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?


Patti J said...

Ut sounds to me like on the outside, this mother professes to understand her son's autism, but on the inside is in total denial about it. Kudos to you, Susan, for meeting your Jack halfway. If Thomas is what he loves and enjoys, how refreshing to me that you are going to give him Thomas, but in a more grown-up fashion. You are a very smart momma! Hugs...

emarci said...

As a teacher of children with autism, I am constantly reminded by my superiors to be "age appropriate" with my instructional materials for my students. Yet, I had a nine year old student practically obsessed with Barney for years. His mother was having fits about it, but the student (who was also quite visually impaired) related everything to Barney-colors, numbers, etc.
The student gradually outgrew the Barney thing and turned to other interests, but none quite so obsessive as Barney. The important part here is that the student did move on, although at a slightly later age than one would expect. My teacherly advice would be the "don't offer don't refuse" approach. Also, could you gently direct him toward an interest in trains/transportation? I think it is wonderful that he is taking an interest in decorating his room. As far as liking Winnie the Pooh, I will tell you that I have a plastic Reptar sitting on my desk and will happily watch Rugrats with my twenty-something children anytime. I also had no desire to see the Harry Potter movies-just not my genre. I prefer biographies, especially of people who are more miserable than I am! :) I hope some of this babble is insightful for you...thanks for asking!

Karen said...

My son Ben is profoundly Autistic. He is 8 years old and non verbal, in nappies full time with behavioural problems and aggression. He likes Rubber Ducks. We encourage any positive interest even if its aimed for much younger children. For me anything that encourages Ben to be part of our world and out of his bubble is good and as much I'd like him to be doing age appropriate things he is profoundly Autistic and that is unlikely to happen so we embrace him and his rubber ducks, if you know what I mean!

Carrie Wehmeyer said...

I think the appropriate interests for a nine year old would include whatever the child enjoys, as long as it isn't too old for them. I don't see any harm in children playing with toys that are "too young" for them. As a person's intelligence and maturity increase, so does their play with exactly the same toy. My fifteen year old plays with his six and four year old sisters with Legos and they have a grand time. As far as severely autistic children, I think it's heedlessly cruel to strip them of the things that bring them joy in order to compel them to mature faster. I am not casting judgement on a person's motives for doing so, just the choice to do so. My Spencer, who is still almost entirely nonverbal, was really attached to Dot from Toy Story when he was eight and nine. He was still in pullups and had many, many behavioral issues. Now that he is thirteen, he is toileting normally and his favorite hobby is cleaning the house. (Still not a thirteen year old's usual bailiwick, right?) I think that while you have to be careful to keep your children from growing up too fast, as in playing ultra-violent video games at age nine, you also have to allow your children to be children. The exception I would make is if the passion for one thing interferes with their developing in ways of which they are capable. My eleven year old daughter sometimes obsesses so much on Hannah Montana that she gets into patterns of negative behavior. I know she can do better, so we limit the Hannah exposure. I couldn't completely take it away from her, but I do have to limit it.

Susan Raihala said...

emarci, thanks for sharing your insightful teacher perspective. Although Jack enjoys seeing trains as we drive around, he won't look at train magazines or books. Yet. We shall see what the future holds.

Karen, kudos to you! I love "we embrace him and his rubber ducks." It's beautiful and sweet and a powerful statement of love.

Susan Raihala said...

Carrie, Jack likes washing windows. Says he wants to be a window-washer when he grows up. Cool, eh? Hannah Montana would drive me to drink. God knew what he was doing when he gave me boys, LOL!

I think one point about Jack's Thomas obsession is that he comes out of his Thomas stimming so easily. Call his name and he responds immediately. But the second he's not engaged, he's right back at it. It's annoying, but since we can get him to do other things (swimming, washing windows, reading books, etc.) I'm not overly worried. He has started making up scripts for his Thomas play, too, rather than just repeating memorized lines. So that's a positive as well.

I totally agree with your feelings on the violent video games. I'm simply in shock at the stuff parents in our neighborhood let their children play. Fortunately, Jack's interest in video games at this time is negligible.

Chris Simon said...

My thirteen year old daughter has Aspergers, and her obsession for years has been Pokemon. She reads about it, plays video games, collects cards, the whole thing. I personally don't get the appeal, and she's very patient with the fact that I just can't keep more than about five of the characters in my brain, nor do I care to learn all of their characteristics. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Pokemon makes her fit in very well with boys about three or four years younger, while kids her own age, especially girls, just roll their eyes and call her weird. But she has also started to branch out from Pokemon to anime/manga in general, and says she wants to design video games someday. So now she has friends with interest in both the computer/game area and in art and drawing. If we had forbidden her to do Pokemon, she might never have developed her interest in the anime/manga, so I'm glad we didn't try to hold her back.

carol fun said...

As the mother of a 21 yr old son with Aspergers and he went through a couple of phases of all encompassing interests. First was dinosaurs, then mythology and now to his current interest in Japanese Anime, manga and role-playing video games (non-violent which are his preference. I accepted early on that he is never going to be normal, what ever that is, and I've always indulged his interests because it makes him happy. For a brief period the Japanese anime interest matched kids of his age, but at 21 not so much anymore, although video games are still ok. My son still strongly prefers animated movies to live action ones. We still see lots of Disney flicks which he enjoys. And yes we are sometimes the only ones over 20 without kids in the theater. I would never have taken something away from my son in order to make his behavior more age appropriate because I don't think you could be successful in changing behavior in this way. And since there seems likes way less things that make my son happy, I would have a hard time to deny him whatever would.

I totally understand why you wouldn't want to deal with this mother. I acknowledge her right to deal with her son the way she wishes but I would have a very difficult time staying out of it. And I avoided other mothers of normal children whose outlooks didn't fit with mine.

I totally agree with the philosphy that "we love him and embrace his interests" -- exactly. It is what makes my son who he is - and I love him unconditionally.

Jessi Fogan said...

We've got experience with both sides, I guess. When our oldest was 3, we took away Teletubbies (his love) because we thought that they were inhibiting his learning to speak. Nope. But when he saw TT again a year later, he cried, tried to hug the TV, and reacted like they were long-lost friends. I felt awful, and though I truly hated TT we did let him watch & play again. He finally gave them up for good at age 10, though in the last few years he'd only watch in the summer when he would experience other regression as well. Thomas was another obsession - I joke all the time that our retirement fund is in Thomas toys. He's not quite ready to give those up yet, at age 12, and that's fine with us. Some of the things his peers are into are so vastly beyond Connor's emotional age that I don't feel comfortable giving him a chance to experience them - violent games, for example. Our younger son has always been into vehicles, and lately his peers are impressed with just how much he knows about them. I know teasing might be an issue (especially for the oldest) but at this point I figure they will be teased for so many things, the way they talk, act, move, etc - being teased for what they like to do is just one more thing, and there's no point in restricting it just because other kids might be mean. They will be.

Jessi Fogan said...

And I just have to say, the word verification on my last comment was "trainsta." I think that might be like "gangsta" for Thomas-philes :) lol!

JoLynn said...

Here's what I see as a teacher: When I do things with my 4th graders that may seem to be for kids younger than they are, they LOVE it. I almost feel a sense of relief from them that they get to buck the social system that keeps pushing them to grow up too soon. Sidewalk chalk, stickers, bubbles, happy meal toys. They love them. As a mom, I don't hold back my kids playing with anything. Max (6) has had the autism trait of using objects for things other than their intended purposes. He loves car washes, and everything that can come into his car wash world of pretend play indeed does. I could try to get him to stop because he needs to "move on," but I find that a bit unfair. Autism equates to our kids NOT being in the social milestone club...why try to put square pegs into round holes? I am just loving my kid and whatever world he pulls me into, because this one isn't always so great,

JoLynn said...

Here's what I see as a teacher: When I do things with my 4th graders that may seem to be for kids younger than they are, they LOVE it. I almost feel a sense of relief from them that they get to buck the social system that keeps pushing them to grow up too soon. Sidewalk chalk, stickers, bubbles, happy meal toys. They love them. As a mom, I don't hold back my kids playing with anything. Max (6) has had the autism trait of using objects for things other than their intended purposes. He loves car washes, and everything that can come into his car wash world of pretend play indeed does. I could try to get him to stop because he needs to "move on," but I find that a bit unfair. Autism equates to our kids NOT being in the social milestone club...why try to put square pegs into round holes? I am just loving my kid and whatever world he pulls me into, because this one isn't always so great,

Aunt Min said...

My 23 year old son is currently obsessed with "Magic" cards, so it is always something. I decided at one point years ago, to accept his obsessions, but not to "feed" them. In other words, if he wanted to work (for me, tasks I assigned him and paid him for) and spend his money on his hobby or decorating his room, that's great. But I wasn't going to buy those items, or make a special trip to the store for him to buy them either. My son also loved the essence of what Thomas the Tank Engine portrays--bright primary colors and the safe, comforting presence of a few good friends. At 9 he also loved for me to read him the Wizard of Oz L Frank Baum series. He spent hours outside playing in the woods. You're doing a great job monitoring the play dates, give yourself a hug.

Naomi Edwards said...

Wow, I really understand what you are saying and asking for I too have a child age 8 with autism... He loves Thomas as well but his obsession is Webkinz for years... just this past year he gained a new obsession..Mario.. lots more of plush toys!! There is probably 300 here in total... Last week I took 3 bags of webkinz and put them in the basement with out him knowing and that evening he asked for cookadoodle... It blew my mind because he hadn't even bothered with them for at least 6 months and the day I put only some of them away he is asking for them.... You know that is absolutely ok with me... I agree that children should stick with their interest.. it is up to us to build on them, get creative... I have even done math by having Michael count them or seperate colors, types of animals etc.... He can tell you every size of each Mario plush toy rather it is 7 inches or 18... Let it be right!!
Feel free to drop over at my site called between two worlds and check it out!!! It may not be new to you but there may be that someone you might want to pass it onto!!! I did it from the ground up after taking a course just over a year ago...You are an amazing writer, I really enjoy reading your post.. .I wish I had that talent but my talented lies in scrapbooking , making cards.

Autism site :

Card Blog:

Unknown said...

I didin't know you had another blog Susan and had a son with autism. I have a child with special emotional needs, not autism but R.A.D. . . .it is gradually getting a bit better, we look at progress over the course of years, not months. She enjoys playing with much younger children, kids half her age or even younger. What should I do? Insist she find a friend her own age? Might not be possible at this stage. She does read large books and is smart but socially awkward and behind. I just figure she'll catch up eventually. In other words, I don't think you can force maturity. Best wishes.

Elsea Designs said...

Hi Susan.

I think kids are not kids for long. Our kids are different, and like JoLynn said, why try to put square pegs in round holes.

It's a great idea to do Jack's room in Thomas by not OTT and very childish. He may like Thomas for a whole different reason to what we think/expect. My son who is 10 and has Aspergers loves lego especially Star Wars lego, but he still sometimes revert back to one of his first loves, Fireman Sam, he knows it is too young for him but he says he likes the style of animation and the messages it gives to children about safety. That put a whole new spin on it for me.

Like most of the guys here have said, our kids are different to the 'normals' so why add another challenge to their already very challenging lives. If something helps the to feel less anxious surely that is a good thing?

Saying all that I am also very aware that it does leave them wide open for other kids to possibly tease them, but I do think forcing them to give up something they are passionate about just because it is not classed as age appropriate could cause just as much upset. Chances are they will move onto something else anyway.

Thanks for reading my wafflings. Lorraine.