Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Using the tools we've got...

Spring seems to have truly sprung here in the northeast- finally! The forsythia, crocus, & scylla are blooming & daffodils are on their way. B told me this morning that he's glad it's finally warm out because "... I can play outside & not have all those heavy clothes..." :) Seeing his delight to go outside is wonderful, since he has the couch-potato tendencies that can be a part of spectrum kids. His desire to go outside has a lot to do with recent birthday presents, which included two kinds of rockets (stomp & pump) & various small fireworks like poppers & snappers, that don't need to be lit (just supervised- which we do, believe me). He's also eager to ride his bike with dad when it's so nice. Thinking about all of these natural, kid activities, I can't help but reflect on how having a child with autism colours how I see these activities. I feel a deep gratitude to see him wanting to go out & play with the kids next door, or go across the street to share his rockets in the little park with other neighbourhood kids- these have not always been activities that B would seek out, & C & I often find outselves deconstructing these encounters, particularly the impromptu ones, to see what worked & why & how we can coach B so that they become even more satisfying for him.

Over the weekend B & I started reading another of his birthday gifts, the latest Bionicle book by Greg Farshtey (one of B's favourite authors after Diane Duane & JK Rowling). If you're not up to speed on bionicles, they're legos- but not made out of the little bricks that people imagine when they think "lego". They are sleek & high-tech looking, with lots of add-ons like masks &, of course, weapons... They also have a heavily-scripted back-story including history, mythology, & a code-like alphabet, plus a whole series of chapter books detailing their stories. B has been fascinated by bionicles ever since he was introduced to them in kindergarten- by some of the more aggressive of his classmates. It began as a love-hate sort of thing, since B was repelled by the violent play, but fascinated by the toys. When he asked for bionicles, we were faced with a quandary...

I understand that aggression & physical activity are an important part of who boys are & how they operate, but I have never felt that it's ok for this aggression to be directed at other people. This philosophy is something I've thought about a lot. Having spent most of my life engaged with kids & also having observed the ways parents I have known have dealt with this issue, what I have seen is what appears to be a disconnect between stated values & resulting behaviours. I have had friends who, otherwise sensible (in my opinion...) who would say the "boys will be boys" thing when their sons would pick up a stick, point it at someone, & say "bang!". Having a husband who registered as a CO (Consciencious Objector) when required to register for the draft 25 years ago, has only reinforced my/our resolution to raise our son with consistent values. Our focus with B has been to help him understand that it's not ok to hurt another person, even when it's pretend. This may seem extreme, but I firmly believe that our society will continue to mindlessly go to war until we have educated out children that it's not right to hurt anyone else, for any reason. So, yes, I'm trying to change the world in my small way, starting with my own kid. B seems to understand waht we're saying. We've talked to B about war, about the military, about soldiers as these topics have naturally come up, & explained why we disagree with fighting as a solution to any problem. We do not dress him in camoflage anything & the only weapon toys he has (outside of the teeny lego ones that are inevitable...) are from the Halloweens he was a Jedi (lightsabre) & when he was Matthias from Redwall (wooden sword), & he understands that they may be used pretend-wise, but not to hurt anyone. (As a side-note, I was amazed to watch B, when he got his lightsabre, doing the Jedi "moves" he'd seen in "Star Wars" with a grace & fluidity he'd never shown in any other physical activity. I wish to heck we could get him to agree to take martial arts lessons- but that's another topic, *sigh*.) He also has found ways to let out the natural kid-aggression that do not involve pretend killing. What he loves are explosions- crashing his lego creations together & making fabulous exploding noises appears to satisfy & support his need to let the aggression out.

When it came to 5-year-old B & bionicles, we were concerned that he would mimic the violent, injury/killing oriented play the other boys were doing at school but were also aware that B really wanted to have some... We had also just begun behavioural charting as a way for B to learn to monitor & modify his own behaviours, & were looking for motivating things to "earn". After talking about it with B, we decided to start with only the models that did not carry obvious weapons. Ironically, it turned out to be only the "bad" guys at the time who fell into this category. But B was really happy to be earning bionicles! Over time, as he became able to script his own play rather than following the sometimes violent storylines provided by the manufacturer, we decided that B could earn any of them. When B started reading, the bionicle books became another motivator, & to be honest, I was impressed by the stories Greg Farshtey was penning for the bionicles. They seemed a bit above the usual fare, with thoughtful & interesting stories that were not a chore to read & discuss with B. Last summer we took things to the next level when our main summer project was a photo-picture book featuring bionicle creatures that B created himself, called tunrats. We story-boarded the whole thing scene-by-scene, then made lists of the models he'd need to make. I took care of back-drops, using fabrics from my stash & pictures scanned from various books or downloaded from the net. I turned a box into a "stage" that could be configured different ways. B & I set up the scenes & photographed them, then B typed the story, which features action, humour, & friendship, under each picture on the computer. It took all summer, but we ended-up with a 25 page picture book that is one of the most enjoyable collaborative projects I've ever worked on. Both B & I were very pleased with it. We made copies for 2 of his other bionicle-obsessed friends & shared it with his class at the beginning of the school year, but since it's essentially copyrighted material (by the lego folks) we have kept it to personal use only. To me, this is the essence of what a kid can do when s/he breaks out of the culture- & media-driven mould & uses their own creativity.

The latest bionicles, called Piraka, seem to be the product of the inevitable escalation of action to violence, though. They are not so elegant as past models, where even bad guys have a polished, high-tech look. These guys (all guys, I might note, where usually the bionicles have one colour- blue- given to the female of the "species") are just plain ugly, with rictus-like grins, glow-in-the-dark teeth, & eyes that light-up red. I was glad to note that the spikes that stick out all over their bodies are rubbery, rather than rigid plastic, so they at least won't injure anyone... However, I was fine with B earning these, too, since he's so good at writing his own scripts for them, plus he got a couple for his birthday as well. Then came the books- B read the first of this series, featuring the Piraka, on his own. He was disturbed by some of the scenes & told us about them. These scenes were the first featuring gratuitous violence that I'd ever seen in a bionicle book, which was disturbing. Last Saturday B & I started reading the second book, but stopped when one of the characters was stunned & shamed into removing his mask (making himself vulnerable) for a villian. This level of psychological violence had not been apparent in the books before, either. B felt angry & betrayed that one of his favourite authors would write this sort of thing in a kids' book. We talked about our other favourite authors, Diane Duane & JKR, & how they use & resolve sadness/despair/fear in their stories & decided that they always left a ray of hope, which was how we could read them & still feel uplifted. This bionicle book had nothing uplifting about it.

B was pretty down, in the aftermath. I have been encouraging him to write to Greg Farshtey & let him know how he feels, so maybe he will... B really likes the Piraka, though, but was having trouble getting the book's script out of his head & finding one he could use to play with them. He spent his tv time with them nearby, but didn't play with them. On Sunday B had a tough time with "thoughts" & tics. As part of B's cognitive/behavioural therapy to help him overcome the OCD, his psychologist had made it clear that one very useful tool would/could be B's natural boy-aggression. He had been suggesting that B imagine the Power Rangers or superheroes of his choice as helping him fight the OCD. B was having trouble wrapping his head around this, though. I want B to be able to use any tool he can to fight the OCD, since it makes his life utterly miserable. I was worried that our philosophy of raising B to channel his aggression differently might be getting in the way of his using it as a tool. I have talked to B about the idea of "fighting" the OCD, because it's not a person, it's not him really, in order to try to help him to see the thoughts as a separate entity & therefore something that can be eradicated (which is what Dr. M has counseled us to do). Sunday evening I had a brainstorm... I asked B if he might imagine using the Piraka against the OCD thoughts, adding that I didn't think that the thoughts would stand a chance against this nasty crew... and B got a thoughtful look on his face. He agreed that there probably wasn't anything that could stand up to a Piraka. Monday morning we went to see Dr. M & took a Piraka with us. Dr. M was delighted. B & I explained the idea to him at the beginning of the appointment, & then I left them to it... B came out of his office full of ideas for using them to fight the thoughts. That afternoon after school, B brought them all downstairs & had them practise fighting the thoughts. He scribbled a "thought" on a piece of scrap paper, then had each one of them attack the thought, ripping the paper. The whole thing had a ritual feel to it (to me), and when he was done, B was more relaxed than I'd seen him for a while. Instead of going up to watch tv afterward, he dug-out a challenging computer game (the rather complicated "Dr. Brain" game that I've had trouble with in the past) & went at it for the first time since before Christmas...

After B went to bed, C & I talked about the new "tools" in the kit. We were both really pleased, & decided that even if B rejected the whole thing after a couple of days, it was a success because it's the first time he's actively agreed to any strategy of this sort. B says he wants to write new Piraka stories, too, maybe this summer after we finish the runrat (see the Chibi post) bionicle story we began as a sequel to the tunrat one. In truth, I think B has already begun the best bionicle story possible. As discouraging as things may get sometimes, when I've ridden-out thoughts with him & faced the blasts of anger & defiance that are normal for a growing child, it really is encouraging to see B doing such positive work for himself. C & I decided that B's becoming pretty amazing in the self-knowledge area, way ahead of his peers, way ahead of ouselves at his age.

5 Comments:

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Zilari said...

I've got three Bionicles sitting on my desk right now...I wasn't aware they had such complex backstories! I don't know if mine are good guys or bad guys, but they don't have any weaponry apart from something that looks like a Frisbee. (It might be intended as a weapon, but I've never thought of it that way!)

My siblings and I were given strict non-agression rules as well when we were growing up...I never really questioned this much since I was horrified by the idea of hurting anyone or being hurt. We were allowed to play with toy guns but we were NOT allowed to ever point them at people, because my dad said that nobody should ever point anything that even looks like a gun at someone else. I remember in the 80s or thereabouts when some kid got shot (I think) by a police officer because he pointed a realistic-looking toy gun at him. After that, all toy guns had to be made in ridiculously bright colors or have a bright orange plug in them.

Wow, sorry for rambling there! All this talk of toys brings back memories.

Good, of course, to hear of increased self-awareness for B. One of the absolute best traits to encourage in someone on the spectrum is introspection, and it sounds like B was born with a head start at this!

 
At 9:37 PM, Blogger Lisa/Jedi said...

Hey Zilari,

I told B that you have bionicles & he wants to know which ones.... :)

I appreciate hearing that you were raised with similar standards concerning violence & weapon toys. I feel pretty alone in my strong feelings about this, especially among parents with boys. It pretty frustrating... but I think it's a symptom of a culture that really doesn't want to think deeply about anything. I think it really hit home to me when Sesame Street Parent magazine (now defunct), which was one of the best parent magazines around (IMO), ran an article about how to ask families where your child was having a "playdate" whether or not there were guns in the house... pretty spooky- but sadly timely.

 
At 11:49 PM, Blogger Zilari said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:38 AM, Blogger RGS: Anything and yet Nothing said...

I'm a self professed bionicle nut(Bionut)And I can see where you are coming from. Yes, violence tends to only beget violence. As I was reading through your blog I was wondering certian things but then I noticed you obviously are not telling your kids to take the blow and not fight back... you wish your son would take martial arts...
There is a time and place for everything, and maybe in this day and age we are to prone to jump the gun and strike out before we have made sure it is the right action. I have never raised children but I must say you are doing excellent with yours.
Side note: I am not happy with the piraka... not nearly as fun as say the toa metru...
Long live lewa!

 
At 6:54 PM, Blogger Lisa/Jedi said...

:) I have a soft spot for the Le-bionicles, too... not just because B's Mattau became an important transitional object for him, but I really like Le-speak, I guess :)

I do wish B would take a martial art... not only is is good exercise & good discipline, but I resonate to the philosophy, too (a Jedi thing, I guess). My 16-year-old goddaughter is a black belt in karate (working on her first degree) & it's done wonderful things for her self-esteem. For a teenaged girl in our culture to feel good about her body & want it to be strong is an awesome thing!

 

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