Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Screens: An Epic Battle

Summer is wrapping up, and while I've enjoyed swimming, roller coaster riding, vacationing, and reading mysteries from the library when I get a spare moment, I am looking forward to fall. Yes, fall in New England is beautiful, and I can't wait for pumpkins and leaves and getting lost in corn mazes, but what I mean is that fall equals school and for Ethan, soccer. And that means we will get the smallest of breaks in this summer's Epic Battle for Screens.

Ethan is a great kid. And there isn't a moment that I don't realize our challenges could be much, more worse. That being said, his thirst for all things electronic only seems to grow stronger -- and we seem to always be walking a fine line between understanding and not discouraging this "hobby" while also encouraging him to at times disengage from fantasy and interact with the real world. I know there are many kids, typical or not so much, who have these same issues. With Ethan they just seem a little....exaggerated.

If left to his own devices, Ethan would most likely play on his WiiU, Kindle, or Nintendo DS at least eight hours a day. His games of choice right now are Minecraft, Zelda, and Metroid. When he plays, he loses all sense of time and anything else going around him. He usually forgets about eating or drinking. Time stops and several hours can feel like minutes. We use a timer but that's not enough. I have to warn him continually before the timer goes off because only one warning is not enough. He's so lost in the world he needs time to ease his way out.

Almost everything in our house seems to be structured around screens. Bad behavior means screens are taken away. Chores are usually done with the knowledge that if they're not, screens won't turn on. Our daily summer routine is somewhat fashioned around screen time. At first we were trying to break it up into morning and afternoon, but I found that as soon as Ethan starts on screens, he has trouble stopping only to go back later. It ends up setting a bad tone for the day. So now most of it has been contained to the afternoon.

But what if plans change? What if it's the weekend or we actually have some sort of special plans in the afternoon? This becomes a bone of contention. And to my non-autistic mind, this is what's most frustrating. We have been on excursions this summer to the beach, an amusement park, and a fair, for example, and if too much of the day gets eaten up, no matter how much fun we're having (or money mom and dad are spending!), Ethan will start to get depressed and anxious because he's afraid of missing out on the day's screen time. Autistic people like routine, I try to remind myself over and over. It's not always easy, when you've shelled out 100-plus bucks at an amusement park, and your child is crying because they want to go home and play a game they've played 100 times.

Of course we have talks about being grateful when we do special family outings and about learning to enjoy other activities.

We caution about learning to do other things now, because as he gets older and becomes a grown up he can't play screens all day. He will have actual responsibilities, and it's better if he learns early how to tear himself away for a little while.

We have tried to harness this love for electronics into something that might really be useful for him in the future, like learning coding, with minimal success. He doesn't really like to code or to do something "practical." He wants to play his favorite Metroid game over and over.

The most difficult issue this summer has been Ethan's sneaking of screens. The boy is smart and he's getting smarter. And while he's not a great liar, he has sadly learned to lie or to try to cover his tracks. There have been many, many days this summer when I've rounded up the electronics in the house and hid them. Sometimes I think I'd love to purchase a big treasure chest, like the kind you'd see in a pirate movie. I'd throw everything in there and lock it up with a big golden key. Then it would at least make this process more interesting (and dramatic). Instead right now I'm hiding the Nintendo Switch in a filing cabinet and the WiiU game pad on top of the fridge and the Kindle and DS behind picture frames in our bedroom. It IS kind of like treasure hunting, when it's time to track this stuff down.

But we had to. We've found Ethan up in the night now several times, playing games (sometimes for hours). We've discovered him in the bathroom actually playing Mario Kart on the DS. We've caught him outside with his friend on the swing set watching videos on my phone.

The line between compassion and understanding and frustration is sometimes very thin. I KNOW his developmental pediatrician said he might need more screen time than the average person. I also know he HAS to have other interests and to learn how to at least sometimes stand up to perseverative thoughts that tell him he needs to play a game and he needs to play it now, and nothing else.

"I can't help it!" he often claims, and I don't want to just blow that off. Along with autism does often come some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I don't think he's JUST being willful.

"It's just my autism!" he says, but we have to be mindful of letting him play that card all of the time.

"Ethan, we all have our struggles," I will tell him often. "It's not just you. And it's not impossible to overcome." Or at least improve. And it's so true. Maybe it's not screens. Maybe it's food. alcohol. Or shopping. Or worrying. I think most of us have that weak area that compels us; that's so hard to resist. I try to remember my failings, rather than just pounding my fist. These are real struggles, for all of us. Self-control. Self-discipline. Removing the thrill of instant gratification. This is the world we live in. But I know we don't have to let the wave completely sweep over us. We can take baby steps to stand against the tide.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Career Plans

Ethan has decided that he wants to become a nurse.

Like most kids, we've had a number of iterations when it comes to Ethan's future career path.

First he really wanted to be someone who works on power lines. This went on until quite recently, when he started learning more about the power of electricity and the things (while unlikely) that can go wrong while fixing power lines. "Mom, I just don't think I want to do that," he confided. "It's not really safe."

The drawbridge operator phase went on for quite some time as well. I'm not sure why that faded, except that maybe even Ethan's love for drawbridges couldn't override the fact that sitting all day and waiting to push a bridge up or down just didn't sound that interesting.

For a while we were pushing the idea of being a video game designer (why not take advantage of that screen addiction, right?) and he was on board. But then one day when I looked up what it took to be a game designer, and he learned most of the big companies are on the west coast, he soured on the idea. "That's too far away," he said earnestly. "I'd miss everyone."

So recently Ethan has jumped on board with the nurse idea. This evolved after several visits to the doctor's office for poison ivy that really wreaked havoc with him, and a nasty virus. Ethan specifically wants to be a pediatric nurse: the one that gives shots and tests for strep.

"Are you sure about that?" I asked him. "You HATE those things."

"I know, but I would be the one doing them," he announced smugly. I think this whole nurse thing may be sort of a revenge fantasy. Or at least a way of fantasizing about the day when HE has the authority to make kids do things rather than the other way around.

"I'll tell them about getting their blood checked, and I get to be the one to enter their symptoms into the computer, too," he announced. More screens. Bonus points!

The other day he asked me how much nurses make a year. We figured out for some nurses, it amounted to hundreds of dollars a day.

"That's a lot of money!" he exclaimed, dollar signs flashing in his eyes.

"Yes, but remember, you have bills, too...mortgage, car insurance, electricity, and so on." His face fell. "Why?? Why do we have to pay so much?" he complained. The indignation reminded me of the day I first found out about social security being deducted from my paycheck. Or about excise tax.

He was apparently still thinking about the prospect of bills the other day when we were outside. "So mamma," he said from the swing set. "Why don't you tell me about insurance?"

Anyway, the promise of thousands of dollars a year and administering shots to sullen children is still alluring.

"I can't wait," he said happily yesterday. "I can't wait to be a nurse and give shots and get my money." Then he got serious. "Mamma, what do I say when they interview me for my nurse job so they'll hire me?"

"Well, you just act very confident, and tell them you'll work hard and do your best. And Ethan?" I hated to do this. "I know it's hard, but you should try to remember to look them in the eye. Sometimes other people don't understand if you answer a question and don't look them in the eye. They think you're trying to hide something."

"BUT" -- I didn't want to stress him out. "You really don't need to think about all of this now. Right now you should just be focused on being a kid. Do you know what career plans I had when I was nine?"


"None." I may have been a worrier and a planner, but even I wasn't trying to map out my life and plan job interviews at that age.

"Just have fun and learn," I told him. I'm not sure if he's going to listen. I'm not sure how long this nurse fixation is going to last. But I like that he's thinking about it. That's what kids should do -- maybe not worry about how to plot out their lives, but be allowed to dream.