The best way I can explain my son’s spectrum disorder to other people is that he lives in his own world. Sometimes he chooses to visit our “normal” world but more often than not, my son T is so involved in what he likes and what he knows that it’s very difficult for him to transition into doing things that’s required of every other 6-year-old, like going to school or having a regular checkup at the pediatrician’s office.
With every new teacher – he’ll have had four by the time his kindergarten year is over – I explain that if T is disconnecting and his attention wanders, just mention Minecraft. In 9 out of 10 cases he will immediately snap to attention and carry on a conversation about the sandbox game, going into great detail about mobs and obsidian and whatever else he does in the game. T doesn’t really have the social skills to talk about what someone else likes; he can’t process that there is something that could be more exciting or productive than what he knows and holds dear.
At first we (the adults in his life) tried to steer him away from playing the game for hours. We said no to the expensive companion toys and t-shirts and posters that he begged for at the store. When he would answer mundane questions like “What do you want for lunch?” with a long-winded answer about mining diamonds for his sword, we got frustrated an told him his only choices were peanut butter & jelly or pizza. All we could see was an encompassing hyperfocus on something that we didn’t see to be productive.
Over the past few months of scouring discussion boards and reading countless firsthand experiences, I’ve come to realize that this behavior isn’t all that abnormal with children on the autism spectrum. Obsessive hyperfocus isn’t unusual in children with spectrum disorders and more parents and caregivers are figuring out that using a child’s “obsession” is the quickest way to establish and maintain a connection. This is especially true in cases where children have lost their communication or aren’t verbal. It’s almost like developing a secret language.
Slowly we added Minecraft to his everyday routine. In school he would be allowed 5 minutes of uninterrupted game play if he completed work. At night we would make up crazy stories about how his dinner came from creative mode. If we could tell he was getting frustrated or about to melt down, we offered him a chance to play for a bit in order to regain his focus. When he wanted to talk to us at 3 am about an enderman, we gladly obliged.
The result was T communicating his daily needs with us more frequently and clearly than he ever had. Sure, it was within the context of Minecraft, but at least he was COMMUNICATING. There was a time (before Minecraft) where the only expression of emotion was in the form of a very loud outburst of crying and screaming. Now, at least, T had a language – his language – that he developed and understood, a language we are all starting to speak with fluency.
I just finished reading a piece online by Ron Suskind of The New York Times Magazine where he details his experience with his son Owen, who developed regressive autism. I don’t want to try and capture just bits and non-contextual quotes of an amazing recounting of how Ron learned to connect with Owen so I’ll let you read for yourself.
Are you a caregiver or parent of a child with autism? How have you learned to connect? Was there an “aha!” moment? Share your experiences below!