Saturday, May 31, 2008

Play with me

Our coffee table is back in the middle of our living room again.

We have had the coffee table pushed back against a wall for at least six months to allow for a semi-permanent, gigantic wooden railroad track to consume most of the living room floor space.

This is because Ben has always spent a good deal of his waking hours playing by himself with his trains.

I've seen him spend stretches of 90 minutes at a time with his trains - reciting stories, making up stories, singing songs, stacking engines up in various configurations; all without the need for interaction from us. The huge space we allowed the trains to inhabit seemed appropriate: proportional to the psychic space they occupied in his life.

But over the last few months, there's been a gradual shift in Ben's activities. He's been spending more and more time interacting with us and playing on his own less. In the past few weeks, the shift has been so dramatic that he's been content to put the tracks away in boxes (thank you Container Store) and we've moved the coffee table back to the center of the room.

I don't really care where the coffee table sits, actually, but the rearrangement of the furniture feels like a symbolic victory marking Ben's move toward interaction and away from isolation.

Tonight's activities are a good example of how things are different around here.

When he returned from preschool he ran into the house and shouted, with the enthusiasm of a wedding DJ, "Let's play a game, Mommy and Daddy! It's caaaaaaaalled...Candy Land!"

After a bit of Candy Land, Ben led us in a round of the Hokey Pokey, then we all marched around the house.

Then he discovered a pack of Trident on the counter and when I showed him what it was and how you chew gum, he was content for at least 15 minutes to watch and giggle as I blew bubbles.

Next it was time for antics. Antics involve Ben begging to be chased, tickled, kissed loudly, eaten, held upside down and given raspberries on his stomach over and over. Uproarious laughter and squealing are involved. Until recently, antics were usually reserved for right before bedtime. These days, Ben ropes us into antics about every 45 minutes.

Then a break for some Go, Diego, Go and dinner.

After dinner it was time to pretend Daddy was an elephant, then a horse for riding on.

Next more Candy Land, and a game of "What would happen if...?" which is a new game Ben came up with a few weeks ago where we ask each other about various hypothetical situations like, "What would happen if Swiper the Fox turned into spaghetti and meatballs?" and invent answers.

He didn't touch his trains until 7:45, three hours after he got home.

Ben's need for more interaction with us feels like a hugely significant milestone, but it's exhausting in a whole new way. I realize now how much I had been taking advantage of his independent play to do my own thing or to tune out. After a brief stint of trying Floortime when he was three, I let it go and simply let him take the lead, giving him the space he seemed to want and need.

I'm still letting him take the lead, but now he's initiating hallway soccer games, family dance routines, and games of hide and seek. And while I'm thrilled, I'm also tired.

But at least now I can put my feet up on the coffee table.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Neurodiversity Primer

If you have the time, I urge you to check out this excellent article on the autism neurodiversity movement from the most recent New York Magazine. It's called The Autism Rights Movement.

It does a nice job of explaining why the "what is autism?" issue is so complicated, and how the sickness vs. personality debate is as seemingly intractable and polarizing as the debates (can you even call them debates?) surrounding abortion or evolution.

It's unfortunate, though not surprising, that the different sides are so hostile towards each other. And, as is the case in most American political discourse, the spokespeople on the extreme ends of an issue are inherently more quotable and interesting than anyone expressing a nuanced opinion.

But my sense is that the vast majority of people whose lives are affected in some way by autism inhabit a middle ground captured nicely by autism activist (and person with autism) Temple Grandin:

Autism is a continuum from genius to extremely handicapped. If you got rid of all the autism genetics, you’d get rid of scientists, musicians, mathematicians. Some guy with high-functioning Asperger’s developed the first stone spear; it wasn’t developed by the social ones yakking around the campfire.

The problem is, you talk to parents with a low-functioning kid, who’ve got a teenager who still goes to the bathroom in his pants and who’s biting himself all the time...His life is miserable. It would be nice if you could prevent the most severe forms of nonverbal autism.

I wonder if some day, there will be research that shows that what we think of as autism is actually a bunch of different brain conditions with distinct etiologies that respond to different treatments. This will explain, perhaps, the spectrum we know as autism from "lovably quirky" at one end to severely disabled at the other.

Until then, I'm grateful to those like Grandin in the neurodiversity movement whose stories are helping to create understanding and acceptance that will surely benefit all of us, no matter what we think about the issue.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day (or, Mom 2.0)

Since I've been writing this blog, I've connected with lots of mothers who use blogs to write truthfully about parenting. They've inspired me and made me laugh and often made me feel a lot less crazy.

Blogs and other "Web 2.0" tools that allow individuals to easily author, not just consume, on-line content have given voice to thousands of parents who are compelled to record and reflect on their experience, to publish what they write, and to reach out to others and build their own communities.

Some might dismiss this phenomenon or bemoan it as a poor substitute for the days when we didn't need to build our own communities because they existed all around us. Mothers used to just gather at the playground and share all this stuff with each other, the nostalgic argument goes, before we all went to work and started watching too much TV and lost our sense of community.

But I'm not so sure this is the same thing. First of all, have you EVER finished a sentence with another parent when your kid is around?

And writing is a different act than talking. It's creative and reflective, but it also allows you to put an analytical distance from the emotion of a particular moment, get unhooked, and see things in a different light.

Back when everyone knew everyone else on the block and mothers gathered in real rather than virtual spaces did mothers still feel, at times, isolated? Most definitely.

I publish what I write because when I first heard the word "Hyperlexia" I could find few books to help me, and most of what I found on-line was clinical and cursory. I wanted to read stories. I wanted to read about what day-to-day living looks like with a child like this: at 5, at 10 at 15. And I guess more than anything, I wanted to feel connected with other parents, who like me, found this experience fascinating and gratifying and often hilarious.

So I wrote it down and shared it with you hoping that some of you would stumble across it when you first heard the word "Hyperlexia." Some of you did, and when you let me know that it helped you I could not have been happier.

In her latest letter to her daughter, blogger and mother Heather Armstrong responds to critics that say that what mothers do when we write about our children is narcissistic or even exploitative.

Will you resent me for this website? Absolutely. And I have spent hours and days and months of my life considering this, weighing your resentment against the good that can come from being open and honest about what it's like to be your mother, the good for you, the good for me, and the good for other women who read what I write here and walk away feeling less alone. And I have every reason to believe that one day you will look at the thousands of pages I have written about my love for you, the thousands of pages other women have written about their own children, and you're going to be so proud that we were brave enough to do this. We are an army of educated mothers who have finally stood up and said pay attention, this is important work, this is hard, frustrating work and we're not going to sit around on our hands waiting for permission to do so. We have declared that our voices matter.

I can't possibly add anything more eloquent than that.

So Happy Mother's Day to all the blogging moms and the reading moms and all the moms everywhere. Let's keep telling our stories to each other and to anyone who will listen.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Why I Heart TV

I live in a part of the country where you regularly see a certain bumper sticker that urges you to “Kill Your Television.” It’s well-intentioned. I understand where they’re coming from. In principle, I agree. But I’m not killing my television any time soon. In fact, I love television.

It’s not just for the handful of shows that I enjoy in my frequent exhausted stupor1. It’s because I credit television for teaching Ben many of his most important social language concepts.

Ben learned to answer yes/no questions and how to think in a sequence of events from watching Dora the Explorer. He honed his imaginative play skills and developed a repertoire of all-purpose sayings2 by watching The Backyardigans. He adjusted to riding the school bus by watching Caillou. And now he’s learning cause and effect and social problem solving (not to mention a little Mandarin) from watching Ni Hao, Kai-lan.3

Before I had Ben, I had this idea that my child would not watch much TV. That we would play with nice old-fashioned wooden toys instead of branded, plastic crap from Target. And we would use our imaginations rather than have television prescribe our storylines.

But as fast as you can say, “Cancel my subscription to Mothering magazine” I found myself with a kid who watches, and loves, TV.

When I say TV, I’m not being completely accurate. Ben does not actually know that television is a broadcast medium, nor does he know that Chris and I watch television shows ourselves, since we only do this after he is in bed.4

The television, for him, is a toy that offers shows on-demand: shows that are either recorded via DVR or played from a DVD.5

I think it started with a series of Scholastic videos that were adaptations of his favorite books. I’ve written about how Ben loves the multi-modal approach to stories, watching the video and following along in the book. And these always seemed sort of highbrow and guilt-free. After all, they were adaptations of Caldecott Award winners: videos even a librarian would love.

Then we got a Dora the Explorer video as a gift. As anyone in the 2-6 year old set knows, Dora actually pauses to allow the viewer to participate and interact. And this style of children's program showed me a whole new side to Ben’s relationship with television.

At the time he was somewhere between two and three years old and had almost no spontaneous language. He was fascinated with the video and would ask to watch portions again and again. Then he started responding and interacting with Dora. He was answering her questions.

He had never answered my questions.

That’s when I decided it might actually be good for him to watch videos. And so he does. About 2 30-minute shows each day. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

And he never just watches videos: he studies them. And it pays off. He picks up useful social language that he generalizes to actual situations.6

For example, tonight we were at a neighbor’s house and I told him it was time to go home. He sat down on the stairs and whined, “It’s not FAIR!”

A parent with a typical kid would find this mildly annoying, but it was so perfectly appropriate, in tone and style and context, I was thrilled. It’s a line from a TV show, which Ben inserted perfectly to express how he was feeling.

Think of it this way: If you were just starting to learn French, wouldn’t you rather practice your French skills at home with the Berlitz tape than at a formal dinner party in Paris? You could play phrases over and over. You would be in control. It wouldn’t be so chaotic and unpredictable. It would be less scary. You’d feel more confident.

Learning from television (videos, DVDs, TIVO, whatever) is less anxiety-provoking than learning from people when you have an overwhelming need for your world to be predictable.

Knowing exactly what’s coming up next probably gives Ben a sense of order and control and being able to watch things many times over, I think, helps him to better process and understand what he’s seeing and hearing.

And I’m not a neurologist, but my guess is that when you’re not experiencing anxiety, your brain is far more open to learning.

I might not feel the same way once Ben learns to use the remote and I stop being able to mediate what and when and how much TV he consumes, but for now, I love our on-demand access to a speech therapist (Kai Lan) a play group (the Backyardigans) and social stories (Caillou).7

Now if you’ll excuse me, I've got some episodes of Dinner:Impossible to catch up on.


1. Lost, 30 Rock, The Office, The Amazing Race, Flight of the Conchords (on DVD – we don’t have HBO)

2. Including these excellent opening gambits for playing with other kids: "Arrr - I'm a pirate!" "3-2-1 Blastoff!" and "Yee Haw - ride'm cowboy!"

3. I’m not being paid by the folks at Nick Jr. to say this.

4. We once had the Oscars on and Ben just regarded the television curiously, then ignored it, as if it were broken or stuck.

5. If you don’t know what those acronyms stand for, then go right back to reading that chicken pox party article in Mothering magazine.

6. He also commits them to memory and recites them ad nauseum.

7. We do not allow Barney in our house. We do have standards.

Autism and the campaign: revisited

I recently wrote about my dismay over the candidates pandering to those who believe that vaccines are the cause of autism.

Out of curiosity, I did a little research and found that Barack Obama is the only candidate that appears to have a detailed position on Autism. He actually has a pretty impressive position paper on Autism Spectrum Disorders and what he would do as president to prioritize research, treatment and support for families.

Read the position paper.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A singing frog

I've been thinking a lot about an old Warner Brothers cartoon I used to see as a kid. While it seldom made it into the rotation on The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour on Saturday mornings, I remember it vividly. The name of it is One Froggy Evening.

The story goes like this: A construction worker discovers a box in the cornerstone of an old building that's being demolished. When he opens the box, a frog jumps out and puts on a top hat and launches into "Ragtime Gal" in the style of Al Jolson. The construction worker sneaks away with the box and prepares to make his fortune as the promoter of the world's only singing, dancing frog.

But each time he attempts to show off the frog - for a talent agent, for a crowd at a theater - the frog merely sits like a lump, just croaking. And each time he is alone with the frog, the frog belts out another number. The man is ridiculed and humiliated and ultimately ends up penniless, sitting on a park bench alone with a frog singing an aria.

There is often such a stark contrast between Ben's theatrics and antics with us at home and how he sometimes acts around strangers that it makes me think of the man and the frog in this cartoon.

For example, Ben spends a lot of time at home walking around the house singing at the top of his lungs and dramatically acting out various scenes from books and TV shows. But at his weekly dance class this Saturday, he stood motionless, staring into the mirror as the other kids learned a number from The Aristocats and barely spoke above a whisper when it was his turn to say his "line" in front of the class.

I find most of these no-you-should-see-him-at-home moments pretty funny. But sometimes they sting. Like when a preschool teacher informed me that Ben saw "no difference between a person and a piece of furniture."

And I thought about this cartoon was when we got a 12-page report from an assessment conducted by a psychologist from the Regional Center of the East Bay. It's a great report, but it describes Ben in the driest, clinical detail (appropriate for a report of this nature). It doesn't even begin to convey the goofy, giggly kid that begs to be tickled and chased around the house, or the kid who runs across a playground to greet his play date buddy with a hug.

Ben had limited facial expressions which he rarely directed toward the examiner. It was difficult to recognize when he was excited except by slightly increased rate of speech. His eye contact was typically inappropriate.

What the psychiatrist saw was the croaking frog Ben, not the Al Jolson Ben. And that's fine, because only frogs qualify for services. But in those situations, its hard not to want the world to see what I do. Not because I ever feel humiliated like the character in the cartoon, but because Ben is just so awesome. It seems like every day he does something that defies expectations.

Like the other day when some friends of ours dropped by. Ben practically worked himself into a frenzy of glee interacting with their 8-year old daughter. And it was honest to goodness social communication in that he was talking to her merely to extend the interaction. And isn't this the very definition of small talk: I'll just keep talking even though I don't have anything to say so that you will keep paying attention to me.

I think all parents experience the same disappointment, from time to time, that the man in the cartoon does: wanting others to see your child's talents the way you do, and I'm not even talking about the unhealthy stage-mother way.

But the other thing that this silly little story gets at is how all of us behave different with the people we love than we do in the world. Only when we feel totally safe can we take risks, show our true emotions, let it all hang out. So the world can actually never see our kids the way we do and that's probably a really good thing.

So, for right now anyway, we'll make a safe place for Ben to be himself, and with any luck, help him find ways to expand the territory of that safe place a little farther into the world.

And while not everyone will see it for themselves, I know it's true. My frog can really sing.