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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Everybody could use a sidekick!

Today's post is inspired by my dear buddy Will (my youngest nephew). Will and I have been spending a lot of time together recently, and I have been thoroughly enjoying the chance to look at the world through his eyes.

Will in the Clone Trooper costume he commissioned me to create for Halloween

Will is an original - a strong-minded imaginative child who sees the world in a distinctly different way. His mom (my sister) often rightly refers to him as "Won't".  Depending on the circumstances, you might see him as a fabulously different thinker who turns the ordinary world on its ear, or alternatively, as a child who stubbornly refuses to comply with your (to him arbitrary) demands.

May I just qualify the rest of this post by stating for the record that I love this boy - when he's "good", when he's "bad" - love him. He reminds me a lot of myself as a child. Thinking thoughts that don't match the majority, coming up against the pressure to comply, to be "usual". Interesting to be bright and eccentric, but not always comfortable.

I am Will's "sidekick". I play the roles he writes for me in his imagination dramas. I don't argue about the parameters, I follow his lead. A gift from me to him that I hope he will someday regift to his own undoubtedly strong-willed out-of-the-ordinary future children.

I wear the costumes he chooses for me from the "Tickle Trunk", his costume bits treasure trove, (if you're unfamiliar with the term "Tickle Trunk", please look up Mr. Dressup, a Canadian childhood icon). I embrace the powers he bequeaths to me. I act out the effects of his magical attacks (including the memorable "tornado of doom" which ended with me breaking my sister's cabinet door with my head ... but I digress, that's a story for another time). I happily follow him through the neighbourhood wearing items like a too small purple hockey helmet and fighting invisible foes in the bushes (trusting that the neighbours understand).

Together we adventure through the world of Will's mind - I learn about him and he discovers that I am his true friend. A gift for both of us.

Will as Robber Baron (not pictured: me as "robber sidekick" dressed all in black in a costume chosen by Will)

So what's the connection to autism? Individuals on the autism spectrum are developing outside (often way outside) the "usual". There is a tendency to view this unusual developmental path as somehow deficient, rather than just "different". When I do therapy with young children (no matter the diagnosis), I want to know what the world looks like through their eyes. What do they love? what are they thinking about? what do they dream? what do they want?

There is no better way to find out the answers to these questions than becoming a "sidekick". Put your own worries and demands to the side, even for an hour, and follow children into their world. Pay attention to what catches their attention. Follow their will and their wishes, as much as you can figure them out. Are they fascinated by the patterns of sunlight painted on the carpet? Take a close look, you may find it beautiful too. Do they want to wear a cowboy hat and run up and down the stairs? You can do that with them. You are more likely to hear meaningful communication when children are pursuing their own interests and passions, and you are right beside them sharing the experience.

Also interesting that the more children are convinced that you are truly interested in their world, the more likely they will trust you enough to take your hand and bravely take steps out into your world.

Historically, too much autism "therapy" has been focused on getting children (and teens and adults) to "comply". I don't much care for compliance. I would rather hear what a person is really thinking, even if it's diametrically opposed to what I originally thought would be more convenient. Then we can have a conversation, understand each other and move on from there.

me at one of our Typical Teen group meetings (2008)

Dignity is over-rated and full-on passionately embracing the fun in life is under-rated. Set your conventional views of age and self-respect on the shelf, get down on the floor and follow your kids. You won't regret it.