The Flexibility Games

Flexibility and autism don’t exactly go together. Like so many on the spectrum, Ryan is married to routine — in ways that both help and hinder him.

Routine is comforting, and helps him navigate his days. Once the “new” becomes the “familiar,” anxiety levels visibly drop. Whatever is familiar is rarely a challenge for him.

But, there’s the downside of being wedded to strict routines, and typically it shows up in social situations. Game too many to count — with us, with his sister, with teammates, with friends, with would-be friends — have been scuttled on account of the rigidity with which Ryan enforces arbitrary rules that only he understands.

When I join one of his games, I try to strike a balance between following his rules so that he can enjoy himself, and throwing him the occasional curve ball because, duh, that’s how life works. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it ends in disaster.

But there is no question we have seen more flexibility creep into Ryan’s routines, particularly as it regards the rules to the games he loves to play. It has come with his growing self-awareness, and at times he has pointed it out to us as bluntly as “did you see how flexible I was being?” — music to our ears.

We saw many signs of this new malleability on our recent vacation. Games have been a big part of each of our beach vacations the last three years. Games are a great way to occupy Ryan and prevent boredom from creeping in. He loves them, because games mean scores, and scores means stats, and stats are something he can track in his head, commit to memory, and later type up on the computer.

The first year it was “wave hockey,” a game where “goals” were scored by correctly predicting how far up the beach a wave would reach. Last year we graduated to “catch to shoot” another variant of hockey — but played with either a football on the beach or a volleyball in the pool — where the shooter tried to throw the ball past the goalie, who tried to catch or deflect the ball for a “save.” I wasn’t so fond of that one. I grew tired of the looks we got from passers-by on the beach as my son and I stood perhaps 15 feet apart and tried to whiz a football past each others’ heads.

Catch to Shoot
Ryan and Riley playing “Catch to Shoot” on the beach, 2012.

“Catch to shoot” was nowhere to be found this year. Instead, we struck on a newly created game that Ryan dubbed “Fetch and Catch” (I love the names he creates for these contests. This one even had a league, the Fetch and Catch Foundation.) In this game, one of us (usually me, occasionally Ryan, Veronica or Riley) sat or stood on one side of the pool, serving as the thrower. The other(s) — depending on how many were playing — took turns jumping from the other side of the pool and attempting to catch a ball in mid-air.

Ryan conceded to using football terminology — with the thrower as “quarterback” — but the score was kept strictly along hockey lines. It was simple — a catch was a win in the standings, while any sort of non-catch was a loss. Finish the “season” with a winning record, and you made the playoffs, where if you won four “series,” you won the championship.

Simple enough, except the “seasons” were epic. The first was 82 games — the length of an NHL regular-seasons. The next few were 100 games-plus, followed by four rounds of best-of-some-arbitrary-number “playoffs” (we started with best-of-11). At one point I joked to Ryan that I would need Tommy John surgery before the week was out. I received many a sympathetic look from other parents as these games wore on.

But they made Ryan happy, and prevented the dreaded phrase “I’m bored,” so the games went on.

I noticed right away that Ryan was more flexible that usual. He allowed Riley to play, but more importantly, he allowed her to jump in and out of the rotation whenever she pleased. Normally, such an alteration would cause him to start the entire game over each time she joined or dropped out.

When another boy at the pool asked to join after watching Ryan play for a while, Ryan enthusiastically welcomed him, and this became his vacation friend. E. would join our games several times over the course of the week, and even sought Ryan out at the pool and the beach.

We caught up with E. one more time on his last day at the condo, and when Ryan asked if he wanted to play Fetch and Catch, he said yes enthusiastically. There was just one problem — it was late-afternoon and E. was running short on time. Ryan was planning for a full “regular season” and playoffs. E. asked if they could play a shorter version.

I studied Ryan’s face as he contemplated an answer. He pondered it for a moment, while I thought back to him proclaiming flexibility and hoped he would do so again. To my delight, he agreed to a shortened version, and then surprised me again by allowing E.’s sister to join us. She was several years younger. Ryan is not the biggest fan of girls at this stage of his life, but clearly he wanted E.’s companionship enough to make an exception.

When E.’s sister failed to make a catch on her first several turns, I discretely called Ryan over to remind him not to say anything negative about her performance. I feared him blurting out “you suck!” and driving both E. and his sister from the game.

He looked at me like I had two heads. Of COURSE he wouldn’t say anything negative. That would be RUDE!

I just shook my head and continued to throw the ball, satisfied with this year’s game/routine — more flexible than last year’s. I do believe that is called “progress,” and I’ll take it, every. single. time.


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