Sometimes autism surprises me. Actually – often autism surprises me. Having 2 kids with their own unique brand of autism can be a challenge as a parent – and having 3 children in general is interesting just because you are outnumbered (no doubt – the children sense this, and use it to their advantage – as they should). Elliott & Ada may both have the same diagnosis, but they are most certainly very different people.
Most of the time, Elliott & Ada are indeed, very unique individuals, with their own strengths and challenges, and distinctly different personalities. (Henry is his own guy too – and I don’t mean to exclude him from this story because he does not have an autism diagnosis – so I’ll say that he is awesome in many ways – just not in ways that include keeping his room tidy).
One thing that has always surprised me about autism is trying to understand how my kids learn and what things are very challenging for them – how their brains work through the maze of difficulties they face and how some things are much harder for them than others. For instance, Elliott can spell at a 9th grade level without effort or practice, but is immensely challenged by reading comprehension. Ada is a rock star with sequencing but has some challenges with fine motor skills.
Just as surprising is how quickly the kids can acquire skills – but in their own way. I remember last year that Ada’s therapy program was working with her on the concept of before and after. For some reason, it was exceptionally challenging for Ada, and even after working on the concept in what seemed like 100 different ways, we finally tabled it, and decided to tackle it at a later time. A few months later, before and after questions came up on an assessment that Ada was completing, and she aced it – like with 100% accuracy. It was exciting, crazy and wonderful in every way, and while I may not be able to explain how it happened – it was just kind of remarkable to witness the way it unfolded.
That said, one of the skills that Ada has always had difficulty with is imaginative play. We’ve had therapy programs addressing imaginative play in place for years, and for the longest time, they felt very stiff and therapeutic. She didn’t enjoy our “play” very much in the beginning, as we’d sit in front of our barn, each holding an animal, and I would have my horse neigh and then I’d ask her to have her pig oink. It got worse when we moved along to barbies (she hates them), and trying to cook in the play kitchen that Santa brought was miserable and painful (even when I suggested scones).
About a year ago, however, we began to see some signs of progress. Real progress. Like I would just watch in wonder as it unfolded and pinch myself as I actually saw her creative side come to life right before my eyes. Through very careful and systematic programming, we worked on Ada having independent play skills with play sets (like the barn, a whole host of Little People sets and a Barbie castle that she cursed). The goal was for Ada to learn how to play creatively by herself for a short amount of time – I think we started at around 15 seconds. She could do anything she wanted – but we would give her some examples of different ideas and then let her take things from there. Within a month, we were at 10 minutes, and she was using a variety of voices for different characters (mostly animals, but it was a start). Soon, the animals started getting in trouble, arguing, having fun and going to the same preschool that she did. It was beyond awesome. Especially since if you’ve read any Red couch stories before, you likely know how much Elliott struggles with appropriate leisure skills, and my fear that Ada would share that challenge along with him. But, by summer, Ada could easily play for an hour or more with creativity and sustained attention. Such awesomeness!
Now – to be fair, there were still issues. For some reason, Ada got so good at playing independently, that she didn’t want anyone to play with her. If I sat down with her, she would tell me to go away and refuse to let my animals in the barn (do you really blame her?). Additionally, there seemed to be an over-abundance of flying. Like every single time she would play – flying would be part of the play sequence. Sure, I enjoy a pig flying as much as anyone, but as an autism Mom, seeing the same play sequence come up time and time again is a wild thing called “perseveration” – and we hoped for more variety. We had come so far, but there was still room for growth.
Thankfully – Ada had some pals to help her along with this creative play stuff. She had weekly play dates with buddies (Holly, Amelia & Mary Frances to name a few) who were really into creative play scenarios including dress-up and kitchen. While these activities did not start out on Ada’s top 10 list, she truly loved playing with friends – so she started getting lots of practice. Often, the friends would be princesses and Ada a dinosaur or a lizard, but just the same – she was in character, and even better, genuinely enjoying it! By fall, she would even embrace Tinkerbelle now and then (complete with wings) and scare the cats as she glided down the stairs.
When Halloween season started in the fall, we had a sit down (on the red couch) to discuss costumes. She wanted to be Batman, and while initially I wished she would be willing to be Batgirl – I soon realized pigs really would have to fly in order for that to happen, and ordered her a full-on Batman ensemble complete with cape and pointy ears. She ran to the mailbox every day to see if it had arrived (Totsy takes too long with their shipping!) but I don’t think any of us will ever forget the day it arrived. No 6-year-old girl could have been more excited to disrobe and become a super-hero!
For the next month, she went everywhere in Batman. While I drew the line at wearing it to Kindergarten on a daily basis, we compromised about wearing her cape to the bus stop. It was adorable in every way – so much so that I embraced the spirit and dressed as old, out-of-shape Robin to match my little super hero, and we had great fun in character all through October. At her weekly therapy meeting, we had a Halloween party where everyone dressed-up as super-heroes to celebrate Ada’s amazing accomplishments and embrace the spirit of creativity! It was such fun to celebrate with the very people who helped her creative talents unfold.
Once Halloween was done, I was worried about her being “perseverative” (that weird word again) about Batman, but she easily adjusted when I said that she could continue to dress up, but primarily at home. Not a problem. She started having an interest in a variety of characters – on her own – Crazy. Awesome. Stuff.
When the holiday season rolled around, there was a day when she was having a particularly tough afternoon. At one point, I suggested she spend time in her room until she was ready to be cool. After about 20 minutes, she returned downstairs, and said she was no longer Ada, but an elf. When asked if she had a name – she told us “Bob”. Bob was a great guy – and quite fun to have around during the holiday season. While Elliott at times struggled with it “she’s not Bob the Elf – she’s Ada”, Ada embraced every aspect of the holiday season made even more special by being a real elf. When Bob was still here just a couple of days before Christmas, I asked her if Santa needed Bob to return to the North Pole for the busy season, and she replied “no, I’m Jewish”. Bob the Jewish elf – who knew?
With the holiday season behind us, and Bob safely returned to the North Pole, I thought we were going to be spending more time with Ada, but alas, a new guest arrived last week – this time it was Dr. Seuss (Doc for short). FYI – Doc lives in an “in-partment” with his parents, Kwanzaa & Ramadan in a town called Whoville. Since Doc has only recently arrived, I don’t know a great deal about him yet, but am excited to get to know him better. (Word on the street is that Bob is a frequent guest at the Seuss home.)
Most importantly, we’re talking about a little girl who just a year ago didn’t even let my farm animal in the barn and was (on her best days) playing imaginatively for 15 seconds at a time. When I see Batman, Bob or Doc in action, it’s hard not to tear up as I witness my little girl enjoying every minute of her childhood, creatively, but still with her own personal spin. It’s autism – in the most amazing of ways.
I asked her the other day what she wanted to dress up as this year for Halloween – and she said a Subway Sub. What do you think – she can be a 6 inch and I’ll be a 12? No matter what, we’re in this together!