Sunday, November 25, 2007

How to Play Candyland (Ben's Rules)

1. Run your gingerbread man game piece along the colored path like it’s a train on train tracks.

2. Recite lines from the story, The Gingerbread Man: "Run, run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me – I’m the gingerbread man!"

3. Repeat this line at least a dozen times.

4. Now recite a portion of the story, The Stinky Cheese Man (a satire of The Gingerbread Man.) Enlist Mommy to be the old woman in the story. Insist she pretend she is making your face out of olives and a slice of bacon, per the text.

5. Ignore Mommy’s questions about the color of the squares on the card she’s holding.

6. Read the names of all the picture locations on the game board.

7. When you get to the Molasses Swamp, get your stuffed animals and have each of them cross the swamp and act out the scene from the Backyardigans show “Pirate Treasure” where the characters cross a bubbling mud pit.

8. Walk out of the room to another activity. Leaving the game board, the cards, the game pieces and Mommy behind.

9. You win!

Elapsed time: 5 minutes.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Picky Eater

It’s Thanksgiving morning and I’m thinking about how nice it would be if Ben were to sit at the dinner table later and eat turkey, potatoes and gravy with everyone else. But I know this won’t happen.

I used to feel anxious about Ben’s picky eating habits and that I was responsible. After all, parental advice – the kind you find in magazines and on morning television news segments – tells us children simply need the right introduction to healthy foods. Put a happy face on the lentil patties, provide a dip with the carrot sticks, make little sailboats out of the sweet potato wedges, start calling the broccoli “pixie trees” and kids will happily eat up.

In other words, it’s your fault if your kid won’t eat vegetables because you just aren’t being creative enough.

The director of Ben’s Montessori pre-school, in her letter to parents describing the school's policy on healthy lunches1, indicates that she believes this, too.

If you find your child will not eat fresh fruits and vegetables, try taking them on a trip to the Berkeley Bowl. Allow them to see, touch and smell the many varieties of fresh produce that are available. It is a fun experience as well as educational and it will help you tune into your child’s likes and dislikes as well as supporting their own adventure into personal tastes.

Now, for those of you who don’t live in the Bay Area, you may not know that one of our major religions is Food. And one of the places of worship for this religion is The Berkeley Bowl, which is basically just a huge supermarket that sells an astonishing variety of organic and locally grown produce. Many people around here – including this preschool director2 - have a sort of mystical attitude toward this place – that shopping there can cure cancer and create world peace and make preschoolers eat vegetables.

Please. No toddler I know is capable of feeling reverence for The Berkeley Bowl like your typical grownup Northern California foodie. And I seriously doubt that if I took Ben to the Berkeley Bowl – rather than, say, Safeway – to help pick out our produce, he would not suddenly be interested in kale, butternut squash and mission figs. Even if they were grown by an independent farm collective outside of Petaluma and picked just this morning.3

In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, children at this age are actually equipped with a tendency of neophobia, or the fear of eating anything unfamiliar. It makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary point of view. A three-year-old cave kid is running around the forest out of view of the cave mom. He encounters a mushroom or berry bush. Luckily, he has an inborn instinct to prevent him from putting these things in his mouth.4

This provides a satisfying explanation for Ben’s behavior of not showing interest or curiosity in any food that he hasn’t eaten before.

And there’s another reason I’m no longer worried about his eating habits. The teachers at his special education program he attends every morning are actually impressed by Ben’s eating – both the amount and the variety. “That kid can EAT!” noted the speech therapist.

So when I thought Ben was picky, it was just because I wasn’t comparing Ben to the right peer group. Compared to his ASD friends – kids who only eat things shaped liked circles, only eat foods that are white, only eat food that can be picked up with their fingers – Ben is a regular gourmand. “He eats fruit!” his teacher told us recently, clearly amazed.

Now I’m finishing this post on Thanksgiving night, and I can report with a great deal of satisfaction and surprise that earlier today our neophobe ate an entire slice of heretofore unknown pumpkin pie.5


1. The policy is entirely sensible, by the way.

2. Granted, this is the same woman who suggested that maybe we could have Ben imagine the sound of a flute to get him to calm down when he felt frustrated.

3. We do, for the record, go to Farmer's Markets to get much of our produce and Ben gets that fruit does not come in cans or wrapped in styrofoam.

4. The article says that neophobia wears off starting around age 5 or 6, or as I have observed in close friends and family members, around age 30. Besides, you really have to be a mature adult to have the courage to even try swiss chard. I mean c’mon – who likes that stuff?

5. Which, according to various internet sources I found, has anywhere between 79% and 157% of the daily recommended requirement of vitamin A.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pretending to be normal

I’ve noted a few times on this blog, I think, that while Ben has always had an intense interest in books, he has never interacted with them in a typical way. By typical, I mean the way that small children point to things in books and ask about them or make observations about them. “The monkey fell in the water!” or “What’s that?” or “Who’s that man?”

So I was surprised when Ben did exactly that the other night, but in an extremely unusual context.

It was bedtime and Ben asked if we could read Hush Little Baby, a very sweet board book by Sylvia Long that we’ve had since he was born. The illustrations show a mother rabbit putting her little rabbit to bed, set to a riff on the Mockingbird song. For example, “If that teddy bear won’t hug, momma’s going to catch you a lightning bug.” and so on.

Ben wanted to act out each illustration, having me pose with him to reproduce the scenes in the book. We shushed each other, we looked up at the evening star, and then when the text read, “When that star has dropped from view, momma’s going to read a book with you,” Ben hopped off my lap and grabbed an entirely different book – Five Little Pumpkins by Dan Yaccarino – and brought it to me.

He opened it and looked right into my eyes, smiled brilliantly, pointed to the page and asked,

“What’s that, Mommy?”

“It’s a happy pumpkin.”

He pointed again, even more enthusiastically, “What’s that?”

“It’s a sad pumpkin.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a laughing pumpkin,” I said, somewhat mystified. He had been able to read this book on his own for six months and we had just celebrated Halloween and he knew darn well what these things were. I played along anyway.

After a few moments, he put the pumpkin book away and resumed our staging of Hush Little Baby.

It took a few minutes for it to dawn on me. He was pretending to read – to read like other young children read, presumably the way the little rabbit in the picture would have read. By actually interacting with an adult, talking about the content and making eye contact. As opposed to the way Ben actually reads, which is to say that he… actually reads.

He was pretending to be normal.

Every time I think about it, it blows my mind.

Somehow, he knows that other children do not tend to study a book – every line – intently and commit it to memory. He must have observed other children interacting with books and seen how they behave. And he must know – at some level, in some part of his brain – that he is different...or maybe, that everyone else is.

And he can act out what other children do, even when he has never really done these things himself.

Does this open up all sorts of learning opportunities? Can we help him “pretend” to take turns, or pretend to share toys, or pretend to stay calm, or pretend to take an interest in other people?


After all, isn’t that what being an adult really is? Don’t many of us get through a day at the office or a social gathering or a job interview by doing just that: by pretending to be normal?

Friday, November 9, 2007


What motivates humans to have conversations? Surely our cave-dwelling ancestors were not especially chatty. Early language must have been purely for survival: “Look out for that tiger!” - rather than for the sake of small talk: “Cute animal skin. Where did you get it?” or “That cave drawing is the most pretentious piece of crap I’ve ever seen.”

I don’t know any anthropological linguists or linguistic anthropologists (and I’m not sure that’s even a real thing), but if I did, I’m pretty sure that they’d tell me that at some point human language changed from being something practical to something that also builds relationships and bonds between people and serves as a form of self-expression.

Why am I pondering this? Well, 1) I commute to work in a car with no stereo and 2) as I observe Ben having difficulty developing conversational skills, it makes me wonder: Is this a processing disorder - just the result of faulty wiring in his brain, or does he simply not LIKE conversation?

He is quite good at communicating his needs, his wants, his displeasure or discomfort and is even starting to ask simple questions to get information. He’s great at answering factual questions, and even makes jokes in order to make us laugh.

And of course, he’s freakishly skilled at mimicking the conversations he learns in books or videos. He includes all of the emotion and inflection of the hammiest master thespian, barks stage directions to us, and becomes upset when we miss our line.

But often, when I prompt him with a simple question about his day and try to lure him into a conversation, he will say outright, “No talk about it, Mommy!” or “Stop talking about that!” Sometimes he’ll cover my mouth with his hand.

He’s actively resisting conversation. He’s not just ignoring me, which I’m used to. He’s smart enough to understand what I’m doing, and he’s opting out.

So, I’ve been thinking about how conversation functions for people and wondering: Just what, exactly, is he opting out of?

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. Conversation allows us to:

• Express things about ourselves and our experiences

• Reciprocate this expression to create the sense of relationship

• Show interest in one another by asking questions

• Provoke an emotional response from the other person – surprise, laughter, shock, delight

• Prolong an interaction by contributing related or unrelated observations, expressions or questions

If Ben feels perfectly related and bonded and expressive without doing these things, perhaps he does not need conversation at this moment. Or maybe he's just baffled by the illogical nature of it, like Mark Haddon’s 15 year-old autistic protagonist in the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime?

At one point in the story, a neighbor woman tries to engage the boy in conversation:

(S)he said, “I see you every day, going to school.”

I didn’t reply to this.

And she said, "It’s very nice of you to come and say hello.”

I didn’t reply to this either because Mrs. Alexander was doing what is called chatting, where people say things to each other which aren’t questions and answers and aren’t connected.

Learning conversation, rather than having it develop naturally, is certainly possible. I’ve read accounts of adults with Asberger’s who describe how they learned the rules of conversation like one learns the somewhat arbitrary rules of etiquette.

Ben may need to learn conversation as a set of rules, but my instincts tell me that eventually he’ll come to appreciate the intrinsic rewards of talking with another person simply for the sake of enjoyment.

And I know that he is learning, somehow, bit by bit.

We arrived at a birthday party for one of his (neuro-typical) classmates recently and Ben remembered to do what we had talked about in advance. He ran up to his friend and said, excitedly, “Happy Birthday, Sawyer!” not once, but three times, also adding a little wave for effect.

Sawyer grimaced, turned and walked away.

Oh well. So much for intrinsic rewards.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Tonight, the role of Tyrone will be played by...

Ben is now in the habit of recasting the stories he recites and/or acts out with completely different characters. He substitutes the new character's name for every instance of the original, and changes the pronouns - correctly and consistently - throughout.

A few examples:

The Backyardigans story, The Secret of Snow, is inhabited by the cast of Caillou.

  • The Ice Lady: Calliou (becomes The Ice Boy)
  • The Ice Lady's assistant: Rosie
  • Uniqua: Sarah

The Cars Read-a-long Book, specifically in the scene where Lightning goes on a drive with Sally, becomes a family drama.
  • Lightning McQueen: Ben
  • Sally: Mommy

The Thomas the Tank Engine story, Cranky Bugs, specifically the scene of the ship crashing into the sheds, is retold featuring classmates from preschool.

  • Cranky: Saki
  • Duck: Gabi
  • Gordon: Wesley
  • Sir Topham Hat: Lourdes
  • References to "the engines": "the children"
  • References to "the shed": "the playground"

The Backyardigans story, Secret Agents, is played with a cast of stuffed animals.

  • Agent Pablo: Wedgehead (the Ugly Doll)
  • Agent Uniqua: Monkey
  • Agent Tyrone: Corduroy (the Bear)

The book, The Napping House, again, the ensemble of stuffed animals.

  • The granny: Ben
  • The child: Corduroy
  • The dog: Monkey
  • The cat: Pooh
  • The mouse: Doggie
  • The flea: Max (plush version of Where the Wild Things Are character)