August 7, 2011

Brick by Brick

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , at 7:04 am by autismmommytherapist

It’s 6:15 on a Saturday morning, and I’m stumbling around the kitchen more than usual at this early hour because I stayed up late to catch up on the Big C last night (truly, are there many actresses more fabulous out there than Laura Linney?), and I know I’ll be paying for my choice all day. I drop Justin’s toast butter side down on our cold tile floor and mutter expletives under my breath for only my ears to hear, then trudge back to the refrigerator to start the process all over again. I call to my son once again to come to the table, grumpily insert a second piece of bread into our toaster, then head to the living room in the hope of luring Justin in for his least favorite meal of the day.

I’m on the threshold of kitchen and living room when he breezes by me with a box in his hand, grabs the juice waiting for him on the counter, then sits in his chair and turns to me expectantly as if to say “Woman, my meal is usually waiting for me, what’s going on here?”  I have to smile at the look on his face as I rescue his whole grains slice from an imminent charring, and head over to serve him.

It appears that instead of his DVD player, his usual companion, today my child has selected a box of Legos to accompany him. This box contains a myriad of plastic pieces that if assembled correctly will create a fire house for a tiny, but beaming, Elmo figure. I’ve witnessed Zachary create this contraption many times, generally in locations throughout our home where me and my husband have usually tripped over it. Justin has never shown the slightest bit of interest in its contents other than the occasional twirl of an errant plastic piece, so I’m a bit curious as to what he intends to do with the set.

I place his favorite plate in front of him and urge (beg) him to eat, then settle down next to him, as sometimes cajoling him in close proximity gets results. He pushes my handiwork away (and given my culinary skills, I really can’t blame him), and dumps the open box out on the table in a fairly controlled fashion, with only a few red rectangles sliding to the floor. He looks at me. He stares at the Legos. He looks back at the box, grabs my hand, extends my pointer finger, and jabs it at the picture.

It would seem, for the first time in, well, the history of his existence, my boy would like to build something.

It’s not that there haven’t been attempts at construction over the years, but in general, all forays into the world of building have been met with either great disdain, or a caterwauling cry of contempt that should have woken the dead. Over the years alphabet blocks, huge plastic cubes, and my personal childhood favorite, Lincoln logs, have all been relegated to the slightly dusty recesses of our toy closet, mostly in the hopes that our second child might exhibit some interest in playing with them.

To our delight, Zach has enjoyed them, and proven himself rather adept at handling them. There remains only one contraption for which our eldest ever displayed the slightest bit of pleasure. Its main purpose was to convey multi-colored marbles through convoluted configurations I was never spatial enough to form correctly, and even then, Justin’s approval of it was limited. I recall that once when I’d conscripted Jeff to construct a particularly complicated adaptation, the entire thing collapsed around us. To this day, I believe I can still summon the howls from our son that accompanied it to its demise. I’m pretty certain everyone in our lovely suburban neighborhood probably could as well.

At the time, we decided to put his future as an architect on hold.

But today it seems my son would like to build, and together, as his abandoned breakfast grows cold, that is exactly what we do. He tries to make me do it, which despite the fact that this activity is geared toward a three-year-old is laughable, but I persist in encouraging his independence. We begin from the ground up, me pushing his fingers toward specific pieces, then gesturing toward the photo. It is slow going at first, but eventually he is conquering doorways and window sills, attaching a roof and a garage with ease. The frame is slightly askew, and at the end of the activity it seems a flower pot may not find its appropriate home, will instead remain perched precariously on a ledge at the insistence of my son. Of course, I let it linger there. After all, who am I to interfere in the creative process?

When he finishes he brings Elmo into the fold, positioning him carefully in front of the entrance to the fire house, glances briefly at me with what is clearly a look of intense satisfaction, and grabs a piece of slightly overcooked bacon. I’m still slightly stunned by our morning activity, and as I always do, I run for the camera before our creation is destroyed and snap away for evidence. I sit back with my Coke90 and contemplate the scene before me, regarding my son who has already moved past his architectural desires and is, to my happiness, consuming his meal.

One of the most difficult things for me, in the constant push and pull of a life with autism, is trying to tease out which activities Justin would truly enjoy, and which are simply beyond the scope of his pleasure. I never want him to miss out on anything, yet want to remain cognizant of the limitations of his interests as well. His father and I are contemplating having him groomed for the equine portion of the Special Olympics, despite my fears that when he sees a strange venue, he’ll balk at participating. Every year when POAC holds its surf events I manage to get that struggling child to at least stand on a board, because he loves those amusement rides so much, and one day the urge to ride the waves just might kick in. We give it our best shot as a family to include him in everything possible. Ultimately, the hope is that like bowling or horse-back riding, something will click, and perhaps a lifelong passion will be discovered. Particularly with this child, since we can’t ask him his interests, we’ll never know unless we try.

And maybe, if we’re really fortunate, there will be other days where Justin himself shows us the way.

July 29, 2011

What’s Your Point?

Posted in If You Need a Good Laugh, Life's Little Moments tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 11:28 am by autismmommytherapist

I noisily slurp my deceptively delicious frozen strawberry lemonade, a new concoction from McDonald’s (who knew the golden arches could corner the market on this summer’s most fabulous non-alcoholic beverage?), and take in the scene before me. It’s a familiar seasonal tableau, as my family of four often comes here to “dine” when on a Great Adventure outing, and I think the familiarity of the routine keeps everyone peaceful and calm. Zach is ignoring the ham we brought with us in deference to his GF/CF diet, and is playing seriously with Justin’s happy meal toy. My husband is scarfing down what actually looks like a fairly edible chicken sandwich, and Justin is contentedly watching Cars on his CD player while eating the fries I’m surreptitiously stealing from him. All is right, and “normal” for us, in the kingdom.

And then, my oldest boy points.

There was a time when my heart would have leapt into my throat with joy, along with the alluring thread of hope that this common way to communicate needs was leading up to a “breakthrough” for my son, a transition from his world, to mine. When he was diagnosed with autism at seventeen months, and had barely made the switch from infancy to the realm of toddlerhood, the necessity of teaching him how to point was drummed into me over and over by the vast majority of the professionals comprising Justin’s therapy team. Again and again I would hold his tiny hand, elongate his sweet pointer finger, carefully fold the remaining four into a gentle fist, and aim. He was supposed to be demonstrating this integral skill not only to convey his needs, but in order to share something of interest to his parents, his grandma, or just his babysitter.

The latter concept was called “joint attention”, a pivotal requirement for typical development in early childhood. I shaped those five digits frequently during those first years in the hope the desire to show us anything would “catch on”, but honestly, it rarely did. I do have one such encounter relegated forever to the digital world. It is a slightly shaky few minutes of film in which I recorded Justin sitting on Jeff’s lap pointing to the vibrantly portrayed animals in Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, my son laughing gleefully as my husband recited each mammal’s name no matter how many times Justin referred to said animal in a row. Soon, even the desire to engage in that game dissipated too, and my son began to rectify his needs through PECS, his Springboard, and ultimately, his iPad. He found a way to engage us in his joy as well by simply using his eyes, not his finger, to showcase his discoveries. All in all, these methods have worked for him, and for us.

But today, he is pointing. It is a gesture preceded by a downward glance of disgust at his chicken nuggets, followed by a look of undeniable longing toward my husband’s poultry selection, and capped off with a “finger chaser” in case there are any doubts as to his desires. His emotions are so unusually readable on his face that Jeff and I have to laugh, as there is no confusion as to what he desires, and I know my spouse will be heading back to that frenzied food counter momentarily to repurchase his own lunch. In good father form he breaks off a bite-size piece, and my son is eager in his acquisition, almost inhaling the slice before Jeff can change his mind. He swallows, and we watch the mere hint of a smile cross his face as he imperiously extends that pointer finger again.

And I have to laugh once more, because this interchange is just so damn “normal”.

There have been a number of these moments in the last few weeks as I’ve entertained the two kids on their summer school/camp hiatus, and they are wonderful to see. One morning, well before my other two boys surfaced from slumber, me and my eldest constructed an Elmo fire station from Legos, mommy pointing at the photo on the box, and son locating the plastic piece and constructing the building from scratch. Two evenings later, Justin grabbed my youngest as he enacted his nightly bedtime ritual of hugging his big brother goodnight, pulled both boy and book into his bed, and regarded me with a look that left no doubt they’d be receiving their bedtime story together.

Fortunately, Velveteen Rabbit was a crowd-pleaser.

To tell you the truth, I’m pretty exhausted on this “time-out” from routine, and I’m only two-thirds of the way through. But I’m glad I’m witness to these fleeting moments, happy to participate in this minute foray into typical. Justin’s truly beginning to interact more with the world, his teachers, his sibling, even strangers who grace his path. It’s not earth-shattering progress, but it makes life so much easier for us all.

And that’s a concept I’ll take with me until that glorious first day of summer school.