Saturday, August 20, 2011

Letting Kids Be Who They Are

Parents of children on the autism spectrum have so many things to deal with that parents of typical children don't really think about, so I generally don't judge them when their decisions don't make sense to me. Just because a particular treatment doesn't seem sensible to me does NOT mean it isn't perfectly sensible to someone else. I applaud parents for taking steps...any help their children, and as no one really knows diddly sh*t about this disorder, who knows what steps might be the right ones? I sure don't.

This year, however, I found myself confronted with a negative judgment on another mommy, one I just can't get over. Nick asked why we couldn't invite one of Jack's friends, let's call him Bill, who had come for a playdate over the winter. Bill's mom had stayed for the playdate because Bill is more severely autistic than Jack, and she and I both wanted her to be here.

When Nick proposed a second playdate, I balked. He asked why. I said, out of nowhere I care to examine too closely, that Bill's mom wasn't nice and I didn't want to have to entertain her.

Not nice? She was perfectly pleasant and chatty. Whatever made me think she wasn't nice?

Then, it came to me. When Jack asked Bill to play with Thomas the Tank Engine toys, Bill said no and ran off to force his company on Nick and Nick's friend. Bill's mom said, somewhat condescendingly, that she decided Bill's obsession with Thomas was too immature, so when he was in first grade, she took all his Thomas toys to GoodWill and refused to let him play with or talk about Thomas so he could develop more age-appropriate interests.

When I shared this with Nick, he said, "Why would she do something so mean?"


Part of me can understand this mother's desire to make her child more like his peers. But he will never be like his peers. And she knows this. She told me that Bill would never spend much time in inclusion settings at school because his behaviors were too disruptive and she really didn't expect him to ever move to inclusion. He would always be in the autism or LD classrooms, and she accepted this.

So why take away his Thomas toys? Perhaps she was sick of them, sick of listening to "Thomas the Tank Engine, Rolling along, Doo Doo Doo Doo...", sick of peeping and sound effects and such. In that, she would have my complete, heartfelt sympathy. But the fact was that Bill wouldn't play with Jack, who wanted to play with him, because Bill was too busy trying to include himself in Nick and his friend's play. Bill wanted to do what the big boys were doing, but the big boys didn't appreciate his pushiness even though they did try to include him. At least for now, Bill doesn't fit in with either group.

Jack's interests are not exactly age appropriate, but then, I'm positive I don't want him playing Call of Duty Black Ops (Rated M for Mature Audiences), like some 8-year-olds do. Kids grow up too fast these days, and while I want Jack to have friends his age and interact as well as he can, I can't imagine taking the joy out of his life by denying his pursuit of things he loves.

A few weeks ago, I took Jack to see Winnie the Pooh. He didn't want to go with George, Nick, and me to see the last Harry Potter movie, so we had a babysitter come for that. Jack loved Winnie the Pooh. He laughed and cheered and bounced in his seat. He had a smile on his face the whole time. If fact, it's the happiest I've ever seen him in a movie theater. I will take him to ride Thomas the Tank Engine in September when the really useful engine rolls into Lebanon. He looks forward to it all year, and not to take him seems the height of meanness.

His 9th birthday is coming up. Once again, all he wants is Thomas stuff. He wants me to decorate his room "like Thomas," because he saw a clip on one of his Thomas videos about a kid's room being decorated with Thomas stuff. That room was, of course, a toddler's room. I have ideas for making the room look less like a cluttered toddler's room and at least a bit more mature. (No Thomas wallpaper border or bed shaped like Thomas, for example!) He's never showed the least interest in what his bedroom looked like. I think this is progress.

What do you think about children on the spectrum having juvenile interests? How hard should parents push to encourage more mature interests? Has anyone had success in encouraging those more mature interests? If so, what did you do? What, in fact, are age-appropriate interests for 9-year-olds other than sports, which our children seem to feel are forced labor camps rather than fun?