Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Meeting in the Middle

We took a trip to the McDonalds play area during Christmas break. This was a kind of a "rite of passage" when I was a kid. Anyone else remember? Sometime during the week we always made a stop at McDonalds for lunch. Of course, most moms these days won't feed their kids that junk, but since I'm old-school (read: old), there we were.

We probably hadn't gone into this McDonalds for a couple of years; definitely not since Chloe had been born. I was eager to see if she was old enough to play around in the tunnels (the answer: barely, and she did a little, somewhat pensively). But once we walked into the back towards the play area I remembered our history with this place.

Back when Ethan was maybe 2 1/2, I hated going there. I was frustrated when a group of friends wanted to get together and bring their kids to play because I knew what my child would be doing: obsessing over the automatic doors that lead in and out of that section. While the other kids were screeching, climbing and playing, there was Ethan: standing, staring, stepping in and out, fascinated with making the doors open and close.

As often happens, in retrospect his behavior wasn't that bad. It's not as if he was trying to run throughout the entire restaurant.

He was just acting different. And he had no interest in making friends or interacting. This bugged me.

A few years later Ethan had lost his focus on the doors but had a new obsession: worrying about getting shocked by the slide. He hated the feeling. And so he spent a lot of time asking, fretting, wondering, testing. I felt bad for the stress a simple plastic slide was causing.

And again, I felt frustrated. Why couldn't the kid just play? I wondered. Why'd things have to be so hard for him?

Then there was the day around that time when some big oaf of a kid at the top of the slide kept telling Ethan to move and he wouldn't. To this day I'm not sure if Ethan didn't understand him or didn't want to, but I remember Anna tell me that he snarled, "What are you, DUMB?!" And Anna grew indignant and snapped, "He's not dumb, he's my brother!" Man, I was so darned proud of her.

I'd forgotten all of this, until we stepped through those automatic doors and into the hyper world of kids bouncing around relatively unsupervised and full of grease.

"Chloe, come play with me!" Ethan called over and over and over. He zipped down the slide, noting briefly that he'd gotten a shocked before going back again for another trip. He cajoled Chloe to climb down to a secret spot and hang out on the mat. He boosted his little sis up and did his best to encourage her to slide down the slide (she would only go with Anna, though).

"Mamma, come in and play!" he kept yelling. That and calling to Chloe, again and again.

At one point I asked him: "Do you remember when you loved those doors so much?"

"I still do, mamma," he said, as he rushed back to the tunnels.

He has not changed who he is. He still has his fears; his quirks; his unique brand of interests. But he has also opened his world to include other people, too.

I was reminded that in the special needs world, there is no such thing as a small milestone. Something like learning to climb in and play on the slide, to be able to shut out unsettling distractions? Longing and asking for other kids play with him? This is big, very big.

I also was reminded that somewhere along the way we began to learn to meet Ethan in the middle. Our job isn't to make him typical but to help bring him to a place where he can get along better, and maybe see that some of the things we encourage him to do aren't so bad after all. And on the flip side, we need to understand that those doors were really, really cool. And that slide shocking him was really, really scary. Maybe not to other kids. But to him. We needed to value that.

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