When I first read Peter Gray’s Free to Learn a couple years ago, I was struck by his descriptions of young children playing together. In the interactions he transcribed, these children were negotiating social hierarchies, defining relationships, experimenting with emotional expression and response, making small talk, and learning to understand the thoughts and feelings of other individuals – all through the context of undirected, independent, imaginative play with each other.
At the time I was both impressed and discouraged: impressed at the ability of the human mind to use pretend play as a means of acquiring important social skills, and discouraged at the thought that I hadn’t yet seen my son engage in pretend play with another child in that way. He could parallel play with his baby brother, and that was about it; other children overwhelmed and even frightened him.
But lately I have watched him playing with Limerick, roaring and yelling and screaming at each other, and when I cautiously peek around the corner they quickly assure me that it’s all part of the game, and their characters are angry, not actually them. Their pretend animals ask each other if they can come in, or share space, or help with something difficult. The boys ask each other, outside of the game, about what they are each comfortable with and what the other one’s preference would be for the kind of game they play, back and forth until they reach a compromise.
I have watched him playing with Aubade, laughing and wrestling and generally being silly, until suddenly she pretends to be sad with a pouty frown and a slump of her shoulders, proclaiming that she is sad, and he instantly changes his mood to match her emotional expression, curling up next to her to give her snuggles until she decides she is happy again.
While his understanding of other people’s emotions may not be as intuitive, and while social norms and niceties may always be more of a second language, he still has the innate desire to connect and belong with others. And so with the people he loves, he works hard to understand them, to compromise with them, to adapt to their wants and feelings. We’ve done a lot of “play coaching” with him and his siblings over the years, to get to this point, but now, every time I see him bend and adjust, every time I hear him ask what his siblings would rather do instead of demanding things go his way, I am so encouraged by how much he has learned, and by how much he can do without any adult around reminding him. Those hours of play have really been effective in helping him pick up and hone his budding social skills – and I have no doubt they will continue to be.
Rondel had been asking us for months when we would get an animal of our own (seemingly taking it for granted that someday we would), and slowly things fell into place for us to be able to buy a pair of green anole lizards. Rondel and I talked about different types of animals and researched how to take care of them; Paul took him to pet stores to see the animals in person; and so we settled on lizards as an acceptable option. Paul found a tank and lamp at Savers; Rondel made a hide from a wooden puzzle box; I watched YouTube videos with Rondel about setting up the tank so the lizards could be comfortable and safe.
And finally, after days of Rondel asking us when, when, when? – we finally brought them home.
Aubade and Rondel were immediately entranced with them, pulling up chairs by the bookshelf and watching them explore their new home (it looks a bit bare in these first few pictures, but we’ve since added more vines and climbing sticks).
After a few days of helping them to adjust, and the addition of twenty little crickets to the tank (buying those at the pet store was definitely a new experience for me… the employee just reached into this big bin of crickets and started shaking them into a bag and they were hopping everywhere!), Rondel was able to hold them, one at a time, to his great delight. While the lizards were not sure about being handled at first, they seem to have become a lot more comfortable with Rondel, and he is definitely comfortable with them. He asks if he can take them out at least 3-4 times every day, and plays with them longer and longer each time. At this point he is able to gently lift one from the tank (I remove and replace the cover), remain calm and gentle while letting it climb all over him (he’s getting good at directing where they climb, also, though they both still try to get to the center of his upper back when they can), retrieve it if it hops off of him onto the floor, and gently return it to the tank when he is done.
I am greatly impressed.
He also keeps an eye on the temperature and humidity gauges, and knows how to mist the tank through the cover if the humidity is below the recommended range.
In short, especially for a five year old, he is showing himself to be quite responsible and very natural with the lizards… and he has already started asking when we will get more animals! If things go his way we will end up living in a zoo – and he would be such a happy little person, so I suppose more animals will be inevitable at some point. But for now we will just enjoy these two green additions to our home.
Rondel is not exactly a stereotypical picky eater, but he is quite particular when it comes to food, for clear sensory-related reasons. Texture and temperature are probably the most important aspect of a food for him – his favorite foods tend to be either frozen or in the dry-to-crunchy range. So he can be quite happy eating some tortilla chips (sometimes he’ll tolerate them with melted cheese) alongside a bowl of frozen mixed veggies, he loves toast and frozen blueberries for breakfast, he prefers crackers to fig bars, he only enjoys chicken nuggets if the outer coating isn’t at all “mushy”, and he won’t eat any fresh fruit at all (except perhaps melon in the summer or pear in the fall) after having decided his primary previously acceptable fruit (apple) made his mouth feel funny. He will eat noodles and potatoes in moderation, but not consistently. Mexican refried beans and rice are acceptable, but runnier beans and rice dishes (I have a few really good ones) are not. I don’t think he has ever consented to eat soup or oatmeal, and the thought of sweet potato or avocado is enough to make him emotionally upset. Also, having a favorite food to accompany a merely tolerable one seems to help by resetting or calming the tactile receptors in his mouth.
I had never really given much thought to picky eating prior to having kids, because I tend to be a more adventurous eater, but I am realizing now that I have my own sensory quirks. I heavily prefer foods where each bite will have a variety of textures, or where the level of spiciness is enough to leave a burn, or where dedicated chewing may be required – so in a peanut butter sandwich I will use crunchy peanut butter and orange marmalade and toast the bread if at all possible; I attempt to make even normal bland foods more bold by adding extra seasonings (cayenne in the mac and cheese, double the recipe’s amount of every single spice for spice cookies); and I enjoy fairly tough meat but can only rarely handle creamy soup.
The appearance or smell of a food can also cause an overwhelming or challenging sensory reaction. Rondel reacts quite strongly to anything that looks mushy or gooey (like yogurt or banana); I recoil from unevenly bumpy foods (I avoided looking at peeled bananas for at least a year as a child). Rondel can be bothered by the smell of the food other people are eating or even by food that he enjoys eating (which I have only observed in myself during pregnancy – I notice smells quite well but am not usually bothered by them), but we’ve found that lighting a candle on the table makes things significantly better for him.
Interestingly enough, I have also recently noticed that eating painfully spicy food actually helps lower my anxiety levels, and temporarily decreases my reliance on other stims. I’m guessing it is similar for Rondel, and may be part of why he’s been a bit pickier and more wild lately as we are out of both tortilla chips and frozen blueberries. It makes me wish some of his earlier oral stims were still helpful for him – he had been able to translate overt licking of his hands and arms into chewing a wooden necklace, and it made a big difference for him in more stimulating environments especially – but he hasn’t shown much interest in them since this summer. I was beginning to think he would take after my grandmother, who still surreptitiously chews on her hands to stim! And who knows, maybe he will 🙂 in my experience, stims can ebb and flow over time, even if some are more enduring or central.
In the meantime, we’ll keep on freezing our yogurt into creamy cold dots, stocking our house with plenty of whole-grain bread for toast, lighting our candle at dinner, and continuing to try new foods in hope that some of them will cooperate with his unique blend of sensory cravings and aversions!
It’s hard to lose the habit of calling one’s youngest child “baby”, I think. The older siblings protest as they grow, and the name passes on to the younger ones – but it holds on more tightly when there is no one to take up the mantle.
Still, now that Aubade is two, we don’t really have any babies in the family anymore, no matter how much we still call her our baby.
At two, Aubade is hitting a verbal growth spurt, leaping from the occasional echoed two-word phrase to consistent spontaneous three and four word phrases – linking words are still a challenge, but her vocabulary is expanding exponentially. She has always been adept at communicating her thoughts, and it is so fun (and often amusing) to watch her incorporate language into that communication more and more.
Far more than either of the boys, Aubade has developed an attachment to certain toys (a few stuffed animals and a few hard rubber animals, alternating depending on her mood and the demands of the situation) and an affinity for choosing her own clothes. To be honest, she’s enjoyed selecting her own outfits for at least a year now – but at this point she likes clothes enough that she considers them birthday presents worth getting excited about. She even has a hierarchy of favorite pajamas… as she was telling me when I asked her what she wanted to wear, “bear jammies dirty… food on it. puppy jammies dirty… food on it. firetruck jammies!” (She did not have food on her dirty pajamas, but that is her current understanding of why clothes need to be washed. Wearing something for two consecutive days and nights apparently doesn’t count if you haven’t covered it in food…)
She loves to be held but she also loves to climb on your head and flip upside down in your arms; she pulls her brothers all around the house but also loves to find herself snuggled up with them, and never goes to bed without making sure to give them both a goodnight hug.
She wants to do everything her brothers can do, and do it all by herself, and she has perfected the sideways glare, the downwards pout, and the backwards flop to use when she isn’t allowed to do something she wants. Also the persistent requesting of the thing desired, with perfect confidence, until you start to wonder why you aren’t just doing what she wants after all 🙂
She loves fiercely and plays fiercely and fights fiercely, all over tooth and claw and growls and pouncing possession of all things good and desirable as hers.
She gets very enthusiastic about something for a short time, then moves on to the next thing – she doesn’t have the deep and lasting interests that the boys had even at this age, but rather roams widely over a variety of objects and activities. Limerick, for example, was happy to sit still on a three hour airplane flight with a magnet board drawing letters before he was even two years old; Rondel could spend hours talking about cars; but Aubade needs to be able to move, mostly, and to have a range of toys (or other medium-sized things) to move around with her. I think that means she is a typically developing two-year-old and that we have nothing to be concerned about!
When she gets excited about something, she wiggles side to side in a manner slightly reminiscent of a satisfied feline. She will pretend to cough or laugh just to make other people laugh at her, and she has a smile that is almost a smirk that she flashes just for the answering attention of a smile in return. Far more so than the boys, she is tuned in to the people around her, seeking out eye contact and thriving on back-and-forth interactions, copying social behaviors and imitating types of play.
But more than anything else? She is light and laughter, the flashing energy pulse of our family, the multiplier of our love – her very own self, just beginning to take on her own unique shape and form, unfolding in bright bold colors like a sudden grin or the brilliant burst of a firework.
When a boy and his big brother have been singing happy birthday to all their toys for four months straight, and it is finally his birthday and he is going to be four now –
That is a big deal.
That is cause for delighted giggling, and for concentrated practice with the little sister so that she no longer calls him three. It is reason to curl up into a cozy ball and snuggle all squirmy with Mommy and Daddy.
Turning four means a cake shaped like a four, with four candles on top, and his whole face lighting up with excitement because the cake is a number, and it is his number now!
Turning four means opening the most wonderful new book, one he never even imagined, in which prime factors and counting and modern art meet, and it hardly even matters that there are other unwrapped presents on the bench beside him because this, this book, has to be the best thing ever.
Turning four means getting to spend the afternoon at Grandma’s house, and swim in the hot tub, and choose what food everyone will eat for dinner, and generally spend the whole day enjoying himself.
And it is such a happy thing to be able to give him, a day of joy for his birthday, a day all about him, when he is so often the one who thinks of others first. He is the one who, seeing his sister’s favorite toys lying around, will bring them to her; he is the one who notices what his siblings are building with the Legos and finds pieces that they could use; he is the one who is always willing to share his cup or his snack with someone else who is hungry or thirsty; he is the one who will voluntarily take apart his flake creations so that his brother can have the color flakes he wants.
At four (and really at three, since a day doesn’t make much of a difference), he is keenly intelligent, deeply enamored with the world of numbers (he has broken down in tears because we had to stop reading a math book at bedtime; he invents his own simple word problems to ask us; he can multiply any two single digit numbers together and loves to skip count with chalk on the driveway to see the patterns in the series of multiples), and beginning to read; but it is his attention to the small details of his siblings’ lives, and the sweet care he gives them as a result, that mean more to me. And so just as I nurture his academic strengths with number games and puzzles to solve and books to read, I try to nurture his budding compassion and sensitivity by pouring into him connection and love. I hold him and when he looks at me I look straight back into his eyes because I know that is significant for him. We play the silly and sweet games of early childhood, meaningless save for the connections formed.
Because ultimately? No matter how intelligent he is or what he does with that intelligence, he needs to be assured of his parents’ unconditional love for him more than anything else. Maybe because he has this talent he needs that assurance even more – he already shows me that he has perfectionist tendencies regarding himself. But that assurance has to happen on his level. And he is four. He has just turned four, after all!
So for now? We are – we strive to be – his safe haven, his rich soil, his clean air, so he can grow in wisdom and knowledge. Happy fourth birthday, my Limerick.
It is hard to be a child. It is hard to be a parent.
It is harder still to be a child with a disability – to be noticeably different from the world while still having to find a way to live in it, to be growing and developing on a different timeline and watching younger friends and siblings attaining higher skills, to be unable to participate in “normal” activities and events. And it can be harder to be the parent of a different child as well: there is the pain of seeing your child left behind, isolated, excluded; there is the sorrow of knowing certain paths are closed for them; there is the hurt of watching them hurt, physically or mentally, because of their condition.
Anyone who denies that parenthood can be difficult is delusional, but in the autism world there is a subset of parents who twist their children’s difference into a curse, who portray themselves as martyrs and who thus by implication make themselves out to be the victims of their children’s autism (and, since autism is an integral part of a person, victims of their children). I haven’t had much contact with these parents, and I am not sure how large of a group they are though I have read about them often on neurodiversity advocacy websites, so I didn’t have the inoculation of experience to protect me when I opened up Pinterest and saw this image at the top of my home page:
This parent is clearly feeling resentful of their child. They see their son struggling, and instead of responding with compassion they just resent the burden that those struggles impose upon them as the parent. (So while they “see” their son’s struggles it doesn’t seem like they are knowing and understanding their son in his struggles.)
Well guess what?
Your son didn’t ask to have a parent who doesn’t want to hear his tears with love, or to help make his environment safer and more accepting so that he’s not continually triggered to tears and screams, or to view him with compassion and understanding.
Your son didn’t ask to be born autistic in a world that values normalcy and conformity, especially in children, who are expected to walk in obedient lockstep through the typical developmental stages and the standard grades of school.
And I can guarantee you that your son doesn’t want to scream and yell at you all day long. Every child – yes, even autistic children – want to have a relationship of peace and love with the people that they are most closely tied to. His behavior is how he is communicating to you that something in his life is horribly, terribly, wrong. He could be non-verbal and in physical pain he doesn’t know how to communicate or address (like my friend’s son often is). He could be overwhelmed by an uncomfortable sound or smell or feeling, and be unable to handle that sensory input on its own or in conjunction with some other social trigger (like my son often is). He could be in ABA training for hours each day and have no other way to tell you that it is sucking the life out of him to be forced into a neurotypical box where he knows he will always fail and always be judged.
Maybe you, as the adult in this relationship, need to address the anger issues you have with your son’s autism before blaming him for the way you are reacting to his attempts to communicate with you. I understand that things can be hard, but it is never appropriate to shame your child for his struggles on the most public forum possible (the Internet), and it is incredibly immature to add to that by insinuating that your struggles are all due to his inability to be a normal child, that you are some sort of martyr for putting up with him. Get the support you need, and check your attitude, in a private community where your child’s dignity can be protected and respected.
I love this second image so much because it acknowledges that both parents and children will struggle without victimizing either of them, without an attitude of resentment towards either of them, and with respect and tenderness towards both of them. (And it puts it so gently too!)
Like I said above, the hard and difficult behavior of a child, especially a child on the spectrum, and even more especially a non-verbal child, is a method of communication. Their needs and wants and struggles will show up in the way they act, and while their behaviors may be particularly challenging for a parent to deal with, they are a symptom of something deeper that is wrong.
And if you are that parent, faced with those challenging behaviors, feeling at the end of your rope, unsupported in your own struggles, please find help, and please do not blame your child or their autism for your struggles. Honestly, blaming anything only leads to more resentment. Try to see those behaviors as a clue to finding the best way to support and help your child. Try to see your child as fully human and fully deserving of respect and dignity despite their struggles and the struggles you have as their parent. And try to remember that no matter how hard your day is – as a neurotypical adult in a world set up for the way you operate – that your child’s day – as a neurodivergent child in a world foreign and alien to the way they operate – was almost certainly harder.
The Phoenix area was hit by the remnants of Hurricane Rosa, a category 4 hurricane, this week. My dad, who is from Miami, was going around humorously asking everyone if they were ready for the hurricane, but of course by the time it got to us it was just a big rainstorm. Still! A big rainstorm in October isn’t common, and this storm actually gave us the rainiest October day in Arizona recorded history (which goes back, in terms of weather records, to 1895). Even crazier, of the top ten wettest days in Arizona, this was number eight and was the only one that my kids have been alive for (except for Rondel, who was just over one year old when we had the wettest recorded day in Arizona history).
So what do you do when there is more rain coming down than you have ever seen in one day in your entire life?
You drop everything else and immerse yourself in it, of course!
My two adventurers were out in their pajamas by 7am (I mean, why get dressed only to get immediately soaked and need to change?), and must have stayed out for at least an hour before they decided they needed to eat breakfast. And after breakfast they were right back out in it, with Limerick this time (but in their underwear, so no publicly shareable pictures unfortunately). Limerick found the big hole in the yard that was completely submerged and hidden, pulled the toy car out of it, and measured how deep it was on his legs (almost to his knees); Rondel pushed Aubade around the yard in the rescued car until it got stuck in the mud.
I learned that one of my children likes to get extremely muddy, one likes to get extremely wet and can handle the mud along with it, and the third somehow manages to stay almost clean even in a mud puddle and prefers to remain at least somewhat dry.
Aubade is, obviously, my mudlover… she is completely in her element when she is outside getting dirty, and I hope she never loses that. Limerick gets cold so easily that he preferred to sit just inside the house or under the patio overhang, learning how to multiply two-digit numbers with my mom while I hung out with the mud babies 😛 But we all loved it – and there is rain in the forecast again next week so maybe we will get a repeat!
Is rain a normal occurrence or a special event where you live? Do you love it or tolerate it?