Friday, May 18, 2012

Dismantling the Dreamatorium

My boy's stim is pretending. Some kids flap their hands or jump up and down or spin or make unusual noise. Ben re-enacts scenes from movies and TV shows.

I know that doesn't sound like a stim. It sounds like something all kids do. But like a stim, it seems like something his whole being is compelled to do regardless of whether or not people around him view it as appropriate or "expected behavior." And it's something you can't just ask him to stop doing.

Believe me. I've tried.

To be fair, we actually haven't tried to place many limits on pretending, since it clearly gives him joy and is a primary mode of expression for him. But we and his teachers are trying to help him understand why he needs to be able to join "the real world" sometimes.

Sadly, most of the time.

Ben seems to view the world as an improv game and everyone in it as his improv troupe. He is constantly making offers, which is the improv term for establishing a imagined reality by simply starting a scene with another person without discussing it in advance.

And Chris and I are former improvisers so we're good at "yes, and-ing," the improv term for accepting the world that someone has established with their offer, adding information, going on with the scene, never negating someone else's reality.

When he gives us a time turner, we're at Hogwarts. When he mimes a light saber, we're on the Death Star, when he shouts "YOU! SHALL! NOT! PASS!" we're in the Mines of Moria.

We do it because when you've done improv you have an instinct to say "yes, and..." to whatever someone throws at you. And we do it because it makes our boy happy. And we do it because it's really exhausting to try to get him to switch gears, so sometimes you just do the sword fight.

But his friends aren't as good at accepting these offers. They often walk away, confused. And he's getting to the age where it's going to be harder for him to make friends if he can't spend a bit more of his time in the real world.

So I was completely touched by the finale of NBC's Community last night. If you don't watch it 1) you should and 2) I'm not going to spend time explaining it to you so very little of the rest of this post will make sense. Sorry.

At the end, there's a montage showing how each of the members of the Greendale Seven is taking a new step in his or her life that represents some level of growth and change. Troy and Annie are helping Abed take down the Dreamatorium, the holodeck-like room he's created for acting out his imagined scenarios.

Abed reminds me so much of Ben - more at home in his mind, inhabiting stories from pop culture than in the real world. And also Abed reminds me of Ben because they are both so comfortable with who they are. "I've got self-esteem coming out of my butt," Abed once explained to his friends, who wrongly assumed he needed help meeting girls.

So as Abed took the Dreamatorium apart, his character was acknowledging he was ready to spend more time in the real world, with his friends. But Community's creator Dan Harmon - who acknowledges that he himself is on the spectrum - didn't just stop there. Before the scene ends, we see Abed sneak into a large box that he's hidden in his room. A clandestine Dreamatorium that bursts forth into light as he disappears into it.

Harmon allows Abed to grow without changing who he is. He gets to keep a little bit of the Dreamatorium for himself.

When Ben wrote out his New Year's resolutions for a school assignment in January, one of them was "less pretend, more real." I hope that, like Abed, Ben will be able to grow enough to join us more often in the real world, but never entirely dismantle his own Dreamatorium, or forget the first lesson of improv:

Accept the offers you get, and always say "yes, and..."

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Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir