two little monkeys
17 April 2002
Autism is defined by impairment in three main areas: communication, social interaction, and imaginative play. Damian used to fit the bill on all fronts. Not so much anymore.

Communication: He talks a blue streak now (well, when he's in a relaxed setting), always commenting on what he sees and hears, asking millions of questions. I even got a "Why are the clouds in the sky?" question yesterday, one of those classic kid-generated stumpers. I was perversely pleased. Granted, he doesn’t always think or express things the way another child his age might, and he still sometimes has trouble speaking up, but he does a pretty good job of it nevertheless, and his language is getting more expressive and emotionally colored by the week.

Imaginative play: This has really taken off these past few months. He still needs some help connecting ideas, maybe, but more and more he’s getting the ideas on his own. A constant refrain these days: "I’m pretending, Mommy." Pretending to be a mouse or a fire fighter or an airplane. Or he’ll say "The couch is pretending," and if you ask him what the couch is pretending, he’ll tell you, "The couch is pretending to be a car," after which, of course, he drives the car-couch.

Now, too, he tells stories with his toys. This afternoon he brought a toy egg to me, cracked it and said "The egg broke and out came a mouse and a ball!" And sure enough, he’d put a small toy mouse and an even smaller toy ball inside.

"The mouse and the ball wanted to go for a train ride," he continued, bringing them over to the Brio track and putting them in the open freight car. "They went on a train vacation."

Pretty soon a small black snake came up to the train. "’Do you want to go for a walk, Mr. Mouse?’ asked the snake. Mr. Mouse said ‘No!’ Mr. Mouse scared the snake away." Damian slithered the snake out of sight, coming back with a fire truck and declaring the mouse on fire. And on it goes.

Imaginative play? You could say that. I admit, he’s borrowing some concepts from earlier games he’s played with one of us, so it’s not all straight from his own brain. But he’s linking them with his own brand new ideas and making a complete chain of events. Impressive, at least to me.

So what’s left? Well, lots of smaller things – flexibility and sequencing and body awareness, to name a few – he’s getting better but still needs work. And one big one: social interaction. Friendship. He calls me his friend, and I am. His daddy is too. And he has a handful of floor time therapists he can call his friends. But they’re being paid to play. There’s a difference. He doesn’t yet have any friends his own age. Not really. And that’s a big lack.

He used to be scared of other children. If a kid wandered into his space at the playground, Damian would fly out of there so fast you’d think the kid had dragon breath, complete with fiery flames. Even if that child was eight months old and not walking yet, curly haired and giggling. She might as well have been Sauron the Dark Lord. He couldn’t handle any confrontation with those alien beings, his peers. But ever so slowly, ever so tentatively, he’s been opening the gate and peeking out, seeing who’s on the other side. Trying to figure out what this peer group thing is all about.

It started with a gaze. I remember the three of us at a park in December. Three kids were rolling down a grassy hill. Damian stood and watched in utter fascination. Then he got down on the ground and rolled. He wasn’t very good at it, he’d never done it before. It was more of a bounce-bump-scoot than an official roll. And he was a good five yards away from the other children. He was still safe, still alone. But he was watching, mimicking and enjoying. A first step.

Or maybe it started with My Gym. He started going to classes there in October. At first he sidled away from the other children during the group warm-up, and if someone bumped into him when they were all running relays, Damian flinched as if the touched burned. But before long, the gymnastics did their occupational therapy-style magic and he was bumping into other kids of his own accord and even following them to the trampoline or the ball pit during free play. So maybe that was the second step.

All I know is that something wonderful is starting to emerge: genuine interest in and enjoyment of other children. At Heidi’s OT gym, six year old Jordan got intrigued by Damian. My heretofore silent boy was exclaiming with glee and bouncing happily (and loudly) on the bungie-like frog swing. That was interesting to Jordan. As the two sat side by side putting their shoes on at the end of the session, Jordan tickled Damian. Damian looked shocked. Jordan tickled him again. Damian got a secret smile this time. Heidi saw. She grinned and said, "Don’t let him get away with that! Tickle him back!" And Damian did. He reached over and, with a sly mischief on his face, he scrabbled at Jordan’s belly – a small kid’s version of a tickle. Jordan laughed and ran away. Damian laughed too.

That was a little over a month ago. That was the third step.

This, I think is the fourth:

A couple of weeks ago, Diane and Darin came over for the evening, bringing two year old Sophia. We didn’t expect more than parallel play: she’s too young and he’s still too nervous. They’ve spent time together before and shown little interest.

This time was different.

Two little monkeys jumping on the bed.

They fell down and bumped their heads.

(And had a very good time while they were at it. Lots of laughter.)

Then there was the plastic cup game. Sophia handed Damian a plastic cup from his toy kitchen. He obligingly drank the pretend juice. Then he put it on his nose. She followed suit. They smiled at each other from behind their cups:

Then she took off running. He wasn't far behind:

This was apparently a tremendously fun game:

Damian thought so too:

Unfortunately, we didn't manage to get the ferocious battle with foam swords on film. But I think you get the general picture. They were interacting, happy, spontaneous, and did I mention happy?

Damian isn't suddenly magically comfortable with other kids, not all the time. He still needs some adult prompting to get involved, and his words seem to dry up. But he's interested now. Very. And with the right kid, more than interested. And that, to me, is tremendous.

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