Monday, March 23, 2015

Waiting for Marshmallows

There's a great scene from the show Parenthood from several years back where Max, the boy with Asperger's, goes on a camping trip with his grandpa, Zeke. Max's parents are very nervous about this -- it's his first camping trip; they're not sure how he'll do with a different routine; they don't know if he'll cooperate and participate in typical "camping" activities...so they come up with a bunch of advice for Zeke. Zeke throws all of their advice out the window, wanting to make his own rules. Hours later Zeke calls the parents in a panic because Max wants to come home. He admits he let Max do everything he wanted -- look for insects and eat marshmallows -- first and now he doesn't want to do anything.

"You gave him his paycheck before he did his work...you have to do it the other way around," Max's dad tries to explain. (Watch a little here at 32:16).

These days, when we are visiting with relatives, iPads and Kindles tend to be Ethan's "marshmallows." And while he is much different (and less rigid by far) than the character on the show, I often feel as if we are living out that scene.

I totally get why Ethan needs to have special screen time when we are visiting with family. It's a treat; it's a fun thing to do at the grandparents'. It's an outlet, because we're somewhere different and he can't do his usual stuff. It's a way to ease anxiety. It's something to do when a bunch of grownups are sitting around talking. It's a way to occupy himself if he's got too much pent up energy but has no real appropriate way to get it out (especially with this long winter we've had).

But the question of when and how long to let him spend with the screen is what tends to trip us up. To me, it all comes back to the never-ending quest to balance respecting Ethan's differences while giving him tools to get by in real life.

We could hand him an iPad the moment he walks in the door. He'll be thrilled. He'll also disappear for hours. He'll miss out on any interaction with family...sometimes family he sees only a few times a year. And the longer he plays, the harder it is to tear him away. Meltdowns ensue.

We could force him to hang out and tell him screen time is not for family gatherings. His stress and boredom would boil over, especially if it's not outdoor weather. This boy who struggles with just finding just any old thing to play with or to do would be fairly miserable...or else end up wrestling or doing something else that would get grown-ups snapping at him.

What we've found is really like that Parenthood episode: we need to know the appropriate time to "take out the marshmallows." And in some ways, I don't like it. I feel guilty dangling a reward in front of my son. It's only when I remind myself that he truly is wired differently that I feel a little more at peace.

If you don't take out the proverbial marshmallows at all, Ethan would be profoundly disappointed. He lives for his screen time. It makes him immensely happy. He often tells me he's thinking about various games or music from games or scenes from a game. But take out the marshmallows too early, and we've lost him. Ethan has to know that he can't walk into someone's house and demand an iPad. How often in life, the older we grow, do any of us get instant gratification? We have to learn how to sit with that feeling of needing to wait...of working to get the reward...of getting our chores done so we can relax.

How often do any of us get to the stuff we're supposed to do if we start binge watching TV shows at the beginning of our day off? Or go get the ice cream cone before we do the yard work? Human nature just doesn't work that way. And for people on the spectrum, who already have an incredibly difficult time motivating themselves to think about anything they're not really interested in doing, it's even more so.

Of course, the other caveat is that we can't just tell him, "No screen time. You can have it later." I've learned that saying "later," "in a while," "soon," or any of those other vague descriptors tend to backfire with Ethan. Two minutes later I'll hear, "Now? What about now? Is it time yet?"

And so, the best plan we've been able to work out, when everything falls into place just right (which I have to say, is rarely) is that we talk to Ethan beforehand. We tell him he can't just walk in to a family gathering and demand a screen. I'll tell him he can play at a specific time, if he's acting properly. I'll tell him he has to put the screen down when it's time to eat or do something like open birthday presents, or he doesn't get it back. I'll tell him he has to put the screen down to say goodbye. And I'll attempt (this usually goes the least swimmingly) to suggest ideas about other things he could do while he's waiting for his screen time.

What usually happens is that when all is said and done, after some bumps in the road when he gets too rowdy or makes messes because he's really bored, he does end up finding something to do and even having fun playing after a while. He has the ability to interact -- we wouldn't insist on it if he didn't. But I can't tell you how many times I've asked him the favorite part of his day, after a family gathering, and he'll stop and think and be very quiet for a moment and then answer, quite confidently, "Screen time."

Ahh, Ethan. You make me want to pull my hair out sometimes. But you know I love you fiercely. Even more than a screen, buddy. Even more than a screen.



1 comment:

Laura Ramu said...

Preach! I use the iPad as a crutch to get through nebulizer treatments so I am very familiar with the marshmallow debate :) found through max's link up!