Tuesday, August 21, 2012

He really is useful...

There has been one true constant in our adventures in autism world.

The poo issues? Well, they only started after Billy had Transverse Myelitis when he was almost 4. Picky eating? Really only kicked in around 3. Anxiety? Seriously, not an issue before the reflux got bad.

Our consistent companion - Thomas the Tank Engine.

Billy is a hardcore Thomas fan.

I can clearly recall the first contact. We flicked onto an episode of Thomas on the ABC one morning when he was about 15 months old. It was Thomas and the Jet Engine. Billy stopped what he was doing, grabbed the remote from my hand and placed it out of my reach. He stood, transfixed for four and a half minutes.

We had a paediatrician's appointment that day, and afterwards we went to a toy shop. Tiny, toddling Billy wandered through the toy shop and again, stopped in his tracks. A giant tank engine shaped display called him over. He literally knelt before the temple of the tank engine. In a Thomas trance, he chose his first engine - Percy the small green engine.

And so began an enduring love affair.

Billy hearts Thomas, in all its forms. He loves the narrators, from Ringo Starr and George Carlin, through the questionable flirtations with Alec Baldwin and Pierce Brosnan, to the Michaels - Brandon & Angelis. He adores the TV show, even since they betrayed the autistic developmental paradigm by making the faces move. He covets the feature length movies, he consumes the books, he has every kind of train (the ertl, the wooden, the die-cast, the plastic, the wind up, the Subway limited issue, the Hornby and the Bachmann).

It hasn't been an easy relationship.

There were moments when the love of the trains tormented him. In toy shops, where other kids played on his beloved tables and he was too frightened to join in. In dark moments, when he clung to a page of train stickers like there was nothing else in the world, including us. In therapy, when his love was objectified into a motivator or a reinforcer... without a doubt the most exquisite torture a toddler could endure.

I have hidden and given away more Thomas products than I care to recall, at times when we feared his love of trains was taking over everything. But this never, ever felt like the right thing to do... despite all the professionals telling us it was.

And here's why.

Thomas taught Billy everything. He learned colours (for a long time, anything red was 'James'... James cars, James pants, James pencils). He learned directions (forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards... repeat endlessly while lying on the floor with a train in front of your eyes). He learned numbers (we all got this message clearly and quickly, as a misnumbered Thomas train is one of the easiest ways to spot a piss poor pirate non-licensed product). Thomas helped him to talk, to count, to read. Thomas took him further than any of us frantically caring adults could manage on our own.

Most of all, though, Thomas ensured Billy learned about positivity, gentleness, friendship, helpfulness - usefulness.

While I lamented the English class structure overtones in the engines' deferential relationship with the Fat Controller, Billy saw nothing but positive. He can't even see bad in Diesel, or Diesel 10. He reads their motivations better than I can read my workmates' thoughts.

While we feel like we've seen the same thing over and over, Billy finds depth. He can spot repeated shots, he finds characters lurking in backgrounds, he memorises scripts and songs as though they are Shakespeare.

While I wonder when it will end, Billy finds new ways to love. He's uncovered simulators and online games and nasty re-voiced YouTube clips full of swears (hilarious to Billy), explosions (what kid doesn't like a good explosion) and terrorist plots (yes, really).

More importantly, Thomas keeps him company. Thomas is his safe zone. Thomas is his friend. Thomas is his expertise.

Billy has other loves, especially as he veers perilously close to tween-age (he will be nine in November).

David Attenborough and all animals associated with him (read, all animals), zoos, Spongebob, Phineas and Ferb, Regular Show and Adventure Time... all approved Billy fun. He is morphing, reassuringly, into peer mandated, sophisticated popular cultural product consumption.

But a day does not go by, still, where Thomas and Friends do not make an appearance.

It's more sophisticated interaction now. He has a real tangible ability to make films. So, he re-stages Thomas episodes with his own toys. He films and re-cuts episodes, re-voicing the adventures and tightening the shots. He re-cuts trailers and songs. He makes animations. He writes detailed original episodes... I guess that's Thomas fan fiction.

His sensitive and clever teachers integrate his attachment to Thomas into challenging academic moments. His doctors are understanding that Thomas will help him through difficult procedures. We know anything in the universe is easier with an engine attached.

Even though he's almost nine and they are meant for much younger kids, the residents of Sodor still make Billy feel like the world is spinning on its axis.

Oftentimes, I wonder what the future will hold.

Will teenage Billy be charmed by the offer of a Thomas stamp on the back of his hand? Will he go on a first date with a train in his pocket? Will he attend university lectures listening to The Whistle Song on his iPod (or iBrain, or whatever Apple will have invented by then)?

You know what?

It's not really relevant.

As long as he is happy, who cares how he is happy?

We don't know what the future will hold. We can only speculate on what he has the capacity to achieve. We have no idea what to expect.

Autism has completely robbed us of that ability. Autism and its buddies, chronic illness, have scrambled that path for us, as parents. We don't know where we are headed. The road we thought we were going to walk with our child has changed. It's morphed into something else.

Maybe, it's a train track.

At least, if it is, we all know we are chuffing along among trusted friends.


Nancy Hutchings said...

You have (and not for the first time) described my son to a tee. He is now 16, and although he has other obsessions now (Bob Dylan lyrics, Laurel & Hardy, Youtube mashups) he has never relinquished his love of Thomas. He is savvy enough to know it is not the done thing for a teenager and keeps it well away from his classmates. But in times of stress or just too much change, scripting a few favourite episodes or even watching an old Ringo narration is just the ticket to center him again. Favourite memory of "Thomas learning": When he was two years old, we found the magnetic letters on the fridge arranged to spell out the first six engines; he had matched the patterns of letters from his book. This started his love of letters, spelling, and reading that persists to this day!

Rachel Welch said...

Thank goodness for the good Reverend. Without Thomas I don't know if we'd have been able to find an effective way of communicating with our little autistic son. Thomas is a constant presence, from the train tracks that weave around the house, to the never ending selection of YouTube homemade clips to the large plastic Thomas with a handle that accompanies us everywhere we go. My son could recogise Thomas' name before he knew his alphabet and also learnt to count and distinguish colours on the Island of Sodor. I don't worry about him growing up with this friend, he'll never be alone with a little blue tank engine in is pocket.