Ryan engages in some quirky behaviors. These range from slightly odd to completely inappropriate. The latter call for a different response from me than the former, but they don’t always get one, and I find this one of the most vexing aspects of parenting a child on the autism spectrum.
Here’s what makes it challenging: I find myself constantly questioning my response. Am I asking him to change his behavior for him — or for me?
The answer isn’t entirely straightforward. Both Veronica and I believe strongly that it is important to shape Ryan’s behavior to adhere to social norms as much as possible. It’s not that we don’t celebrate his individuality, but rather that we want to help him avoid bringing unnecessary difficulty upon himself. The tween years are a challenging time for all kids to fit in. If we can help Ryan understand the difference between expected and unexpected behaviors — the language of “social thinking” with which so many autism parents are familiar — we feel believe it will help him see how the world views him, help smooth out some of the social challenges he faces, and open the door to forming relationships with his peers.
The flip side is that we try to recognize some behaviors are beyond his control, help to regulate him, or both. We try to provide him space to engage in behaviors that act as a comfort mechanism as he tries to process and impose order on an imprecise world that does not fit into the well-measured, repeatable and predictable order he prefers.
There is another class of behaviors that present a different challenge for us. These include things he likes to do that are essentially harmless. If they annoy other people, that’s one thing. But if they annoy me because they make him stand out as “different” while remaining harmless, that is where I really struggle to do the right thing.
Sunday, I took Ryan ice skating at the New Jersey Devils practice facility. It was a party for season-ticket holders, sort of an appeasement because the start do the season has been delayed by a labor dispute. Ryan had hockey practice at 6 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday, so he wasn’t sure he wanted to go skating for a third time in one weekend. But I talked him into it — which didn’t require a hard sell. Riley was at a sleepover and Veronica doesn’t really skate, so it was just the two of us. He put on his Devils jersey (I had to talk him out of wearing a Sharks jersey, which would have been one of those unexpected behaviors) and we were off to Newark.
As soon as we hit the ice, Ryan was off on his own, happily turning laps around the rink. Every time I got near him, he would laugh and dart away. At one point he even asked me if he could skate alone. I soon saw why. Since we were at the Devils’ practice rink, he decided to re-enact an entire made-up Devils game — with no sticks, pucks, or teammates. He recreated all the plays, starting at the center ice face off dot, and then skating in on “goal” while doing play-by-play of the action out loud.
This “game” lasted perhaps 45 minutes, and he was having a blast. At first I tried to get him to stop, but I had to think about why. He wasn’t bothering anyone. I watched other people to see if they were watching him. Maybe a head turned here or there, but for the most part, people were too busy taking in the scene, taking pictures with the team mascot, or just trying to stay upright to pay him any attention. I shouldn’t say he wasn’t bothering anyone, because he was bothering me.
He wasn’t endangering anyone, and for the most part he kept his play-by-play volume under control. He wasn’t being made fun of. Nobody was asking him to stop. And I could tell by his huge grin that he was enjoying himself. So it boiled down to him doing something different, something unexpected, that made him stand out in a way that made ME uncomfortable.
I decided I needed to suck it up and deal.
And I did. I faded into the background to take a few pictures. I got off the ice and had a cup of coffee. I interrupted him once in a while to ask the “score.”
He had a great time. He came off the ice exactly when I told him to. He pulled himself away from his “game” long enough to pose for pictures with the mascot, with me, with me and the mascot. And we both left with a smile.
I haven’t always handled similar situations so well. And other situations aren’t always as clear-cut as this one. Sometimes he is bothering other people or getting made fun of, and I feel I have to intervene. This time it was much more obvious that the right thing to do was allow Ryan the space to be Ryan. Doing anything else would have been unfair to him and would have ruined what was very nice outing.
Yesterday, I put aside the urge to do something for me, and instead did nothing — for him.
Sometimes nothing is the expected thing to do.