Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Best Encore Performance Ever

Ethan, almost 3, with one of his therapists, Amber
Back when Ethan was almost exactly the age Chloe is now, before he started preschool and when he was still receiving therapy at home, we decided it would be a good idea to have him begin attending one of the playgroups held each morning in the town's schools. It would be good preparation for preschool, his therapists suggested, and one group was in the actual school he'd be attending, which would help familiarize him with it.

Yes, all of us thought this would be a great idea -- except Ethan. Ethan wanted nothing to do with the playgroup. The set-up was simple: moms or other caregivers and their babies and kids up to age 5 would come play for about a half-hour. Then everyone would pick up, have circle time, do a craft, eat a snack and leave.

Simple was not in our vocabulary those days. The first week it took 15 minutes to get him in the door. Once he finally inched inside, Ethan wanted nothing to do with the toys. The sink, microwave and light switches were much more appealing. When I'd convinced him he could NOT play with any of the above, he eased his stress by smushing his entire body onto the floor and pushing himself along, like a snake.

I looked at other parents actually able to converse while their kids occupied themselves, playing contentedly at a table with blocks, and getting up eagerly to go sit for circle time, and told myself I was never going to take small moments like that for granted again. This playgroup thing was HARD. I was drenched in sweat from the effort of helping him keep it together and not run out of the room.

The next week I came with reinforcements. One of Ethan's therapists, Amber, attended the group with us and was able to give me some pointers and help Ethan calm down a little. He was just ever-so-slightly better. Another godsend was the playgroup leader, "Ms. Betsy" (a legend in town to this day!). I'll never forget her own patience and understanding, from her warm smile and greetings to Ethan (which would often go ignored) to the little ways she tried to make him feel more at ease.

Every week for the two months leading up to him starting school went on like this. Playgroup was, well, work. Ethan paid no attention to other kids. He would rarely play with toys except for Play-Doh and puzzles. We got him to ease closer to the circle but never fully participate. Pushing his body against the floor (now understood as a definite sensory-seeking behavior) was still a preferred activity. I wondered how in the world he was going to do in school when he'd be ask to sit and focus for much longer.

Of course over time Ethan did start school and did do well. The next year when he switched to afternoon pre-K we returned to a few of the playgroups and he coped markedly better. By then I had a better handle on the areas where therapy and school had really helped him mature (self-regulation; focus) and which areas would most likely always be a struggle (creative play; initiating social interaction). Ethan went on to graduate from the playgroups and start full-time school, as all kids do, and we left them behind until Chloe and I began attending together last year.

One of the groups we attend regularly is at Ethan's new school this year, and when he found out that kids can earn tickets for good behavior and have a chance to read books during story time to the playgroup kids, he was on a mission. There was nothing he wanted to do more than read to his little sister.

Last week, less than two months into the school year, Ethan earned enough tickets to be a playgroup reader. He brought two books about pumpkins home to practice. I talked to him about remembering to turn the book around and read loudly so the littles ones could see and hear the story. And on Monday morning, Ethan arrived in the room with the books in hand and a big grin on his face.

And yes, I may be biased, but I have to say he did a pretty darned good job. An amazing job. I couldn't stop smiling. "Ms. Jen," the playgroup leader, mentioned that it was the first time she'd ever  had a child who'd once attended her playgroup come back and read to the littler ones. If someone had told me this six years ago as I held Ethan to keep him bolting out of the playgroup door, I have to admit: I'm not sure if I would have believed it. But here we are, by the grace of God.

Every once in a while I see other kids with similar struggles at playgroups and their moms or caregivers who are struggling with them...struggling to get their child to pay attention, not wreak havoc, and sit still enough to take part...or struggling to not feel frustrated or exhausted because their child isn't like a typical kid and this shouldn't be so hard. I am glad that my experiences with Ethan have fine-tuned my radar. If the opportunity is right, I do what I can to smile, to encourage, to let them know they are not alone. The toddler and preschool age is tough -- for all kids, and particularly ones on the spectrum. Sometimes it's very hard to believe your child's behavior is going to get any better, or any more calm. I know every story is not exactly like Ethan's. But I also know that with time and therapy many behaviors DO improve.

I try to remember to be Amber, the therapist (Where are you now? It's been years!), to be Betsey with the kind eyes. Someone might really need a dose of hope.

Ethan reading to the playgroup, feeling proud, and showing his sister some love

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