Saturday, May 11, 2013

If you teach him what the rules are, he will play fair

Last night my Autistic son's baseball game was cancelled for the 2nd week in a row due to rain. Nothing you can do about that, but Autism parents know that the surest way to a meltdown is to promise a highly desired activity and then not go through with it. To avoid the meltdown, you must immediately replace it with an equally desired activity, or one they like even better.

For Hayden this means going to Chuck E Cheese. I know, a sensory nightmare. It puts me on edge just being in there: too loud, too many kids running around without shoes or their parents' attention, germs galore, food my kids can't eat, my daughter Rylie is deathly afraid of the Chuck E in costume... it goes on.  But for some reason Hayden really enjoys the games, and the sounds no longer bother him. Rylie likes the skee ball game and collecting tickets. They get a stupid prize at the end and everyone leaves happy.

Since Rylie is younger and afraid of the mouse, I follow her around to the games. I usually give Hayden two coins so that he has to come back to me after playing two games and get two more coins, so that I can keep my eye on him. Toward the end of our visit yesterday, Hayden waited patiently in line to play air hockey. Rylie wanted to sit down at the table nearby and play with her tickets. When the mom and son finished with air hockey, Hayden put a coin in and was ready to play but had no partner. Just then two boys rushed in and grabbed the air hockey paddles out from under him. I was ready to intervene for Hayden and explain that it was his turn since he had waited and had already put in his coin. But Hayden gently elbowed his way in and said, "It's my turn to play." I was proud of him for speaking up for himself, since this is a difficult skill for him. The other boy shrugged and stood in the middle. Hayden and the 2nd boy began to play.

Usually with the games there, most of the kids are younger and don't really worry about rules or playing the games correctly. They try their best, throwing, hitting and smacking the machine until their time runs out, then collect their ticket and move on to the next game. But these two boys were a little older, maybe third grade, and were very serious about winning the air hockey game. Since Hayden doesn't have great fine or gross motor skills, he was having trouble manipulating the puck if it went in a corner, so he kept putting the paddle on the puck to scoot it back to the center. Hayden was winning by 3 points. So Boy 1 who was only watching began to say, "You're cheating! That's cheating! You can't do that!" Hayden wasn't processing that the boy was talking to him. He just kept doing what he was doing, putting all his focus on the game and trying to hit the puck. So the boy kept saying it, getting louder, as Hayden continued to gain in his lead.

Then the boy took matters into his own hands. He began blocking his friend's goal with his arms across the table, and pushing the puck into Hayden's goal with his hands, now shouting, "You cheated so now I'm cheating! Ha! Scored against you! Ha! Scored again!" I allowed this to go on for a couple more minutes to see what Hayden would do. Hayden had no idea that he was being bullied. He was just getting increasingly frustrated that it was now much more difficult to score a goal.

And then it happened. My teacher/mom instinct turned on and I couldn't help myself. I walked right over and got down on the boy's level and quietly said, "Why are you doing that?" The boy immediately jumped back from the table and got the "Oh crap, I've been caught" look on his face. He knew he was being mean. He tried to look around for an escape, like he would rather be anywhere else but there. But I didn't let him off that easily. I said, "He has a special need. It's called Autism. He doesn't really know what the rules of the game are. He's not cheating, he just wants to play with you. If you teach him what the rules are, he will play fair."

Then I explained to Hayden the rule he was missing. "Hayden, you're not really supposed to put your paddle on the puck, or touch the puck with your hands. It's against the rules."
"Oh. Ok."

I stepped away and the two boys began playing nicely. Hayden no longer put the puck under his paddle and the other boy no longer interfered. They finished their game in two more goals and Hayden said, "I won!" I prompted, "Say good game."  "Good game," Hayden said. The other boys were bored with this game and went on to something else. Hayden and I went back to Rylie.

"Were those boys making you upset, Hayden?"
"You weren't upset that they weren't being nice?"
"No.  I need another coin, I want to play something else."

He never fails to amaze me. All he really wants is for other boys to play with him. Even when they're being mean, even when he knows they're being mean, he still just wants to play. I'm glad that he usually doesn't know that he's being bullied, because that feeling hurts, but it also makes him a more likely target: he doesn't tell on them and doesn't fight back. Most days I wish I could follow him everywhere he went and give all the boys my talk. But I know I can't.

So I hope that I can teach him that if others are being unkind, first you try to teach them how to be kind. Then you walk away, because you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Fortunately for Hayden, I think most boys will play fair with a child with Autism, if you just teach them the rules.

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