Ryan’s extreme interest in — some might say obsession with — the sport of hockey has brought many moments of joy to our household.
But … there is a downside.
At the social skills group Ryan attends, they teach the “Superflex and the Unthinkables” curriculum, a part of Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking program. For those unfamiliar, this program uses a series of superheroes to identify the various social struggles that kids on the autism spectrum tend to display.
More than anything else, Ryan is Rock Brain:
Powers: He gets the person to do only what he wants to do and will not let him negotiate with other people. He makes people very rule bound, rigid and stuck only seeing one way to a situation.
When Ryan decides he likes something, it means he can like nothing else. If he likes Wipeout, he can’t like America’s Funniest Videos. If he likes waffles, he can’t like bagels. If he likes hockey, he can’t like any other sport. This manifests in him getting wrapped up in a single interest to the exclusion of all others, and he puts up fierce resistance to any attempt to redirect him.
We are constantly reminding him of other activities/books/foods/television shows/sports/friends that he once liked but have discarded somewhere along the way. Usually it takes us forcefully intervening — as in practically sitting on him on the couch to force him to watch a show he once liked — before he’ll have a “light bulb” moment and declare something like, “You’re right! I do love this show/food/book/etc.!” at which point Veroinca and I will engage in vigorous eye-rolling.
He can be stubborn is his opposition to the point that it becomes a comedy routine. There was the time we were in Washington D.C. (for a hockey game, of course) and found ourselves driving past the White House. We pointed it out to the kids and Riley craned her neck to get a good look. Ryan? He covered his eyes with his hands and refused to even peek since the White House had nothing to do with hockey.
Recently, I scored suite tickets to see the Harlem Globetrotters. Riley had been pestering us to go, and as I’d never seen them live, I was up for the trip. We knew it would be a challenge to get Ryan engaged since he loves hockey; basketball is not hockey; therefore he cannot love basketball. Except in Ryan’s case, the conclusion is taken to the extreme, as in “therefore I must hate basketball.”
I was hopeful that if we could get him to watch a bit of the show, he would find the whole thing humorous enough to pay attention.
There was a problem with our seats. Normally corporate suites are much easier with children. You have room to move around without disturbing those around you, and food and bathrooms are both nearby and unaffected by crowds. The problem for us with the Globetrotters was that the suite was outfitted with a flat-screen TV. That TV showed hockey. There was hockey on during the Globetrotters game. Therefore, Ryan declared he would only watch hockey and would not pay any attention to the Globetrotters.
These moments always present a dilemma. How far do we push? We knew he could watch the hockey game on TV without disturbing anyone. Riley would be able to enjoy the Globetrotters and everyone would go home happy. But we also knew that sometimes breakthroughs are only achieved by kicking down barriers. After all, Ryan didn’t enjoy many of his favorite activities — including hockey — until we forced him to at least give them a try.
Once in the suite, Ryan started putting up fierce resistance to watching any of the Globetrotters. Instead, he stayed in the back of the suite, happily watching hockey on television. We made a few compromises and he agreed to come to the seats and watch the Globetrotters once their game actually started. But he quickly declared he wasn’t interested and made a bee line for the TV. We compromised again — watch the Globetrotters during the hockey intermissions.
But even this was difficult, and his protests were starting to ruin the experience for Riley.
Again, the dilemma presented itself. Do we force him to watch, but risk ruining Riley’s enjoyment of the Globetrotters? Or do we allow him to do what he wants, preserving family harmony but at the expense of reinforcing that he could get whatever he wants if only he protests enough?
In this case, we opted to continue to push and insisted that he watch the final quarter of the Globetrotters game — hockey and consequences be damned.
Ryan reluctantly sat in the seats, but quickly declared his intentions.
“I’m rooting for the Global Selects!” (this year’s version of the Washington Generals). When I pointed out that he might be the first kid in the history of the world to root against the Globetrotters, he was undeterred, and went for the dagger.
“Dad, you were the one that was worried I wouldn’t love hockey anymore!”
He was right. At the end of the previous NHL season, I had gotten very upset, worried that by the time the next season started, Ryan might have moved on to some other obsessive interest, one that we couldn’t share (like garages).
He was also being manipulative.
As autism parents, we learn to take pride in small achievements. We also learn that sometimes things like lying or being manipulative are achievements, too, since they come no more naturally to our kids than fluid conversation.
Such was the case here. Ryan was using my own emotions against me in an attempt to guilt me into giving in. I think we an all agree that’s a pretty advanced form of social thinking — but still one that is difficult to swallow in the moment.
In the end, we caved, opting not to push and possibly provoke an outburst that would ruin the experience for Riley. I worry about the toll these moments take on her. When she wanted to stay for autographs and Ryan made it clear that would not be possible, the best I could offer was an apology, a promise to make it up to her, and confirmation that this was one of those moments that we had talked about that weren’t fair, but just were a part of our family’s life.
Because of the open discussions we’ve had about Ryan’s diagnosis with both kids in the past year, Riley understands. I am resolute that it will make her a stronger, kinder, more accepting and better person over the course of her life.
But it still won’t make it fair.