George and the Big Wide World

Today’s prompt in the National Health Blog Post Month challenge is to write a post inspired by a picture or a video.

“Peep And The Big Wide World” by George

One of George’s favourite shows is a charming little cartoon called Peep And The Big Wide World. It’s about a chicken (Peep), a robin (Chirp) and a duck (Quack) who are best of friends and make all kinds of discoveries about the world. It is entertaining – even to an old fogie like me – but it is also educational.

In one of the episodes, Chirp and Quack find that they have been inadvertently joined together by a rope, so wherever one goes, the other has to go. This presents a conflict, because Chirp wants to sit in a tree, and Quack wants to float in his pond. They resolve the problem by taking turns to pick the activities of the day.

When George first started tying dressing gown cords around people’s ankles, I didn’t immediately make the connection. It was only when he tied one end of the cord to my ankle and the other end to his own ankle that I realized that he was role playing the scene in the show.

For a kid with autism, this is huge. I mean, HUGE. Pretend play is a fairly complex skill, and because it is socially based, it is one that autistics tend to have quite a lot of trouble with.

And so I encouraged this play and made attempts to expand on it. Before long, George was playing “turtle” by crawling around with his T-shirt pulled down over his knees, and he was being a dog, crawling around going “Arf!” It was a lot of fun witnessing this evolution in George’s play skills.

What really got me excited was the picture he drew. Up until this point, I didn’t think his fine motor skills were good enough for him to draw an actual picture. And here he was, coming up with a clear representation of the scene from Peep. This is the first real picture George drew.

This is all such a massive leap for George. It shows a new level of social awareness, it shows imagination, and it shows intent.

The best part is how proud George was of his picture. As well he should be.

(Photo of George’s artwork taken by Kirsten Doyle)


Toy Story: The Autism Family Version

Last night, my younger son James bravely waded through the treacherous sea of toys in our living room. When he reached the corner he started digging in toyboxes and didn’t stop until he had unearthed this car ramp toy. You use this toy by driving your toy car into this little elevator, which you then raise up until the car is on the flat roof. You can then push the car around on the roof, or send it rolling down one of the two ramps. For a kid obsessed with Lightning McQueen and Doc Hudson (raise your hand if you recognize the references) this toy is like a slice of heaven.

James took the toy to an unoccupied space on the living room floor (i.e. a spot where he wasn’t knee-deep in other toys) and started playing with it. He was having a wonderful time. Lightning and Doc were racing down the ramps, Mater was driving backwards on the roof, and the Dinoco helicopter was flying overhead. It was all very exciting.

The peace was shattered when George came into the room and saw that the toy had been moved. George doesn’t like it when things are moved. He gets anxious, he starts shrieking and insisting that the item be put back. And so all hell broke loose.

George was grabbing at James’ toy, I was grabbing at George and telling him that James has to be allowed to move his own things around, and poor James was crying because of the sudden chaos. My husband succeeded in arm-wrestling George to a different room, where he tried to engage him in distracting activities. I stayed with James and played with him, but the sparkle had gone. James played half-heartedly while listening to George’s cries coming from a different part of the house.

James gave up on his play and said to me, “Mommy, George can put the toy back if he wants. I love him and I don’t want him to be sad.” He ran out of the room and relayed the message to his Dad. Gerard brought George back in, and George put the toy back in its place with James watching. James kept on telling me that this was what he wanted, but he wasn’t fooling me. I could see the sadness and disappointment in his eyes.

How amazing is this child? Despite my best efforts to equalize things, James does on numerous occasions get the short end of the stick because of George’s autism. And yet he is so brave, so giving and caring. He shows a maturity and wisdom that, while touching me to my very soul, makes me feel really sad. Not to mention the fact that it makes me explode with pride at the caring, sharing person my child is growing up to be.

He’s only five, but in some ways he misses out on being like a regular five-year-old. I want James to be able to play with his toys. I want him to be able to race his cars down that ramp, and I want George to be OK and anxiety-free about it.

I want both of my boys to be happy, and I find it so hard sometimes when one of them is happy at the expense of the other one.

What a tricky balancing act.


Trains Of Autism Thought

Yesterday was a momentous day because George played with a train set.

Most parents would read this and wonder what the big deal is.  George, after all, is a seven-year-old boy, and isn’t playing with trains a fairly typical activity for a seven-year-old boy?  Well yes, except that George, as we all know, is far from typical.  Because his autism makes his mind work in very different ways, he does not play with toys in the same way that other kids do.  He never has: from the time he was a very tiny baby George didn’t do all of the stuff with toys that all of the books said he would.

On a side note: this is one of the reasons I know that George’s autism has absolutely nothing to do with vaccines.  It might be a factor for some other kids, I’m not saying it’s not – but it isn’t for George.

Anyway, back to the toys.  I remember having a slight feeling in the pit of my stomach, when George was a baby, that something was not quite right.  I just knew.  When he was at the age where other babies track toys with their eyes, George would stare off into the distance.  When he was supposed to be batting at dangling toys with his tiny hands, he would ignore them.  Unless they were shiny – then he would just stare at them.  He never took an interest in teddy bears; quote-unquote “age appropriate” toys never appealed to him.

I remember once surrounding George with toys just to see if he would react to anything, to find out if something, anything, would spark an interest. For a long time, he just sat there, not even acknowledging the toys.  Eventually, he reached out for the train so he could push the button to see the lights.

George in a sea of toys

The train! The train!

When George did start taking an interest in toys, it was not to play with them in any conventional sense.  It was to line them up or to examine bits of them.  He showed a definite preference for Lego – the straight, symmetrical lines of the pieces appealed to him.  He could make perfectly straight lines with them.

Another favourite was a play table that we had picked up at a garage sale.  There were all kinds of things on this table: big buttons that you could push, large beads that you pushed back and forth, little sliding window things that you would move from one side to another to reveal little pictures.  At one point in its life, this table had had a toy telephone attached to it (rotary dial – just shows how old this thing must have been). By the time we got the table, the telephone was gone, but the piece of string that had attached it remained.  George showed no interest whatsoever in the buttons and beads and pictures.  However, he would spend hours examining that piece of string.

I think the first toy that George played with in the manner intended by the manufacturers was Mr. Potato Head.  He was introduced to Mr. Potato Head by his speech therapist, and it was love at first sight.  It was a wonderful tool for developing some basic speech, and it certainly didn’t hurt his play skills either.  Soon we had a large collection of Mr. Potato Heads, and to this day this is a firm favourite with George.  He has been using Mr. Potato Head pieces in increasingly creative ways.

Mr. Pineapple Head!

Yesterday, George played with a train set.  By “play” I don’t mean that he lined up the tracks without putting them together, that he made one dead-straight line of trains for each colour, or that he lay on his back minutely examining the lettering on the trains.  I mean that he actually assembled the tracks (making a pretty nifty figure-of-eight to boot!), and then pushed trains back and forth on the tracks.  He was absorbed in his play for some time, and on a couple of occasions he even made choo-choo noises.

For any outsider looking in, he would have looked like any seven-year-old boy playing with his trains.

But he’s not just any seven-year-old boy.  He’s my George and I am so, so lucky to have him.


Mommy is a pineapple

George has been preoccupied with pineapples lately. About two weeks ago, when we were driving home from somewhere, he suddenly announced that he wanted to go to the store. He wouldn’t tell us which store he wanted to visit or what he wanted to buy there, but he did start giving us directions in the form of pointing and saying “this way that way” in his sweet lyrical voice. We were curious to see where this was going to lead, so we followed his directions and ended up parked outside our regular grocery store. As soon as we walked in, George ran to the fresh produce section and picked out a pineapple. Gerard and I looked at each other, shrugged, and paid for the pineapple.

George spent the remainder of that afternoon proudly carrying his pineapple around.  He was beaming from ear to ear as if he’d won the lottery. The following day he wanted the pineapple cut up. Thinking he wanted to eat some, I obliged, but all he wanted was the spiky leafy bit at the top. That was his prized possession for the next three days. He kept walking up to family members to see how the pineapple top would look on top of their heads. This gave him endless giggles.

A week passed, the pineapple top eventually got discarded, and all of us thought the moment had passed. But then there were demands for another trip to the grocery store. As before, George acquired a pineapple, but this time he had definite plans for it. As soon as we got home, he put the pineapple down on a table and started rooting around in his box of Mr. Potato Head parts.  Five minutes later, the transformation was complete. Plain Old Pineapple had morphed into Mr. Pineapple Head. It had a full complement of facial features, two arms, and a pair of shoes.  The hair, obviously, was built-in.

This was so cool! The kid made a plan! He was immensely proud of his creation, and rightfully so.

George and Mr. Pineapple Head

The following day, I was lying on the couch watching some meaningless show on TV. George was sitting beside me admiring Mr. Pineapple Head, who was occupying pride of place on the coffee table.  All of a sudden, he turned to me with a glint of mischief in his eyes, and proclaimed, “Mommy is a pineapple!”

The air filled with the sound of his glorious laughter, and I bathed in the feeling that this perfect mother-and-son moment gave me.


Just another kid

One summer’s day about two years ago, I watched a group of children participate in a race. It was in the outdoor play area at the daycare George was attending at the time: it was the end of the day and I had gone to pick him up.  As was my custom, I stayed out of sight for a minute, to watch my child without him seeing me. Lined up against the far fence were five or six kids.  A makeshift finish line had been etched in the sand. At the daycare teachers “GO!” the kids darted away from the fence and scrambled to the finish line.  George was standing apart, shyly watching the action from a short distance away. He looked as if he wanted to join in but did not know how to.

I remember the feeling of immense sadness that came over me. This was such a perfect illustration of George’s autism.  The pool of isolation that he was standing in was almost physically tangible.  It was as if he was trapped in his own little bubble, unable to be a part of the world around him.  Even at the age of four, George was a fast runner: he probably would have won that impromptu little race.

I was reminded of this incident a few days ago, when we were all in Elkhart, Indiana for a long weekend. While out for a walk in downtown Elkhart we stumbled upon a water park. In front of the water park there is a circular paved area: there is a large sprinkler set in the centre of the paving, with a number of smaller sprinklers in a ring around it. When we got there at a few minutes to noon, the sprinklers were turned off but there were a number of people milling around the area with their kids. We had been walking for a while, so we sat down on a bench and allowed the kids to wander around.

At precisely noon, the sprinklers suddenly came to life.  It was like a show of fountains: each of the sprinklers made the water spray in a different pattern.  They were not synchornized: some of them would turn off while others came on, sometimes the water would only spray up to waist-height, other times it would go high in the sky. About fifteen children left the sides of their parents and started playing in the water. The unpredictable nature of the fountains made it a delight for the squealing, laughing children.

James removed his shoes and socks and whipped off his shirt.  He ran straight through the middle of the large central fountain and was soaked within about three seconds.  George was initially more hesitant.  He slowly and deliberately took of his shoes and socks.  We took off his shirt for him, and had a brief moment where he thought this was a cue to strip off completely. He tentatively approached the circle just as the sprinkler closest to him came on, spraying him lightly on the arm. He jumped back in alarm, and for about a minute he simply stood on the perimeter, watching intently. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I have a strong feeling that he was deciphering the sequence of the sprinklers. He’s that kind of kid.  He sees patterns where the rest of us might not even know they exist.

Suddenly George darted into the middle, deftly running between sprinklers rather than right into them. He clearly did not have any interest in getting completely wet like his brother, but he seemed to be OK with a light drizzling. At times he ran around the outer part of the circle with his brother; at times he would stop, stick his hand into a fountain of water, and run away giggling.

George (blue shorts) and James (black shorts)

George in all his water fun glory

It was a magical half hour or so.  For that brief period of time, George was not an autistic child trapped in a bubble of isolation, not knowing how to be a part of the world around him.  He was a regular almost-seven-year-old kid running around having fun with a bunch of other kids. No-one stared at him; no-one noticed anything different about him.  Not once did I have to shoot indignant looks at strangers or launch into my he-can’t-help-it-he-has-autism explanations.

Two brothers, just being kids

For that picture-perfect moment in time, in stark contrast to that long-ago race that he could not participate in, George was just a kid, in perfect harmony with the world around him.