This weekend (like most of us mommies and daddies during most of our weekends), my kiddos and I attended a child’s birthday party. Well, actually we attended three, but maybe that’s part of what contributed to the (ahem) somewhat frazzled state in which I found myself driving my minivan from one end of the county to the other. Yes, there was the usual chaos of simply manuevering three kids from place to place (to place) without losing a gift, a shoe, a child or my mind.
Now, let me offer the perspective that all three of my children and I have Asperger Syndrome. Essentially, that means that we prefer routine and concrete, fact-based hobbies, are gifted at seeing patterns, connections, and logic, have minds that can absorb factual information on a vast scale — and are not so hot at picking up on social cues or being able to step outside our own mind’s to anticipate or understand another person’s perspective. So sometimes, what seems like a perfectly lovely atmosphere to the rest of the world (hello? birthday party?!) is laced with stress, confusion and nerves for us.
Which is why, back at the party, my middle child (who is almost six) was having a rough time. Social misreadings were abounding. He couldn’t negotiate the ebbing and flowing of the groups of kids who ran from one bounce house to the next, and he was quickly looking more and more like a baby sea turtle being tossed about in waves of busy kindergarteners.
But the biggest problem lay ahead. Note: the birthday boy at this particular shindig was his best friend from the neighborhood, the only peer he regularly sees outside of school. Adults know, of course, that the host never gets to spend much time with party guests. And true to that playbook, the newly-minted six-year-old was very busy trying to have fun with lots of kids. Try though I might to explain to my own son that he wasn’t being ignored, he felt suddenly unimportant to the boy he loves like a brother — so he spoke up, lip trembling, and said, “I just want to play with you. You’re my best friend.” Now I know for a fact that this other guy loves my Asperkid. But in an attempt to be diplomatic amidst the other children, the little host said, “You’re not my best friend. I have lots of best friends.”
My son fell to the ground in a small ball, and began to sob. It hadn’t been meant as rejection, but it sure felt that way on the receiving end.
As I wrote in Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome, “Play is a child’s first experience of work, learning, and emotional response…(But) group play requires significant cooperative skills, real-time flexible thinking, and otherwise sticky interpersonal play that can feel awkward, uncomfortable, or truly scary.” It’s for those reasons — among many more I explore at length in the book — that Asperkids “crave clarity and predictability. When most of our day is spent negotiating a world that doesn’t match our neurological hardwiring, it’s no wonder that we find calm in objects and activities that simplify things as much as possible” (68).
So we who love and teach these brilliant children must find methods of play that innately match their natural preferences, giving “them early experiences of success, confidence and road signs toward fulfilling, productive careers” (72).
What does that have to do with the breakdown amidst the bounce houses? Everything. You see, in order for me to be able to help my Asperkid understand what was actually happening in the immediate social situation — rather than what HE thought was happening — he would have to be able to see the encounter from his friend’s perspective rather than his own. That’s called “theory of mind” among psychologists — it’s called standing in someone else’s shoes by the rest of the world. And we Aspies can’t — not won’t, can’t — do it naturally. We aren’t self-centered or self-important. We literally cannot intuit another’s feelings without having to think through — to intellectualize — them. Compassion we have in utter droves. Natural empathy, however, eludes us.
So once I got my son to take some deep breaths and snuggle into a deep hug, I began talking with him. “Hey, Little Man,” I began, “I know you’re feeling pretty small and hurt right now. But I was wondering if we could talk about ‘Rush Hour’?” He looked up at that, one eyebrow cocked. Mom wanted to talk about a board game? Now?
Yup. Sure did. Just the other day, we had been playing Rush Hour together. First, I will freely admit (to any adult but not to my kids! Shhh!) that not only is this game one of my favorites because of its logic and systems of patterns (there’s my Aspie noggin again), but because it’s a fantastic tool for pushing my children’s visual tracking and processing skills. While their vision is absolutely perfect, the two eldest (9,6) have struggled with their eyes teaming or tracking smoothly — a problem common among many kids with ADD. It can make tasks such as handwriting, drawing, coloring and reading physically and mentally exhausting, even for folks like these two, who both sport Mensa-level IQ’s.
In our last game, I encouraged my son to touch each of the grid squares as he laid out the vehicles to match the puzzle card. Does the ice cream truck touch the top corner or bottom corner of the green car? I had him trace his finger left-to-right across each line of the set-up card and then do the same on the board he was building (that’s training his eyes to travel smoothly and his mind to correctly spatially interpret what his eyes take in).
And all the while, my gently repeated mantra was, “Think before you do.” Stop and plan before you act. All-in-all, a good lesson for everyone. But it’s especially so for kids with ADHD (a commonality among nearly every Asperkid), for whom impulsivity gets them in frequent trouble. They speak out without thinking of the effect. They interrupt. They leave without their lunch. They turn in their homework too soon without checking their answers. In “Rush Hour,” you can get yourself completely locked in on all sides, unable to escape the jam you’ve created simply by doing without pausing to think first. The same, I would argue, will be true for the game-playing children as they grow — in life, love, and friendship.
So when my son has his board set up, we repeat together that mantra, “Think before you do.” And then we add the only strategy we really need — a three-parter.
- Who or what is in my way?
- Who or what is in his way?
- How much room does he need to move?
Yes, of course I am talking about plastic police cars and fire trucks. I’m also talking about a lot more.
What is in your way of feeling content? important? loved? included? Is it a thing — like a seating assignment or confusing class project that can be adjusted? Or is it a person? And if so (here’s the BIG MOMENT — the theory of mind-taking, perspective-seeing challenge!), what people, problems, ideas, or feelings might be keeping him or her stuck there? Maybe it’s something small, and a few words will make the difference (like just moving an obstacle one position), or maybe, like the school bus, it’s a bigger dilemma that requires a lot of problem-solving “space” (time, emotional room, privacy, etc.) to change.
Which is why I sat there with my crying six-year-old and talked about Rush Hour. What was getting in his way of feeling happy right then and there? His friend had said something that had hurt him, and was off playing with lots of other people. OK, so what was getting in his (the birthday boy’s) way of being the steady playmate my Asperkid knew and loved? That’s where my son was utterly stumped. He had no idea. None. Other than that his friend “doesn’t love me anymore.”
And that’s where these children internalize the misterpreted situations, and turn them into feelings of isolation, worthlessness or doubt. So that’s where we — as parents and teachers — can make a difference.
We talked about other possibilities: a host’s responsibilities, about how the birthday boy needed to make all his guests feel equally important (and probably hadn’t wanted the other kids to feel hurt by hearing that they weren’t the “best friends”). It was, he came to agree, an attempt at diplomacy — at trying not to show favorites, not to reject the BFF everyone knew he loved.
What’s in my way? What is in his way? How much room does he need to move? Because we had prepared with “Rush Hour” — with concrete, seeable, touchable play (and yes, it absolutely was preparation as much as it had been play) — I could use those questions to help build a case for perspective, and for reconciliation. Ten minutes later, the boys were sitting side-by-side, eating their cake with arms around one another.
The power of play is limitless, and so are the children who are guided by it — both to success and to defeat. No matter what kind of child is playing, he or she is developing perspective on much more than logic, spatial-relations, visual tracking or problem solving — although each of those are worthwhile. With guidance and love, these kids are learning that their ideas matter. Their voices matter. That they matter. And that there is an awful lot you can learn about the world from a plastic ice cream truck.