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In the TV show Parenthood, one of the characters, Max Braverman, is a child with Asperger Syndrome. Max displayed many of the classic autism traits, including obsessing over specific topics. One of his strong areas of interest was pirates. Max loved to dress up like a pirate and act out his made-up stories. His TV father, Adam, was struggling to find those connection points with Max that he so desperately longed for, so he decided to dress up like a pirate and enter Max’s imaginary pirate world. The episode ends with Adam and Max running around in their pirate garb having a great time together. It was truly touching to see them both having fun as father and son.
This scene from Parenthood struck a chord with me as a father of a child on the spectrum. Our son Trevor certainly had things that he obsessed about growing up, including the TV shows Blues Clues and Spongebob Squarepants, puzzles, and drawing. He never got bored talking about his areas of interests and could recall the minutest of details with ease. He could keep himself occupied for hours on end which in some respects made him very easy to care for. At the same time, letting him live in his own world without interaction wasn’t good for his long-term social skills growth. Today I know more than the average dad does about Spongebob Squarepants, Patrick, Squidward, Sandy, Mr. Krabs, Plankton, and Pearl (Mr. Krabs sperm whale daughter).
As Trevor aged, his interests grew with him. As a youngster his food menu was very limited to a handful of items. As he got older, though, his interest in food grew to a point where he is now willing to try most anything that isn’t spicy. Now as an adult he not eats a wide variety of food but also loves cooking. Another obsession of his is movies. He so loves movies that he graduated cum laude from Arizona State University with a degree in Film and Media Studies. He has a movie review website Trevor’s View on Hollywood where he writes reviews using his own 32-data-point ratings scale.
Now I love watching movies, and I LOVE food. Given his passion for both, these are two natural connection points that we have together. One of our favorite movies is Men in Black. We’ve seen it many times over the years. In fact when the third Men in Black movie came out we went to see it together in the theater. Prior to the movie they had a MIB trivia contest. Trevor and I nailed the questions and came home the proud owners of black MIB t-shirts. We also love going out for breakfast, lunch or dinner together at places ranging from The Melting Pot to Costco for hot dogs. These are things that we both love doing together and as a dad I fiercely protect our time for these activities.
Do you see this as an area to work on? Here’s a few pointers that may help you strengthen those connection points as well as help your child with socialization and exposure to new things:
Get into his world – Actively look to see those areas where your child shows interest and actively plot out actions you can take that will let you be a character in his world.
Watch reactions – With some things Trevor preferred to be the sole actor, like drawing when he was little and photography as an adult. He is content (and prefers) to be doing those things on his own and for me to be a cheerleader and admirer. My role wasn’t to draw with him as a child or to take pictures with him now; it’s to be supportive of his interests.
Look for opportunities to introduce new interests – Trevor wasn’t born loving SpongeBob SquarePants; he was exposed to it and developed an interest. Take advantage of time together to explore new potential interests. For example, we made it a point to eat dinner as a family every night at 6 p.m. This was where we introduced the “Ten times” rule for trying new foods. Trevor had to try something ten times before he decided he didn’t like it. In retrospect we should have named it the “Three times” rule because that’s about what it worked to be. Nevertheless, Trevor knew that he needed to try something new more than once before saying he didn’t like it. This was key to him expanding his menu choices.
Create routine around interest areas – When Trevor and I did things it was usually after dinner, whether it was watching a favorite show, playing a computer game, or doing some other activity. He knew when to expect that time together so it was a welcomed activity. I learned not to approach him out of the blue and suggest doing something, as he already had his activities planned out; my unplanned activity was interrupting his schedule, which is something people with autism generally don’t appreciate.
Your child isn’t you – I loved playing sports as a child. Trevor wanted nothing to do with sports. While it would have been great seeing him pitch a perfect game, I couldn’t project my interests on him to where he would hate doing something just because I loved it (and therefore resent me). By all means introduce him to new things, but recognize when it just isn’t going to happen and don’t force it.
I cannot express enough the importance of finding those connection points with your autistic child. While there have been struggles along the way, I am thankful that Trevor and I have those connection points where we are able to enjoy activities together and build upon the great relationship we have.
Lonnie Pacelli is an accomplished author and autism advocate with over 30 years experience in leadership and project management at Accenture, Microsoft, and Consetta Group. See books, articles, keynotes, and self-study seminars at http://www.lonniepacelli.com