Saturday, March 22, 2014

Anxiety, Imagination, and The Brady Bunch

There are times we have conversations with Ethan that I just can't envision your typical family down the street, or anywhere, having.

Our latest one involves fear and The Brady Bunch. Yes, I have to admit it: I've gotten all nostalgic lately watching Brady Bunch reruns with the kids. Of course, the show was cheesy, unrealistic, formulaic, and had a host of other faults if you're looking for "quality television." But it was a mainstay of my childhood. Sitting down to watch an episode brings me immediately to afternoons as a kid, up the street at my grandmother's house watching Channel 56 out of Boston, waiting for her to finish making me a steaming bowl of chicken soup.

So the kids and I have been watching The Brady Bunch. Of course I have every episode practically memorized. Anna's now at the perfect age to think the show is funny rather than just corny, and Ethan, well, he tries to follow the plots. I've found that he's memorized which music plays when, and is constantly asking things like, "Why is that funny?" or "Who is sad?" completely based on which little riff is playing. We also have constant discussions about who is older: Greg or Marcia? Mr. Brady or Mr. Brady? Alice or Sam? It got to the point where I started to look up the actual actors'ages on Wikipedia so I could give him the answer...but of course then he wanted to know why "Bobby" was named Mike Lookinland and so on, and I think the idea that all of these people didn't really have their TV names threw him for another loop.

And then there was the episode yesterday, which involved Bobby getting a kiss from a girl (played by the actress who was also Mary on Little House on the Prairie). In a later scene, the smitten Bobby daydreams that his little girlfriend is running toward him, in slow motion, arms outstretched, and then they fall into each other's arms and embrace. If you happen to be curious, the moment is at about 1-minute here.

Two hours later, getting ready for bed, Ethan started to get nervous. First, while he was in the bathtub: "What if I see her?" he asked.

"Who?" I wondered.

"That girl. What if she starts running at me?"

It took me a minute to figure out who he meant. As he headed up the stairs to get his jammies on, he wanted me to come with him. "What if she's up there?" he asked nervously.

"The girl from The Brady Bunch?"

"Yeah. I don't like her looking at me."

I thought back to the scene from the show. I think I was starting to see what was going on. Kind of, within the limits on my non-autistic mind.

"Ethe, you didn't like the way it looked like she was running straight at you, did you?" It's not the first time he's said that. We need to make a mental note NOT to bring the boy to a 3-D movie anytime soon.

"Yeah, and I also don't like that the Angry Bird is staring at me like that." He glanced over at the red stuffed bird in his room, which did very much look like he was giving Ethan a dirty look.

"Why don't you like things looking at you?" I asked. I wondered if this had something to do with eye contact. I felt like I was working to decode some kind of autism mystery.

He couldn't answer. "I just don't want them looking at me while I'm sleeping," was all he could say. I turned Angry Bird's face away from him.

"Why are these things so scary?" I asked again. Ethan was looking at a coupon I had from Kohl's with a photo of a man on the front. "And why is HE looking at me?" he demanded.

"Ethan, Ethan," I tried to explain. "All of these people aren't looking at you. They're looking at whoever took the picture, or on TV the person filming the episode. They're not looking straight at you."

He was quiet for a moment. "But what if I see her when I'm falling asleep? What if she comes in my room while I'm sleeping?"

"Ethan, that girl doesn't even exist anymore. Do you know she's like 50 years old now?" And once again, I thought: I never would have entertained that I'd be discussing or even thinking about the age of Melissa Sue Anderson with my six-year-old so he'd be sure she wouldn't haunt his bedroom.

That seemed to comfort him.

"You know, you can use your imagination for good things," I told him, tucking him in. "Instead of thinking about that girl, why don't you think of summer, and swimming? Or something else fun?"

He grudgingly said he'd try.

As I headed down the stairs, I wondered. I felt grateful at the crack he'd allowed my to peer into, the quick glimpse at how he thinks; how his mind ticks. But there was so much I didn't know. The whole thing was a bit humorous, but left me intensely curious, and left me wondering what's going on in the minds of other people on the spectrum...and most of all, what did they fear, and why?

I wondered if Ethan's imagination -- the ability to conjure something in his mind that wasn't actually there -- was actually scaring him. I wondered if there were days Ethan had to shut out the fear as he looked at people on movie posters or billboards or school posters and constantly imagined they were staring just at him.

Thanks to the Bradys, I was desperate to know more...about how he thinks, what he feels, and the way he perceives. Every little clue feels like a step in compassion and understanding for those who can't explain in any kind of way, like my brother, what they are feeling. Every moment shared is another tiny piece added to that infinite jigsaw puzzle.

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