Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Five Years Old

BenAt5.jpg

Dear Ben -

You are turning five years old today.

You're a big kid now - at least, this is what I keep telling you.

Especially when you continue to insist on eating spaghetti one noodle at a time with your fingers or still ask me to carry your 43 pound self from one place to another.

But you have grown into an amazing big kid, and you do so many things now that I could not have imagined.

It seems like only a little while ago, we were worried about how your imaginative play skills were lagging behind your typical peers.

Now, you create elaborate and nuanced pretend worlds that leave your friends struggling to keep up with your rapid-fire imagination.

Most importantly, you are able to pretend you are 1) firing a laser and 2) falling into lava, which allows you to play with nearly any typical five-year-old boy.

Experts told us that you would probably have trouble showing empathy or strong emotions for others, and that we would have to teach you that over time.

But last week, your teacher described to me how big tears welled up in your eyes when she had to break it to the class that Dr. Martin Luther King - the subject of circle time that day - had died. You told her you wished that the class could gather around him and protect him, led by you with your magic sword.

You hadn't known until then that good people - not just witches and dragons - die, too. And you cried.

Last year I worried our living room would be forever taken over by your Thomas the Tank Engine railway and that you would develop few other interests.

As of today, you haven't played with your trains - really played obsessively - for months. It seems you'd rather act out a story with us, or make up a pretend adventure with action figures (which you now actually play with instead of stacking into various architectural forms.)

The clinical literature on Hyperlexia warned us that although your reading abilities would advance far beyond your years, you would never really comprehend what you read.

But it seems that each day, you are acting out and improvising on a plot line from a book, or generalizing vocabulary from a book to a real situation, showing us that you do often understand and comprehend.

(A side note: You have just become interested in the Magic Treehouse chapter book mega-series, and this week read 3 chapters of your new book aloud on your own, missing only the words "mirage" and "sarcophagus.")

I read that you're not supposed to develop what's called theory of mind, or the ability to anticipate and imagine what someone else might be thinking and adjust your behavior accordingly.

But when I came to pick you up early from school after a recent and unfortunate behavior incident, you saw the look on my face and immediately launched into a description of the event that can only be described as a fast-talking PR spin.

You ended the story with: "...and next time, I'll never do it again and I'll be a good friend and everyone will play together and laugh and laugh and laugh and...I want to kiss you, Mommy."

So much for not understanding what others might be thinking.

They told us that you would prefer to be alone and would have a hard time making friends.

You have friends. Friends who who light up and shout your name when you get to school, friends who have inside jokes with you, friends who hug you. And you hug back.

They told us that kids on the autism spectrum often seem emotionless and have a lack of facial expression.

But you are full of joy and silliness and enthusiasm and all of it shows on your face.

Now, just to be honest with you, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. We have challenges. I am often mystified and stymied as to how to help you cope with frustration and navigate the world.

And I know there are tough times ahead. The gap between you and your typical peers will keep looking bigger in some areas of life. I'm glad you don't realize yet that those boys at school are dismissing your interest in The Little Mermaid, but pretty soon you will.

We'll get through it somehow, because we've gotten this far.

And I still will shout from the rooftop that I love you exactly the way you are, and that the things that make you different are some of the things I love the most about you.

Welcome to five, buddy.

Love,
Mommy

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Greetings

Ben likes to help me mail letters these days. Yesterday, I stopped the car so we could both get out and put some envelopes in a mailbox.

He loves to examine all the parts of the mailbox, opening and closing the door to the chute, looking at the keyhole where the mail carrier unlocks the door to get the mail, and informing me about the general operations of the postal service, as he understands them.

After we mailed our letter and were still finishing our mailbox inspection, another car drove up and a man hurried out to mail something.

"Hi!" Ben shouted and waved at the man.

The man brusquely turned and rushed back to his car, not hearing, or ignoring Ben's enthusiastic greeting.

"Hey!"

Ben shouted and started to run after the man, almost into the street, in another attempt to say hello. I stopped him before he could step off the sidewalk and gently walked him back toward the mailbox.

The look in his face left me heartbroken: confused, sad rejection.

"The traffic noise is pretty loud here. Maybe the man didn't hear you," I offered. "Sometimes people are in a really big hurry and they don't always pay attention to other people."

I secretly wished that something unpleasant befall the man who hurried away, who was unwilling to simply return a friendly hello from a small boy.

Just then, a mother and two older children crossed the street and came toward us. Ben saw his second chance.

"Hi!" he waved a little awkward, pageant contestant wave. "Hi there!" he said to each of the kids. The girl and boy - maybe 7 and 10 - giggled a little uncomfortably at his unexpected enthusiasm.

"Hi!" the mom smiled.

"What's your name?" Ben asked. The mom answered and introduced each of the kids, still somewhat stunned by Ben's uber-outgoingness.

He greeted all of them by name. I prompted him quietly, "Why don't you tell them your name?"

"My name is Ben."

"Well, hello there Ben. It's so nice to meet you. You have a great day, now!"

"Bye!"

We got back in the car, both satisfied that that world was not such a bad place after all.

I wish I could find that woman and her kids and thank them for appearing - like three angels - just at the right moment and treating Ben with such kindness.

I've seen, and been saddened by, the way his joyful greetings are often rebuffed by other children at school who do not know what to make of such unabashed and adult-like friendliness.

I want the world to return his embrace. I want to scold those children for their indifference. Perhaps it's their social skills that need work and not Ben's.

Most of us have encountered adults on the spectrum who are maybe a little too friendly or awkward in their attempts to engage a stranger in conversation. Sometimes we tend to politely ignore them or otherwise extricate ourselves from what may feel uncomfortable.

I resolved to remember Ben's experience and at least offer a genuine smile to the person the next time this happens; some kind of affirmation however brief.

And maybe this karma will be returned in the form of the world saying, "Hello," at least sometimes, to a very enthusiastic little boy.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Dreaming

Ben has started to be able to describe his dreams.

It feels like a significant development, and I'm surprised that he's often able (willing?) to tell me more about his dreams than about what happens at school each day.

This morning he called me into his room to tell me this:

"Mommy, in the middle of my good dreams, I had a bad dream."

"What happened in your bad dream?" I asked.

"You went to a party and forgot me. I was yelling to you but you were driving away and you weren't listening to me."

I hug him and say, "That sounds like a really scary dream. I would never, ever forget you in real life."

We snuggle for a few minutes.

"Mommy, why weren't you listening to me?"

"It wasn't really me. It was just the mommy in the dream. I will never leave you like that in real life."

A few more minutes elapse.

"Why did you forget me?"

I struggle more to explain about dreams, about the fact that it didn't really happen, but I remember that bad dreams do feel as if they have happened.

It's interesting how emotions that arise from dreams are so real that they continue to resonate even after waking. This must be terribly disconcerting to him.

Then he says, "I need to tell Dora and Boots about my dream. I need to tell Kai Lan and all the Backyardigans. I need to go into the TV and talk to all my friends."

This is a frequent request these days - to go into the TV and play with friends from shows. For some reason, he also believes that a cookie sheet is involved in this endeavor.

The resulting conversation is always a frustrating one for him. He does not want to hear that it's not possible. After all, the commercials show real kids dancing with Dora and the Backyardigans. Why can't he?

I struggle to explain cartoons. He's insistent. He whines and rails against my rejection of his ideas. I feel awful.

Then after a few minutes, it all evaporates - like a dream - and he saunters happily out of bed.