In early April, at what would later be known as T-minus 16 hours, I had an awful, terrible idea. It wasn’t technically my idea; technically it was my partner’s. The kids, aged 7 and 10, have recently fallen in love with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. He was idly browsing convention websites and social media feeds, as one does, and discovered that Austin St. John (Jason, the original Red Ranger) would be at AwesomeCon. This meant that we had a chance to introduce our kids to their hero.
The kids, especially 7, are obsessed with Jason. He wears red, he’s the team leader, and he’s really nice to everyone on the team. The idea of introducing them to the man who had played their hero was going to be hard to pass up. The catch: AwesomeCon, a three-day convention, had just finished day two as Mathias found this out. The next day—16 hours from then—would be the last chance to meet Mr. St. John.
After some deliberation both with and without the girls, we decided that going to the convention was absolutely worth the frantic effort that would go into getting us assembled and into attendance. Our immediate to-do list was this: preparing the kids for what was going to happen, preparing me for attending my first big convention, and trying to reach out to Mr. St. John (in a respectful way) to try and make sure the whole meeting would go off without a hitch, as much as can be expected when dealing with overbearing and emotional tiny humans (thank you, Zordon).
Because here’s the truth: sometimes you can go out with your kids on the spur of the moment. Sometimes for ice cream, sometimes for a movie, but absolutely not for a convention. Double absolutely not a convention with a houseful of autistic people. Incredibly especially not a convention with a houseful of autistic people including two children who are about to meet their hero. We pulled it off, but I think I cashed in a miracle or two do it the way we did.
Whether you’re short on miracles, are planning ahead, or just have 16 hours to introduce your kids to the original Red Ranger (or whoever it is they worship this week) at a convention, here’s how you’re going to get through this.
Are They a Jerk?
The first thing we did, before we even talked to the girls, was to do some quick research on Mr. St. John himself. We looked at his social media feeds, read and watched a few interviews (conducted by fans, not professional press), and looked for stories about him trashing hotel rooms, harassing fans, or generally being a jerk. Video interviews at conventions were especially helpful, giving an impression of his general demeanor as a person, rather than as a character. It turns out that Austin St. John is basically as nice as the character he played—and also really funny.
If my kids worshiped and wanted to meet someone who had a reputation for showing up at conventions drunk, for example, I wouldn’t have even considered taking them.
Set Your Kid’s Expectations
The original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers aired in 1993. I do not look the same as I did twenty years ago, and neither does Austin St. John. To my kids, however, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is happening right now; they can conceptualize that it’s been twenty years since the show aired, but they don’t have the scope to understand what that means.
God bless the internet; a simple Google image search pulled up plenty of recent pictures of Mr. St. John. I showed them several pictures as I reminded them how much time had passed. This gave them time to get used to the man they would be meeting instead of the one they saw on TV.
I also needed to have a longer conversation with 7 about actors and acting. She knows that TV isn’t real life. She can carefully explain to you the difference between fiction and nonfiction. What she hasn’t entirely grasped, however, is that actors are different from the characters they play on TV. We were still in the middle of the first season of MMPR; if you’re familiar with the show, we were at the point where (two decades old spoiler alert) Tommy had lost his powers and Jason was holding the Green Power Coin. 7 was pretty scared that Tommy wouldn’t get his powers back and very concerned that he’d needed to hand the Power Coin over to Jason for safe keeping. Would Tommy ever get it back? Would Jason give it back to him?
Meeting Jason—aka Austin St. John—seemed pretty intimidating.
Can You Communicate With the Hero?
These days, practically everyone is on social media, celebrities included. Some of them are active, some of them aren’t—either way, responding to a million notifications a day wouldn’t leave much time for doing the thing they’re famous for doing. Austin St. John, however, has a reputation for checking his social media feeds and connecting with his fans specifically. He also does work with autism-related charities. I thought these two things might come together in my favor.
I left a message on Mr. St. John’s Facebook feed explaining that my family would be at AwesomeCon the following day; I noted 7’s autism diagnosis, said that she was very excited to meet him, but that she was also very nervous. I said that she sometimes didn’t talk in stressful situations, and that I’d probably be talking for her. I noted the costume she would be wearing, and said that we couldn’t wait to see him.
There were a couple of reasons I did this. I didn’t expect a red carpet to be rolled out, or for my daughter to be presented with some kind of media package. I did hope that by having a head’s up that a fan would be coming by with some pretty specific needs that Mr. St. John could—if he wasn’t too busy, and actually saw my post—help to make the hero-meeting experience as positive as possible. Conventions and meeting people you idolize is stressful for anyone; with a kid who has intense struggles with big emotions, be they positive or negative, we were ready to do anything possible to make the meeting a positive experience.
Turns out it totally worked. Yay!
Your kids are relying on you to get this right. They’re probably going to freeze up, and you’re going to be the one who has to save the day. You can’t rely on the celebrity you’re meeting; they don’t know your child or the right way to help. It’s all on you.
To get ready for the event, find out what your kids are ready or willing to do. Ask them:
- Do they want to talk?
- Do they want you to talk for them? Even older kids can clam up when they’re faced with big situations.
- Do they have specific questions that they want to ask? Writing them down can help keep them from freezing up.
Note: there is a difference between encouraging someone and pressuring them. Finding out why your child might want or not want to do something is a good thing; harassing them and trying to force them to do something because you think they’ll appreciate it later is not.
Basic Convention/Event Prep
Going with your kids means more planning than you’d do on your own. For myself, I might pop a water bottle, a sleeve of crackers, and my wallet into a bag and head out. For kids, especially kids who struggle with sensory input, that was just not an option.
Mathias, as the more experienced convention-goer, put me through convention boot camp in about an hour. I was instructed to:
- Bring water.
- Make sure everyone was in comfortable clothes and shoes.
- Bring water.
- Bring cash. With different smartphone payment options available, more artists and booths can take credit cards, but not all of them. Cash reserves are critical.
- Bring water.
- Bring tote bags. Yes, even if 10 was going to bring her backpack. Yes, even though there was a good chance I’d be carrying 7 at various points.
- Bring water.
We approached the convention like we would an amusement park. Many of the general rules apply, you just need to mentally change “ride” to “actor” and “exhibit” to “Artist’s Alley.” AwesomeCon used an event app that gave us a map of the convention floor, letting us orient ourselves to find Mr. St. John as well as the other celebrities we wanted to meet that day.
We also kept a list of what we wanted to do in order of importance. Since I was solo parenting the event, the primary goals were to do the things the kids wanted. If Mathias had been able to come with us, we would have switched off child supervision; I would have explored Pride Alley, and he would have spent more time in Artist’s Alley getting things signed. But when you’re the only adult in attendance, your goals are going to be less important than your kids’; they just have to be. If that isn’t possible—if you want to attend a bunch of panels, for example—I would try and get a second pass for a day when you can attend on your own. Dragging kids to stuff that bores them during a busy, stressful event is going to end in meltdowns, whether they’re autistic or allistic.
Since our main priority was to meet Austin St. John, we oriented our map and planned around him. We knew how to get from the entrance to his booth, from there to the kids’ area which was holding a Pokemon event, and from there to Jeremy Whitley’s table to get Princeless signed (where I also discovered the incredible Raven, a comic about queer lady pirates that you absolutely must read).
Another detail for us was accessibility. AwesomeCon offers accessibility passes for disabled attendees, and we qualified for them. At first, I didn’t think we’d bother picking them up; most of the benefits of the passes—skipping the lines at some official signings, for example—weren’t going to apply to us. We did end up grabbing them, however—and I’m incredibly glad we did.
The obvious benefits of the passes didn’t apply to us, but they were bright red and easily visible to Con staff (who were, for the record, absolutely incredible). What this seemed to do was act as a cue that we might need a different sort of help—and at a different speed—than an average con-goer. If I was asking for directions to the quiet room, I needed them as soon as possible. When craft tables were crowded, it seemed a little easier to find space to get in. And when I did need to pull 7 quickly out of a situation that was going to lead to an explosion, it was a little easier to get to her and get her out than it might have been otherwise.
The biggest benefit of the passes was that I felt like I had a safety net. My entire family is autistic; I was also in a sensory nightmare on the convention floor, but I’m older and have more experience at coping with and moderating my sensory overwhelm. My kids were relying on me to hold it together; knowing that I had a signal to staff that I might need immediate help let me stay calmer and more carefully focused on helping the kids get through the event.
I made sure the kids had something to do while we waited in lines, made sure 7 had her noise canceling headphones, and made sure that we were all wearing comfortable clothes. I knew we could take the Metro to the event, but I was prepared to Uber home if we needed to. And yes, I brought the water.
Actually Meeting the Hero
It turns out that Austin St. John is basically the sweetest human being I’ve ever met, and that opinion has absolutely nothing to do with how he charmed a 7-year-old who is terrified of strangers into being willing to stand for a photograph. I can’t say for sure that he read the Facebook post on his wall (he liked it, but that seemed to be a matter of course for all posts), but I do know that he did absolutely everything I could have dreamed for my kid.
7 did not, in fact, want to speak that day, so I told him her name and the things she had wanted him to know. Something he did for which I will be forever grateful: while he did glance at me when I was speaking, his attention was primarily focused on my daughter, especially when he was responding to what I was saying (the same behavior that’s encouraged for interpreted conversation with someone who is D/deaf). He complimented her costume and said he wanted to get the same Red Ranger pajamas for his kids. 7 actually still comments on this, saying that Jason is jealous of her because of her Red Ranger pajamas.
He took her concerns about Tommy and the Power Coin seriously, agreeing that the show was intense at this point. And when he accidentally spelled her name wrong on the picture she had picked for him to sign, he made a big, funny show of admitting to his mistake, apologizing directly to her, throwing the picture up into the air behind him, and happily signing a new one. He even made sure to say each letter of her name out loud as he wrote it down right this time, just so she could hear it.
Actors, writers, artists, YouTubers, cosplayers, any potential hero at all—I know you hear this all the time, but once more for the cheap seats: while an interaction with a kid at a convention may be the 300th conversation you’ve had that day, it’s one of the most important and special things to the kid you’re talking to. Please keep that in mind when you speak to them.
We had a fantastic day at AwesomeCon. We were exhausted and overwhelmed by the time we got home, and it had been worth every single twitch and stim. And what blows my mind is this: 7 was originally very hesitant about going to the convention and meeting Austin St. John. She doesn’t do crowds; she doesn’t do loud; she doesn’t do strangers.
But as we kept watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers over the next few days, 7’s relationship with the show changed. She started noting the actors’ names in the opening credits. She asked if we could meet Amy Jo Johnson, Walter Jones, Jason David Frank, and David Yost (Thuy Trang, the original Yellow Ranger, unfortunately, died in a traffic collision several years ago). She is asking to go through this whole ordeal again. We must have done okay pulling off this whole adventure if she wants to do it more than once. I guess Austin St. John made quite an impression; I guess we didn’t do too badly in pulling off this whole adventure.
While it’s totally possible, it turns out, to introduce your kid to their hero with sixteen hours warning, I really recommend giving yourself more leeway. Do your research, go in with a game plan, and be prepared for the exhaustion and crankiness that will result.
And bring water.