26 February 2003
As we were leaving the afternoon school last Tuesday, I had Damian say goodbye to the curly haired boy. The boy said bye in return but didnt look up from his scribbling. After a moment, though, he came over. I liked your silly words! Your words were funny!
I knew what he meant. Sometimes Damian starts babbling nonsense words. Occasionally its got a backwards kind of meaning: he loves making up names for Dante hell call him a bord knife or a teefummer. But mostly its pure nonsense. I try to get him to ascribe meaning, bring it into the concrete world. Whats a mikluk? Ill ask. The answer? A mikluk is a neef. Back where we started.
Im glad other kids find it amusing but still I worry. Its not appropriate. Not connected. And all too often, he seems to erupt in this stream of make-believe words when hes uncomfortable, feeling off kilter. Its his way of regaining control, I think. If I cant do what you expect, Ill make up my own rules. And my own language, too.
Sometimes I give in to it and make up nonsense words too. Sometimes we rhyme or build on each others variants, playing with sounds, rhythm, the cadence of the spoken word. And sometimes I think my son is simply musical (he is) and that this is a sort of teenybopper scat, an example of how his differences can be lovely and maybe Im overworrying it, fretting because of a label, a diagnosis, rather than looking at and accepting the whole child.
But there are other things too, things to fuel my unease. Nothing huge. This child is making enormous leaps in his socialization skills, his desire and ability to connect with other children, to have actual honest-to-goodness friendships.
When I talked to Kahuna about fostering a connection with said curly haired boy on Thursday, he said he tried. Said the boy and his friend were looking for someone to play with them. Kahuna suggested Damian. They said no. Why?
Hes too silly.
Damian has two modes of play: intent concentrated imaginative play and super-charged gross motor silliness. He doesnt seem to know how to invite other kids into his complex scenarios. Maybe the problem is that hes already created his own universe inhabited by small frogs and mice who wash cars and go to the dentist and live in tree houses and order fly soup at miniature restaurants. An adult can enter into this world but another child probably wont. Theyll want to build their own stories, or stories they can build jointly with him. And I dont know that hes flexible enough yet, confident enough yet, to do that with them. And he certainly doesnt know how to ask, or offer. Not when hes faced with another child. So instead he goes a little nuts: racing around like a fire engine on speed, revving himself up to the max. Babbling a stream of nonsense words. Some kids like it. They feed off his manic energy and then Damian feeds off them, and they race around like mad and before you know it, theyve got the seedlings of a friendship. Others? Not so much.
He may be missing a certain kind of play skill, somewhere between froggie scenarios and roadrunner cartoons. A fairly simple joint play, allowing for the incremental leaps from were batting at each other with foam swords to Were knights and Im protecting the castle from you. Maybe its that the frogs have coopted the imaginary play and now Damian rarely pretends to be something himself. Maybe we need to go back a level, help him get comfortable with that.
Or maybe his problem is more basic. Adults play differently. Damian learned to play with adults. Adults trying to mimic kid play, yes (I want it! No! You cant have it! I want it now!), but inevitably, we play differently. And so, without meaning to, we teach him to play differently too.
The cure seems simple: expose him to more children, let him learn from them. But now it feels more tricky. Because the other children have to want to play with him in order to teach him. And he has to be able to interpret their body language and respond to it, has to modulate his own response so that theyll want to play with him.
This is where social skills classes should theoretically come in. Theyre common for kids on the spectrum. The idea is that these children need to learn social skills. Problem is, many of them teach those skills in a very external way. In X situation, you respond by saying Y. If hes got Z expression on his face, you know he feels W. Problem is, real live kids never act quite the way they do in these abstracted situations. If X situation is instead Xx with a little V thrown in, what do you do? How can you be ready for the unexpected?
There must be a way to teach in situ, to run alongside him and give gentle pointers, maybe to dissect a situation after the fact. Cheri suggested we sit on the sidelines with him and observe other kids interacting, narrate what they do as they approach, engage, and race off together. Kahuna has tried that. Damian resists. He doesnt want to think. Doesnt want to sit passively. He wants to play. Can you blame him? Hes only four years old, after all.
Maybe Im overthinking this. The curly haired boy and his bestest buddy love playing at being Power Rangers saving the world and Buzz Lightyear zooming off to infinity and beyond. Damian doesnt get the point. We TiVod Buzz Lightyear of Star Command the other day call it homework and Dan watched with Damian. Afterwards, he asked Damian what he thought of the show. Parts of it were scary but I was brave. In other words, not really his thing. No wonder hes not going to be a good match for these boys. He doesnt share their language.
I worry, though. How can I not? I remember too well the gawky boy in fourth grade. There was nothing wrong with him, not exactly. He was bright, friendly. But he was the butt of jokes. Nobody wanted to play with him. He was ostracized. Despised in that careless way kids have. I fear that for my bright, sweet boy. How do you teach a young child to be socially at ease, to be confident enough within himself so that he can be, if not at the center of the pack, then at least not isolated and alone, a despised outsider?
I watch him with Sophia; they do the simplest of imaginative scenarios: the green watering can is a bunny. Theyre first looking for, then feeding the bunny. (Then they use it to water the plants.) They crash toy cars at the dinner table. They race around like banshees, laughing wildly.
I watch him with Corey. They dont do much imaginative play, but they do chase each other on bikes, play air hockey (Corey taught Damian the rules), play an interactive pinball game, sing a song together (all three verses).
I watch him with Estuardo. They share toy fire engines and whack at each other with toy laser guns. They talk about what food they like to eat. They play side by side with the same set of toys, inching toward a shared world.
I watch him with Rosie at the afternoon school. Running across the yard, hand in hand. Bouncing on the teeter totter. Playing chase games. The afternoon school is reserved for the simplest of games but yes, he has company there too.
Hes not ostracized yet. And hes learning to connect with kids. This is all good. But he refuses to go to the afternoon school without Kahuna (that one good session was followed by a not-so-good one) and if we get there before Kahuna, Damian sits on my lap and refuses to budge. Hes got a friend there, and thats good. But only one friend in a group of well over a dozen? Not so good. He doesnt feel at home in that environment and I cant figure out if the fault lies with the specific circumstances at that school or something deeper and more troubling.
I imagine him in a kindergarten class without an aide next year. I cringe at the image: Damian withdrawn and scared, off in the corner away from the other kids. Trying to reach out, getting rebuffed, bursting out with nonstop babble, trying to cope the only way he knows. And inevitably, crying when its time to go to school.
Hes willing to wade into the social pool but unready to dive into the deep end. Weve decided to hold him back a year, keep him from drowning. But how can we ensure that hes ready to swim in the deeper waters of typical group interaction in the years to come? How do you teach that skill?
copyright 2003 Tamar