It was a typical dinner Monday night when everyone was talking over each other and no one was eating.
There was bickering. Potty talk. Anything and everything except actual eating.
Since this happens quite frequently, I have a mental list of “conversation” topics that usually redirect everyone long enough to get some food into them in between sentences.
When I say “conversation”, I mean mostly monologues of non-related topics, but each kid is taking a turn with it, allowing the others to eat.
And when I say “topics”, I mean I ask them about Minecraft. So just one topic. Singular.
Tonight was no exception.
I entered the cook time into the microwave and turned towards the boys at the table. “So, guys, if you could create your own Minecraft Mod, what would you do?”
(ed note: a mod is a modification made to the Minecraft code. Gamers write code to create these mods to add additional things to the original game. My friend Bec at Minemum can explain it all. I know nothing about it except that my kids are obsessed with watching videos about them and begging me to download them.)
“I would create a space world where things could explode!” replied Howie.
“I would create a place where animals could go and there would be explosions!” said Lewis.
I took my dinner out of the microwave and sat down at the table.
“Well,” I said, “if I was creating a mod, I would make a sensory gym mod.”
I gave Tim a little smile. I was completely kidding. I half expected them to come out with a “What?! That’s ridiculous!” and go back to discussing how to explode creepers and zombies.
Howie looked right at me. “A sensory gym mod?”
“Sure,” I said. “It could have stuff in it like at SenseAbility Gym.”
Both Howie and Lewis were quiet for a moment.
“We would call it The SenseAbility Craft Mod!” said Howie. “We could craft a trampoline out of leather and and blocks. And it would be bouncy like slime. You’d make it on the crafting table!”
“And you could make a bolster swing too, ” said Lewis. “You would need string. And something to sit on.”
I sat in stunned silence.
Howie’s eyes got huge and bright.
“And the villagers – they would be autistic villagers! They would be the ones who could be in the SenseAbility mod.”
Tim and I made eye contact. I gave him the “wow” look with my face.
“It would spawn autistic villagers and they would be the only ones in the village. And they would go up to each other and would make the villager sounds and understand each other.” Howie was on a roll and was not stopping. “And they would go on the trampoline and the swing.”
“Could you craft a weighted blanket?” asked Tim.
“Oh yes, you could do that.” Howie replied.
We were all giggling a little at the ideas, throwing them out one by one.
“You could make a square ball pit with blocks and craft something to put in it!” Lewis exclaimed.
“Could you make a wooden slide?” Tim asked
“YES!” Howie yelled. “You could make a slide.”
“You would need some fidgets too in your inventory,” I said to Howie, “just in case the villagers needed them.”
“Yes,” he said. “And the autistic villagers could trade emeralds for fidgets so they could feel better.”
He looked at me. “Spawning an autistic villager is rare but special, you know.”
I smiled at him. “Yeah buddy, I know.”
Howie got up from the table. “Let’s play ‘SenseAbility Craft’ right now!”
“Wait, what? Right now? You didn’t eat anything!”
But Howie was already gone and Lewis followed right behind. They went into the other room and pretended to be the autistic villagers, happily trading for fidgets.
I cleaned up their full plates of food and turned to Tim.
“You better start those Java and coding lessons with Howie. I think he’s on to something.”
It was December 2009 when I was listening to the developmental pediatrician list off the “red flags” for autism that she saw in Howie. No pretend play, no ability to think of objects as anything other than their literal use. Focused on the spinning wheels of the car and not the car itself. Can’t do a pretend birthday party.
It was August of 2011 when I heard the same thing for Lewis.
“You’ll need lots of work and therapy to develop those skills. I’m not saying he won’t ever have them, but they won’t come naturally.”
I left the office each time with my view of the world and my boys tipped on its side. I was crushed – mostly by the guilt of what I didn’t see. What could I do to help him? Could I help him?
Turns out my autistic villagers just needed to figure it out in their own time and their own way, through a game that has no boundaries except the limits of their imagination and creativity.
Which, despite what we were told, seems to be endless.
I’m looking forward to the day when they create this SenseAbility Craft Mod. I hope they let me play and be a part of their incredible, creative and imaginative world.
Howie on the bolster swing.
Lewis in the squeeze machine. Crafting this one could be tricky…
“Red sun rising in the sky
Sleeping village, cockerels cry
Soft breeze blowing in the trees
peace of mind, feel at ease.” – Sleeping Village by Black Sabbath
When I was a kid, I used to have these semi-religious, existential conversations with my dad about fate, free will, superstition and destiny. I would say I believed in fate, that some things were just meant to happen and meant to be.
He would use his “frog in the pond” story on me, asking me if he told me that there was a frog in the pond who controlled everything in the world, would I believe it. I would always answer “of course not”. Which led to discussions of science versus fate, proof versus belief.
Tonight, as the bases were loaded and I went back upstairs to my spot and put on my 2004 series winning pants and the inning ended, I would like the thank the frog in the pond for helping the Red Sox out of a jam.
– My personal Facebook status during last year’s Red Sox World Series run
I’ve always been a superstitious person. I grew up believing in many of Jewish superstitions shared by my grandmothers. I remember how adamant they were that my mother not attend my grandfather’s funeral when she was pregnant with my sister. I remember a lot of “pooh-poohing” and spitting from my older relatives when I was a child. Even now, I have a small “Raggedy Ann” doll in the back of my car that has been in the storage compartment of every single car I’ve owned because I believe it keeps me safe. I have certain “lucky socks”, pants that I pull out for Red Sox World Series games, and I never drive on long trips wearing anything other than sneakers.
When I was pregnant with my boys, I never had a baby shower and I dutifully tied a red ribbon on the leg of the crib for all of my children, whether they actually slept there or not. And I never, ever opened an umbrella in the house. Ever. Rationally I know that these superstitions aren’t based in any fact or science. However, why tempt the evil eye?
When I became a parent, my belief in the need to “do things in this order or else something bad could happen” continued. If Gerry would fall asleep in the car wearing a certain coat, I would make sure he had that coat on each time I needed him to sleep in the car until it was no longer appropriate seasonally. I would cook his oatmeal for the same exact amount of time each morning before daycare. I would follow things in certain patterns to make sure the same result would happen. Most of this was probably sleep deprived induced behavior and not true superstitions, but I believed that I had to do some things in a certain way to make sure I got the same end result.
Then came Howie and my superstitions kicked into high gear. Almost from day one.
He had certain clothes that he would be happy in and if he wore anything else, he would squirm and scream and cry.
I had to mix his formula a particular way or he wouldn’t drink it. And he had to nurse from side to side in a certain pattern or he wouldn’t fall asleep.
He could only fall asleep on me, no one else. If anyone else tried, he wouldn’t sleep for the rest of the day.
He had to be touching my skin to fall asleep.
He had to sit in a certain place at the table or he wouldn’t eat.
I had to give him a green plate.
We had to watch one episode of “The Backyardigans” before bed. And then he would sleep in my bed so when he woke up every 45 minutes, he had me there to help him get back to sleep.
I had to put socks on him at night or else he wouldn’t sleep. Until that “wore off” and we went without socks. Or he needed to wear certain pajama pants to bed. And then we moved to no pajama pants at all.
He couldn’t wear any other pants but cotton ones with no buttons to school or else he wouldn’t have a “good” day.
I had to give him his melatonin right before the shower, not sooner or later. Brush his teeth after the shower, not before.
We had to snuggle in a certain way before bed or else he would be up all night.
I had to warm up his yogurt smoothie in the morning for exactly 30 seconds in the microwave or he wouldn’t drink it.
Then came the autism diagnosis for him.
And for me a better understanding of the comforts of routines and the unsettling nature of triggers.
These superstitions were my own creation based on his responses to his sensory needs – the patterns of “we must do this or else” were a reaction to what I didn’t understand.
Superstitions are “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”
I didn’t know or understand why he needed socks worn a certain way, or why he could only drink a warm smoothie, or wear pants that were so tight they made a mark on his skin. I feared changing up the color of plates because I feared the meltdown that would come. I believed there was “some magic” in giving him the melatonin at a certain time and I thought that if we didn’t snuggle in “just this way”, all hell would break loose and we’d never sleep again.
But I get it now.
I know that he needs to feel comfortable in his clothes in order to get through the day at school or sleep at night. I know now that the warm yogurt is a sensory aversion to anything too cold to drink. I understand the comfort in sitting in the same seat at the table for dinner.
These aren’t superstitions. These are genuine responses to known sensory triggers.
With that knowledge also comes the ability to move from the rigidity of the patterns. After years of practice and tiny changes, we can serve food on different colored plates. “The Backyardigans” is no longer the show of choice before bed. He’s falling asleep in his own bed with me at the end of the bed, not tangled up snuggling in it.
We no longer practice from a place of ignorance or fear, but one of understanding, acceptance, and the belief that these sensory issues are real and the routines are necessary for comfort and calm.
There are times when I still catch myself falling into the superstition pattern. Last night, Howie put his pajamas in a different order than usual, with his tight bike shorts on over the tight compression pants that he wears to bed.
I panicked for a moment, almost telling him that he will never sleep if his clothes are out of order because he has slept so well three nights in a row so changing it up would be disastrous.
Instead, I reminded him that with the smaller bike shorts underneath the compression pants, he will feel a tighter “hug” on his legs which will help him sleep better.
He smiled, changed his clothes, and climbed back under the covers.
I’m working really hard to recognize the appropriate cause and effect to help my kids understand these their triggers and needs.
However don’t expect to see me opening any umbrellas inside anytime soon. And my “Raggedy Ann” doll will always be with me.
Chilling out in the compression pants and the Yogibo.
“Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladders bout’ to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past
When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way ” – Superstition by Stevie Wonder