This is a guest post by my husband Chris, who in addition to being Ben's dad spends weekday afternoons as Ben's 1:1 aide. I asked him to write up this story so I could share with you.
Ben's time at his Montessori school includes an awful lot of what parents of spectrum kids most fear: unstructured outdoor free play. One-and-a-half hours at lunch, and another one-and-a-half hours (or more) at the beginning of aftercare.
He's been doing fairly well considering the sheer amount of time he has to navigate each day, if you're measuring "well" by the decreasing frequency with which he physically assaults one of his classmates in response to provocations both real and unintentional.
But he hasn't been playing much with others.
He'll sit by himself, read a book by himself, or push a trike around the yard by himself (without using the pedals, of course). In the past week he's latched onto a small multicolored basketball, and has been making half-hearted attempts at dribbling. When he joins other kids on the small carpet to play with Legos or plastic zoo animals, he's typically playing in parallel.
On some days the boys try to recruit me for a game of Jail, but Ben's attempts to help me escape or elude capture soon cross over into actual anxiety about why won't these kids let go of my Daddy. So we have to break up the game before much time has passed.
Back in the spring and summer Ben spent playtime with a younger mix of kids, who were more likely to start up a simple game of running and shouting. Ben still enjoys this kind of play, where enthusiasm and volume are more important than roles or storyline.
But this is Pre-K and older. His same-age peers are trying to act a little cooler, a little more mature.
I have to admit I've come home most nights feeling dejected. I had thought the point of paying for the Montessori school was to enable Ben to build on his social skills. To keep him in a community of typical kids he already knows and likes. If he's just going to stick to himself why are we spending all this money?
Then The Little Mermaid happened.
Ben had known the story of course, from the Read-Along Book and CD. And we'd picked up another storybook version after he'd sat for a long time in a bookstore looking at it. But he'd never seen the movie.
So after learning Ariel's song "Part Of Your World" from a Disney Sing-A-Long video, and seeing two more songs ("Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl") on another video, Ben spoke up very sweetly this weekend "Mommy, you know what I wish? That we had the Little Mermaid movie."
Mommy, ever the advance planner, pulled the DVD out of a closet and made his wish come true.
So, he sat and watched the entire movie, adding his own narration from the Read-Along story he'd memorized, at all the right spots in between the dialogue.
WELL, you can imagine that this created an opportunity for some small talk on the playground Monday afternoon.
As the kids ate their afterschool snack I encouraged Ben and a couple of girls at the table to share their favorite parts of The Little Mermaid. (We'd had this conversation before, but now Ben had actually seen the movie himself.)
The next day at lunchtime (as reported to me by Ben's early-afternoon aide), Ben and his friend Madeleine struck up the conversation again (without adult prompting). Apparently Madeleine knew the movie well enough that she knew all of Ariel's lines.
Before long the two of them began ACTING OUT THE STORY TOGETHER. And by the end of lunch two or three more kids had joined in.
This is exactly the kind of play we do at home as a family, and Ben was clearly thrilled by it. When I arrived at school he kept asking me where Madeleine was (for a portion of the afternoon the class is broken up into two groups). And heading out to aftercare he followed her in line, starting to tell the story as they walked. He squeezed in next to her on a bench that was already quite full, asking her to sing "Part Of Your World" with him, although she wasn't in the mood.
Wednesday at lunch he and Madeleine were at it again, singing, running, jumping, and telling the story of The Little Mermaid. Another boy joined in who had played the day before, but he (as Ursula, the villain) and Ben (as Eric) got a little too method in the big fight scene, and had to be pulled apart.
Today at lunch he asked Madeleine again to play The Little Mermaid. She said no at first, but when he asked again five minutes later she agreed. And with her and two other kids they played for half an hour.
When I arrived the teachers were effusive about how well he had played with everyone. To this point I still hadn't witnessed it myself.
But in aftercare I discovered that Mads had been talking up Ben's playacting skills with one of the older girls. The two of them ran over to where Ben was eating his snack.
"Ben!" shouted Madeleine. "When you're done eating, will you come play The Little Mermaid with us?"
Ben just squinted at her and offered his all-purpose non-committal expression. "Well..."
"You HAVE to help us! You have to give the directions!"
He agreed, and continued to eat. A few minutes later the girls ran back to where we sat.
"Are you done yet?" They shouted in unison.
"Nope," said Ben.
"Aw, shucks!" They echoed each other.
While Ben asked me what "Aw, shucks!" meant, my brain was busy trying to process the fact that these two girls were WAITING for Ben to come play with them--a type of play that he LOVES. He wasn't simply being included; he was ESSENTIAL.
Ben finished his snack, impatiently zipped up his backpack, and joined Madeleine and the older girl for a rousing performance of The Little Mermaid. Both girls assumed the role of Ariel, and Ben assumed the roles of everyone else: Eric, Sir Grimsby, Flounder, Scuttle, Sebastian, Ursula, King Triton, and the narrator.
At various points in the story where Ariel has no lines, Ben could be observed walking away from the girls, describing (for example) the fury of the storm that tosses Eric overboard, with a flurry of wild gesticulations and hissed consonants. But then he would run back to them to prompt them to speak the next line of dialogue.
At times the girls were distracted by a teacher who was blowing bubbles for all the kids to chase, but they kept coming back and asking Ben to continue, even after he had given up on them and started telling the story of Finding Nemo to himself.
The big finale was interrupted by a group painting activity, so I didn't see Ben attempt the closing kiss--although I did see him engineer a VERY near-miss with the older girl during the moment in the story that accompanies the song "Kiss the Girl". (Close enough that I think she started getting nervous.)
It's likely Mads and the other kids will tire of acting out this particular story before Ben does. So despite my ambivalence towards the Disney media empire, I do now believe that Ben's social development will be aided by his familiarity with other stories favored by his peers (especially, perhaps, the girls).
Tonight as we were leaving I asked Madeleine what her other favorite movies were.
"Snow White," she said. "And Sleeping Beauty."
Done and done.