Saturday, August 1, 2015

Why Video Games are Good for My Child

They had just arrived home from a weekend in Maine with their grandparents and cousins, and the kids were clamoring over each other to share how things had gone. Somewhere in-between the stories of tubing on the river and tasty s'mores, Anna mentioned they'd played a lot of "boys against the girls" games. In the cabin they'd had a boys room on one end up the upstairs and a girls room on the other, and had spent a good deal of time tormenting each other (in good fun, of course!).

"And you should have seen Ethan!" she exclaimed. Ethan had a shy smile on his face. "Sah-nny Screw Attack!" he said in a little vicious voice, and Anna burst out laughing again.

Puzzled, I waited for more details. Apparently, the girls (Anna and her six-year-old cousin) had been leaving all sorts of mock-threatening notes on the boy's door about what would happen if the boys (Ethan and his nine- and four-year-old cousins) came into their room. So at one point Ethan burst into their door and shouted "Sah-nny Screw Attack!" and started mock-hitting them.

Later, there was "Sah-nny High Jump Boots," in which he'd bounce high up and down the catwalk between the two rooms, and "Sah-nny Roll Attack," in which he'd (of course) do summersaults towards their room.

"What do those things mean?" I had to know.

"They're from Metroid," he answered. A game on the WiiU. "They're different attacks you can do. The Sah-nny is from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Remember the fat shopkeeper that calls Charlie 'Sonny,' and I wanted to know what that meant? I changed it to Sah-nny."

Ahh, now I understood. As in so many other instances, Ethan had mined a video game (and one of his favorite books!) for ideas, and they'd helped him figure out a fun way to play with everyone.

I don't think I need to go into detail about how much Ethan adores screen time. Let's just say he has told me "Screen time is what makes me happy" and "I want to go to heaven so I can play Wii forever."

It's hard when the activity your child adores most is becoming more and more demonized. The parenting magazines and blogs are all wagging their fingers, telling me how my child needs less time with electronics, how terrible it is, the way kids are so "plugged in." It's hard when, even though I know my kid isn't quite a typical child, I'm still pounded again and again with the old adage "just give them time away from the screens and they'll come up with something to do" or "all kids can be creative if you just give them time and don't turn their brains to mush with electronics."

I hate to say it, but most of the time, that's not how Ethan's brain works. His screen time actually gives him the ideas he has trouble coming up with on his own.

Ethan has made some wonderful, wonderful strides since first being diagnosed with autism, but one thing I've learned will most likely always be "non-typical" about him is his play habits.

I have tried; oh, how I've tried. Since he was two I've gotten down on my hands and knees on the rug with him and encouraged him to play. I've attempted to model play ideas (animals in the farm; building with blocks; superheroes, etc.). I've provided a range of toys and for the longest time worked to discourage electronic ones. I've offered incentives for playing; I've made lists of play possibilities when he seems "stuck."

What I've learned is that he just.doesn't.play.like.a.regular.kid.

He loves books. He loves board games. I'm so grateful for that. He likes to think of one thing to do with Legos and build it over and over. He will sometimes do puzzles or build circuits or Kinex or some of the things you'd expect a kid on the spectrum to like. He adores making waterways in the backyard with the hose (creating big mud pits) or tying up different areas of the house with string or whatever else is on hand.

But what we've learned is that Ethan's brain when it comes to play is like a switch. If he's not really motivated to play with a certain toy, there's no real way to turn the switch to On. And no amount of modeling, cajoling, or banning screen time helps to turn the switch On.

So that leaves us with what so many call "the easy way out." Screen time. I know the conventional advice. I try to follow it. We can see the way, when we allow Ethan to indulge in very long bouts of screen time, it becomes increasingly difficult to tear him away. The obsession grows.

At the same time, I've become more lax, I have to admit. I think it started when his developmental pediatrician, of all people, said he just might need more screen time than the average kid. But it's not just that. I think it's when I realized that for Ethan, video games aren't just games. They provide a rich landscape for him to harvest and use in other ways. Best of all -- they help him find a way to relate to others he might not have had, otherwise.

There still need to be limits, of course. He must leave the screen and engage in real life because, well, that's real life. And most importantly we have to be careful about which games he's playing so that he's not picking up the wrong kinds of ideas. But slowly, I am letting go of my play expectations...and as so often when I do, Ethan surprises me. I love when our kids do that.



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