Climbing In to His Affinity

Sports bar TVs
Ryan wasn’t sure this was his ideal way to watch a game.

We went out to dinner Saturday night. Nothing remarkable about that — not anymore, anyway. We choose a pizza and burger joint that we knew would have appealing options for both kids.

The restaurant had one other thing to recommend it — TVs all over with games on of every variety. We even convinced Ryan to eat dinner later than usual so that we could watch the beginning of that night’s NHL playoff game at the restaurant. About this part of the plan, Ryan was somewhat skeptical. He prefers the comforts of home, with the computer nearby where he can type his post-period stats.

We had a goal, however. Ryan has learned that in-person sporting events can be a social experience and provide easy context for total strangers to engage in conversation and mutual celebration. This has become so routine for him that he now regularly seeks out other fans for high-fives after some big development in a game we are attending. We wanted him to see that watching games collectively on television can be just as social an experience.

Yes, we were introducing our 13-year-old to the appeal of a sports bar. Don’t judge me.

Ryan was willing to try, but as game time approached, he was reluctant. It started to dawn on him that even though the game was going to be on one of the main TVs right in front of us, he was not going to hear the audio due to the jukebox blaring. He grew agitated. He grew defiant. He demanded to go home immediately.

We decided to stand our ground and push him a little. We reminded him he agreed to this plan and we chose the restaurant and time specifically so he could watch the game there. Our waitress came by. Ryan asked her — politely — if they would “turn down the music,” which I think she actually did, if only a little.

We came up with a compromise. I gave him my phone, where the same game was available through NBC’s streaming app. There would be a delay, but it would allow him to hear the audio of the game. He held the phone’s speakers right up to his ear as he watched the game on the big screen.

Success. He still preferred to leave, but was no longer demanding. He agreed to stay for part of the first period. At the last television timeout of the period, we got up to leave. After the big meal, I mentioned that I wished I could walk the 20 minutes or so home. Ryan said “I’ll walk with you.” Veronica and Riley, both wearing heels, took the car and Ryan and I set out.

It’s a quiet walk, through a large park and silent, tree-lined streets. I don’t think a single car passed us for the first 15 minutes. It was just the two of us — and the game on my iPhone. Ryan held it between us as we walked.

Setting aside the miracle of modern technology that allows us watch the game while we walked, it was an eye-opening experience. Ryan spent the entire walk not only talking about the stats he loves, but trying his hardest to explain why he loves them.

This was something new. We’ve had many conversations where he talks to me with the assumption that I see games the same way and prize the same information he does. But this was different. He was actually trying to explain it to me.

I was instantly taken back to something I’d read earlier in the week, a blog post titled “Autism Is Not About You,” that I’d found after the awful Washington Post article last week. The piece contained a clip of author Ron Suskind on The Daily Show, talking about his new book “Life, Animated” in which he describes his family’s 20-year experiment in connecting with their autistic son through his intense love of Disney movies.

An excerpt of the book was published in the New York Times Magazine in March, and four or five different people must have sent it to me. I had already read it, underlining passages that read as if Suskind was describing our family, if only you substituted “hockey” for “Disney.”

In his interview with John Stewart, Suskind talks of how his family learned — after years of being told his son’s affinity for Disney was “unproductive” and “perseverative” and should be limited — that the key to connecting with Owen was to climb right into the affinity with him.

I have heard that same language. I have used it with Ryan. I have tried to limit the time he spends with hockey stats, calling it “unproductive.” My feelings about this are changing, and I’m learning to appreciate his special interest and ability in ways I never have before.

And here we were, just a few days after watching that interview, and my son — who once struggled so much to communicate — was offering me an invitation into his affinity. Suskind’s words, “climb in there with him” echoed in my head as we walked and I listened to this remarkable conversation.

Ryan now recognizes (progress) that not everyone experiences hockey the way he does. Rather than assuming (progress) that I already understood and appreciated the stats the way he does, he was trying his hardest to explain that to me. I let him take the ball and run with it. I still don’t quite understand his fascination with certain statistics, but I know better than I did before that though we have a common affinity — hockey — he experiences it much differently than I.

Further, I understand that the numbers, when studied in the volume he studies them, and combined with his remarkable powers or memory, allow him to instantly categorize and make sense of any game situation. There is almost nothing that happens in a hockey game that he can’t instantly place in context — is this a rare event? A common one? Somewhere between? — to further his understanding of what is happening. Context blind? Maybe in certain social situations. But not here. Not in this realm.

I can’t do what he does. At best, I can try to understand what he’s doing and appreciate it the depth of its meaning. He’s not mindlessly typing and studying statistics of long ago games. He is molding and shaping and deepening his interest and understanding of the topic that interests him most. It satisfies him. It fulfills him. It obviously makes him happy — so much so that he extended a hand to invite me to experience it with him.

I think Suskind is on to something. Affinities are not a negative. Certainly not unproductive. Sure, they have their rough edges. But, to borrow another of his phrases, they are a pathway: To understanding. To connection. And, as I discovered on a walk home Saturday night, to communication itself.

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