Saturday, October 1, 2011

A new world record...?

I think our family might actually win a world record.

I could be wrong, I'm not certain, but I believe we might be the family that has been to more zoos, more times than any other family. Except maybe the Irwin family, but I actually think we might give even them a run for their money.

We have been (repeatedly) to all the zoos I can think of in our State and the one to the north of us. We are heading to California in a month or so, with an itinerary planned around zoos.

At least twice a week, we are looking at animals in some kind of animal park or zoo. When we are not at a zoo, we are reading about animals, talking about animals, playing with animals or (my personal favourite at the moment) curled up in bed watching David Attenborough documentaries on the iPad.

We do engage with other things (that pesky mater of schoolwork, Thomas and his friends are still around, there's the countdown to our trip to be considered) but we frame our life around animals at the moment.

You may think I'm crazy. After all, the aim is to have a child that's as well rounded as possible, right? We should be encouraging our child to touch on as many subject areas as possible, right?

From my perch, high atop autism world, I say... yeah, right.

In the most loving, least cynical way... yeah, right.

I have mixed feelings about the issue of neurodiversity. I'm all about acceptance. I'm all about the world taking my son, and everyone else, for exactly who they are. And, at the same time, I am pitching for him to be able to live in the world in as functional way as he can.

With that in mind, my devious master plan for Billy is to use his loves and abilities (perseverations, if you will) to gaffer tape him to the world in a practical way.

When he was very young, we sucked the marrow out of every last minute of Thomas the Tank Engine. We learned colours and numbers. We developed language, we considered emotions, we made models and food and toileting all Thomas related. We travelled to see Thomas, we purchased the Island of Sodor over and over and over, we read and watched and talked Thomas. Thomas came with us to scary places. Thomas curled up in bed in hospitals. Thomas smoothed the way into the edges of street parties and restaurants.

And with Thomas in hand, we managed to kick start therapy, start pre-school and school, slowly take steps into serious kid culture like movies and birthday parties. Big steps... huge steps that would have been so much huger without our six wheeled friends.

The great thing about trains is that they brought us in contact with other kids. We stood near them at train tables in toy shops. We rode on the back of trains with them. We saw a couple at train shows (in between the adult collectors and trainspotters).

Now that Billy is almost eight (aaaah), animals have edged their way in front of the engines. So instead of smoothing our journey into the world with songs about useful engines, we're carrying a well thumbed copy of 'What Bird is That?' and making documentaries with the video camera on my iPhone.

Animals have (similarly) brought us into the world of children in a very useful way. In order to see the gorillas at the zoo (for example), one has to stand quite close to quite a few children. The zoo is generally full of children, of various ages, in various moods, all with very little desire to get up in Billy's face and drive him out of his comfort zone.

Zoos have provided learning, and comfort and joy to all of us. And when you are onto a good thing, go for it, I say. In fact, in autism world, when you are onto a good thing, you kind of don't have much of a choice.

Hence, the world record for zoo attendance. And a minor record in Thomas engine ownership (I believe we may have more Percy the green engine toys than anyone on planet earth).

In Billy's life, I hope we set more records. I'm pretty sure we will. I feel this because whatever our boy does, he does with passion and commitment. Like many young autistic kids, he does not waste his time with stuff that doesn't set his brain on fire. When he likes something, he loves it. He collects it, he owns it, he inhabits it.

We are fortunate he does not love farm machinery or drum kits or string, as some kids we know do. We feel deeply fortunate he does not love violent video games or superheroes. We see that he gets both enjoyment and learning from the things he loves, and so we support him and use those things as developmental leverage. Inside-out, kid-first, Billy-led development.

Many years ago, when we could see that our infant son had a spectacular memory for letters, yet he had lost his ability to use words, doctors and therapists told us he had 'splinter skills'. They said, 'do not be excited that he can locate letters accurately. It's a splinter skill. Totally useless.' Their advice didn't seem right, and it didn't seem fair.

I can honestly say it was not good advice. He may have been displaying splinter skills (whatever they are), but they were useful skills. We took his ability with letter recognition, and worked hard to translate it into a working knowledge of phonics. We matched the letters to trains, and the sounds to songs and subtitles on DVDs. We immersed ourselves in his interests and abilities, and it paid off in spades.

It continues to pay off, every day.

Through animals, we learn about taxonomy, hierarchy, biology, mathematics. In zoos, we consider ecology and people management and the vast overpricing of snack food. We observe the way animals work, the way public space operates and the way people make up crap when they are trying to impress their children with animal 'knowledge'.

In paying heed to Billy's passions, we legitimise his life journey.

I do not believe any child should be forced through arbitrary hoops, simply because history has laid those hoops for others. When autism is added to the picture, the wisdom of the arbitrary hoops is even less obvious. When you see that your child is not simply bored by the expectations of the system, but they are also threatened, bamboozled, disregarded... making a different choice doesn't seem such a big leap.

It's not just about schooling, it's about living.

We have no political agenda leading the decisions we make about our child's life. We have only love. We are not trying to make a point, we are trying to stay balanced. We are not trying to challenge anyone else, we are simply trying to keep ourselves happy.

And if finding happiness also secures a solid future, and a couple of random world records, so be it.

And if I can get myself some recognition for my encyclopaedic knowledge of potato chips and habits of the lesser Kardashians, the world order will be righted.

Splinter skills. Pffft.


Lisa said...

Many splinters make... a tree? a house? a big thing made of wood? Hurray for splinters (and Val-glue, lovingly applied to join those 'useless' splinters).
Now, back to glueing the knowledge of physics and maths to the OCD and, without the use of 'school results', fashioning it into a job in electro-technology. Have a nice day!

Patty O. said...

I love this. I too have wondered how far to let an "obsession" go, but I never felt good about taking it away. Right now, my oldest is obsessed with Legos and has been for over a year. I happened upon a clinic that offers Lego social based therapy and they are training me to direct a Lego social club in my town. The club is going so well--the kids are progressing in an amazing way, all because of our use of Legos. I'm all about capitalizing on interests!

michaeldoneman said...

One quick note, Val, not about content so much as form. You write with such elegance and clarity and wit, I really hope you get around to something like long-form creative writing (for adults) one day. Or do you, already?