t brought up the subject earlier. I was more amazed that he waited patiently for awhile after I told him we’d eat back at the cabin.

Eventually he did reach his threshold and whined a little. I signaled to Fred that it was a good time to start heading back before full-scale hollering commenced. We crawled out of the blind, and Fred grabbed the decoys.

Now we could talk above the whispers, and Mason and I chatted about the experience. I worried that he was disappointed about not getting a turkey. He didn’t seem to care at all. Just getting them close, along with the coyotes and the deer, were exciting to him.

We followed Fred back through the woods to the cabin, stopping to take note of turkey tracks and evidence of scat.

Later we checked in at the Carroll County Civic Center, where the youth who participated gathered. Over 40 kids had successful hunts, and Mason checked out the dead birds. “Maybe next time, huh?” I asked him.

“Yep.”

“Do you want to hunt again?” He paused at a table to run his fingers through a gobbler’s long beard.

“Oh, yes. And I want to shoot a deer, too.” We went into the expo before leaving for home. We stopped at a table full of box calls, one we had visited the previous day. We hadn’t known what to do with the calls then. I picked one up and made a squawk. Mason took it from me, and said, “No Mom, Mr. Fred did it like this.” And he used it perfectly.

When Mason returned to school the following Monday, he insisted on wearing the deer antler necklace he’d received in the gift bag from the NW Tennessee Kids Hunting for a Cure youth hunt.

“I want to show them I’m a hunter now. And I’ll take the slate call for show-and-tell. I can teach everyone how to use it.”

His sister and I picked him up from school that afternoon, and three of us went for a drive in the country.

Victoria spotted a huge bird to one side of the road. “Is that a turkey?”

Mason looked up from his Nintendo. “No, that’s a turkey vulture,” he told her.

“How do you know?”

“Because I just know. I know my turkeys now. I’m a turkey hunter.”

Thank you, “Mr. Fred” Johnsey. After a great first experience, Mason may enjoy something as a normal kid now and then. But I’m going for a box of hair color now. I’m too young to go gray just yet.

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