It's been a summer of contradictions.
Ben's social and language skills have taken off like gang busters to the point where it feels like he is actually having conversations with us at times. While he is still somewhat echolalic, it seems wholly intentional now: something he is choosing to do for fun and play, rather than something that he does to retreat inside himself or as a substitute for spontaneous language.
He's spent the summer in a mainstream preschool environment with two wonderful teachers who leverage his strengths, adapt their communication style to his needs, and respond with compassion to his challenges.
I would go so far as to say that in some ways, Ben is now within an acceptable standard deviation of a typical four and a half year old.
But as Ben's social skills develop and as he finds himself more comfortable joining the wild world of preschool playground politics, certain aspects of his personality become exposed, and he becomes much more vulnerable.
When he used to spend most of his time at school playing by himself, his extreme rigidity and need for control was hidden in plain sight. Walking around the playground perimeter by himself, reciting a story, allowed him to exert control over his world and avoid the unpredictability of other children.
Now, the social urge we always knew to be there is backed up by the language and play skills he needs to join in. But when he does, he becomes quickly upset when other kids don't do what he wants, or don't respond to his orders the way his trains do.
A little girl at a playground is shoved when she is piling wood chips on a swing in a way Ben finds unacceptable.
A playmate is hit when he doesn't say "goodbye" after Ben repeatedly waves and yells goodbye to him.
A classmate is scratched to the point of bleeding when he tells Ben he can't come in the play structure with him.
Another playmate is pushed when he unknowingly enters the space Ben has established as the castle in the story he is methodically acting out.
A boy is kicked when he pushes the button in the elevator before Ben.
And that's just in the past week.
It's not only play with other children that brings out this rigidity, but other unexpected turn of events as well.
The worst episode Ben had this summer was when a new staff member at the school (who had no information about Ben's challenges) was pouring water from a pitcher for Ben to have a drink. Some water spilled on the table.
Ben threw the pitcher, went after the teacher, and proceeded to tear apart the classroom before a more experienced staff person got a hold of him.
My impression was that there were a lot of things that contributed to the outburst beyond spilled water - it was simply the final straw - but things like this make me feel utterly helpless. Especially when there is another child hurt, another parent or adult who is distressed.
I become completely forgetful of the progress he has made. I forget that he will sometimes take deep breaths to calm himself down, that he can sometimes redirect himself with minimal prompts, that he reaches out for help more often, and expresses his feelings more easily.
My instinct is to protect him, but I can't. How else will he learn flexibility except by being in the world with all its spilled water and other injustices?
And how do you write an IEP goal that measures mellowing out?