Monday, November 25, 2013

Up is Down and Down is Up

Let's talk about one of autism's fringe benefits. Can you bear another 80s reference? Anyone remember that show called You Can't Do That on Television? It originated in Canada (and was shown on Nickelodeon) and was sort of a "Saturday Night Live"-type, sketch-themed show featuring teenagers. They always had a segment the stars of the show would herald as "an introduction to the opposites." What would follow was several sketches of life for a kid if the world were completely upside down - like parents forcing their kids to eat junk food or teachers yelling at students for doing homework.

(For your viewing pleasure, here's an old, grainy YouTube video. Man, I used to love that show!):

This is our house, sometimes. You see, often with Ethan, work is good. Play and free time are bad.

My boy really likes to work. Maybe not all the time. He does have his typical kid, "Aww mom, I don't want to clean my room!" moments.

But overall, if you had to ask me if Ethan prefers work or play, I'd have to say, in a lot of cases, yeah, he'd rather work. This is probably one of the biggest thing that separates him from just being any regular child.

I think Ethan prefers work for a number of reasons. Work, as opposed to play, has more structure and predictability. Work doesn't involve him coming up with ideas but rather taking specific direction. Work, at least the kind we've been doing lately, has a specific starting and ending point.

SO, for example, taking on the hellish task of raking 150 bags of leaves in our yard was, for Ethan, a challenge. A repetitive system was in place -- rake, bag, drag to the curb, repeat. And counting was involved. Put all that together, and we had a boy who would come home from school every day and announce things like, "We need to do 10 leaf bags today. That will make 110 bags. Then we will only have 40 left." Heck, we even had math thrown in there.

One of the frustrating things about Ethan has always been his lack of ability to just go play. Except in the summer when he feels more relaxed, many days are spent with a constant cajoling about using my phone, going on the computer, and watching TV, while his room full of toys sits untouched. He has flashes of wanting to play with toys that come and go with no clear link to why or what triggered them. On a day like the other one when I had to do a freelance phone interview, I had no choice but turn on some Spiderman episodes and let them run (and then, of course, feel like a bad parent).

Even more, sometimes for Ethan play is actually a chore. I've had times I've told him to go up to his room and play for awhile (especially when he wakes up way too early and I need some quiet time). He usually needs me to give him a specific timeframe (such as: "You can come downstairs at 7 a.m."). Nine times out of ten, he'll appear down the stairs at the exact minute time is up. "I played!" he'll tell me, in the same manner another child might mention swallowing his vegetables to get a reward. Just the other day, he got frustrated building a marble creation (his activity of choice up in his room) and decided on his own to take out his train tracks for the first time in months. He built a cool track, admired it for a moment and called me up to see, pushed a train around it once or twice, seemed genuinely happy and excited -- and then he was done. It was literally like a switch flipping. "Now can I come out of here?" he asked, as if he were requesting release from jail.

Of course, like the leaf bag activity, this kind of attitude has benefits. Homework is rarely a struggle. In fact, Ethan begs to do homework. He wants to complete his monthly assignments in the span of a few days. He also rarely complains about leaving the house for errands. "Aww mom, but I was playing!" is not something I hear very often. Why would he? Errands means a schedule! Tasks to be completed! He also has no issue with household chores if there is a clear reward afterward (especially the gold standard: my phone). All I have to do is dangle that carrot and he's up in his room, straightening, rushing to put everything in order so he can get his reward. His sister, meanwhile, produces such drama when asked to clean up her own "war zone," you'd think we were asking her to play with knives.

So yes, in our house sometimes up is down and down is up. It's one of those things people don't see when Ethan comes off as "just a regular kid." It's not something I can really complain about, while there are days I certainly want him to I've loved having my little buddy during leaf raking purgatory. I definitely have no problem with his love of schoolwork. It's just our normal, because really, for Ethan, play is work. And the things he finds fun (pondering how to spell words, looking for fire alarms, counting cars), might not impress the average kid. Although then I think of growing up, debating with Nate over exactly which minute we would arrive at a destination. Or counting steps while walking to pass the time. Or my love of attempting to list the U.S. states or presidents in chronological order. Maybe he's not the only one living in an opposite world. Maybe I've got one foot in it, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, I get this. When I used to take R to play therapy it always seemed strange. For a lot of our special kiddos, play is work. I'm glad Ethan is able to find moments of enjoyment and success in his play time!