With autism, a game is not just a game
What was the first game you ever played with your child? Most parents would probably say “peek-a-boo.” It’s hard to play peek-a-boo with an autistic child because it requires them to look at your face or into your eyes – something that is very difficult for them to do. One of the first games I played with my son Matt was airplane. I would swing him around in a circle much to his delight – except Matt needed me to swing him facing away from me. Trying to engage my autistic son in a game was difficult. We would go for walks or stack blocks but these were not real games. Games require skill and attention to details and someone wins and someone loses. Games in that regard didn’t begin until much later. Back then I didn’t know whether Matt would ever be able to join the rest of his family in playing a game, but I decided to keep my expectations high. Being autistic meant that Matt was a loner – he didn’t seem to like to play games. I believe the social interactions were just too complex for him when he was little. Then we bought our first video game. It makes perfect sense that he would be so attracted to them. After all, the games were dynamic and visually appealing and he could play by himself. There are times when I have wondered if the real force behind his learning to read was the desire to know the rules, short cuts and to obtain all the bonus points offered in his video games.
Matt eagerly took on video games. He used this time to himself to practice moves and explore various strategies without someone watching him or heaven forbid, interfering. Not only could he explore new worlds that were simple and organized, he could also put the chaos of the real world away. The complex and annoying sounds of family life emanating from the rest of the house were drowned out by the happy tunes of Mario Brothers and dinosaur screams of Jurassic Park. Video games didn’t require him to interact with anyone else. I really think that the attraction of the video game was even deeper still. I think it took the stress off of his shoulders – the stress of being in a world he didn’t understand, a place that scared him.
Matt began to talk at 5 years old and began the habit of thinking aloud. It was this outer monologue that provided me with clues to what he was thinking and opened a door into his thoughts and feelings. For example, listening to him talk to himself I discovered he could pretend –something thought to be impossible for autistic children. I can remember many times just listening to him converse with the characters in his video games. I often wondered, “Why can Matt converse so easily with the animated characters of his games but not with me?” After spending hours watching and listening I finally found my answer – Matt’s imaginary conversations was his way of practicing speech without the fear of failure or any interruption of thought. It was safer. I found out years later that Matt carried a tremendous amount of fear. Fear of failure was 90% of it. Matt wanted to do everything perfectly, and when it was not he would berate himself. His self worth was tied intimately to his view of perfection.
Playing with another person may have appeared to be an easy transition, but it only came about after Matt had practiced conversing with his animated friends, his skill level was at the top and he began to notice the behaviors and interactions of his hero – his older brother, Christopher. Matt found playing with his brother advantageous as he learned new skills. Matt would secretly watch his brother play a video game, but he was afraid to ask to play even though he wanted it so badly it hurt. On occasion, Christopher would see Matt spying on him and ask him to play. In the early years, whenever the opportunity arose to play with Matt, it was an unwritten rule in our family to allow him to win every time. This encouraged him to play with others more often and not only increased his confidence but also lessened his fear of interaction. Unfortunately, you just can’t let them win indefinitely. Sooner or later they also have to learn how to lose. The era of the contest thus began.
Christopher was a fierce competitor at heart and it wasn’t long before the games took on the feel of Olympic competition. Matt had to fine tune his skills in order to stay competitive and he would play (practice) for hours almost every day. Even with such diligence he had days when he lost in competition to his highly skilled brother. Losing was like a slap in the face to Matt back then. It inevitably brought tears and temper tantrums. Yet, as much as I wanted peace and tranquility I wanted to see progress even more. I would sooth his feelings and talk about it “just being a game” but Matt didn’t understand. To him, losing was an assault on his very being. Losing made him feel inadequate – less. Christopher had been a good sport for the longest time and it was time to let him prove himself a champion gamer also. It was important to let Christopher loose to use his skills just as it was important to let Matt figure out how to deal with losing. It felt like forever, but eventually Matt was able to accept the loss without the meltdown. To get through this tortuous time I had to learn a very important lesson; losing was synonymous with imperfection in Matt’s eyes.
Years later, when the meltdown’s finally ceased I could fully appreciate the magnitude of what he had endured. There are so many road blocks with autism. Getting past this one – learning to lose –was one of the hardest. The worst part was witnessing his pain – the pain of discovering imperfection. To Matt, losing meant he was somehow less and the blow to his self-worth was always heart-wrenching. There were many days when watching my autistic son pass through these excruciating stages tore my soul apart. Yet, as difficult as it was on Matt, he never gave up. In doing so he gained insight into himself. His worth as a person was not tied to his ability to win a game. A game is just a game. With an indomitable spirit, Matt pushed himself forward, kept making progress, and slowly turned away from the safety of complete solitude. Matt was determined to understand the complexities of winning and losing and in so doing found he could be part of our family’s dynamic social interaction.
As the years went by I watched Matt take part in bolder, more socially – intensive games. He joined in for board games, swimming pool games, card games, and outdoor games. But the story doesn’t end there. Just recently he jumped his last hurdle in the area of family games. Matt played flashlight tag with us for the very first time. Our family has played this game countless times over the years, ever since the children were all very young. The game is basically hide-and-seek after dark. Matt hates the dark.
In this game the seeker gets a flashlight and if they shine it on you and call your name then you must go to “jail” – a reserved area of the deck – until someone breaks you out by tagging you. Another area is reserved as base – if you make it to base then you are free to rescue those in jail. It requires planning, blending in with shadows, knowing when to move very quickly and when to move slowly. To be good at this game those hiding must be willing to climb trees, lie under bushes or belly-crawl along the grass. Over the years our children have gotten very good at this game. Matt however, has never played. He would always stay indoors in the light of his room and play a video game while the rest of our family braved the darkness. The darkness is something that Matt still fears, even at 25 years old. We have tried countless times to coax him out, but he would always decline, that is until last week.
My husband and I have been married 20 years now. To celebrate our anniversary we decided what we really wanted was family time. The kids are all grown–up now and getting the entire tribe together is almost impossible. My husband’s two children (Jacob and Sarah) are both married. My oldest (Christopher) has his own house and a long-time girlfriend. Everyone is busy with home and work and responsibilities. Our request for family time was very specific – we would be playing one last game of flashlight tag. My husband and I are in our 50s and I just can’t see myself crawling on the ground or sprinting toward base for too many more years. Matt knew of our plans to play and waited for his invitation as usual. When I asked him if he wanted to play also – thoroughly expecting him to decline – I was surprised and delighted to hear “Yes!” as his reply.
The game got under way soon after dark. Matt became Christopher’s partner to learn the ropes on both hiding and seeking. He hid well, he sought to free those trapped in jail, and he seemed to enjoy all of it. All of it that is, until he became the seeker. Christopher and Matt each had a flashlight and began collecting victims almost immediately. Unfortunately, Matt failed to capture me and this upset up him tremendously. He marched back to the house and went to his room. I went in to speak with him.
I reminded him that it was just a game, that it was just for fun and that he was an adult. Matt takes pride in being an adult and hearing me refer to him as an adult immediately got his attention. Matt is determined to live independently and he knows from our many conversations that he must act like an adult to live as an adult. He looked directly into my eyes as I reminded him that on occasion I win at Wii Sports and he tells me “Good job, Momma.” For me to evade detection in a game of flashlight tag was no different. Matt thought about this for a minute. I could see the wheels turning as he looked at me and could actually tell the exact moment he made the connection to the other games he had played. When it clicked, a smile returned to his face and he hugged me. Matt understood – flashlight tag was just a game, nothing more. It was not an insult to his intelligence or to his self worth. He was not less simply because he couldn’t find me in a silly game. We both returned to the group and continued to play long into the night. Matt seemed to put more life into his game; he laughed more and interacted more. He obviously enjoyed himself much more after our short talk. The joy he felt was because the fear of failure had been lifted from him. He felt good about himself – he knew he was not less.
Games are not just games to the autistic child. To them they are a chaotic collection of mysterious mannerisms, facial expressions, voice fluctuations, gestures, and emotions that have to be unraveled slowly and meticulously to be understood. Maybe other autistic children are like Matt in that they view their performance in a game as a measure of their own self worth. Matt knows he is autistic and that it makes him different but that doesn’t mean he has to feel as if he is less. Through games Matt has learned to cope with disappointment. Losing no longer means failure or imperfection. It just means it’s someone else’s turn to win. I feel honored to have taken this journey with him, knowing I have the luxury of looking back to see just how far he has come. This amazing young man is the most courageous person I have ever known. It took something deep inside him, pushing him hard, to try to understand the mysteries and complexities of social interaction. I know in my heart that it has been Matt’s determination and courage – not mine – that allowed each transition to transpire. From learning to converse to overcoming fear of failure, games have been an integral part of Matt’s social development.
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