(This post was written with permission from Builder Boy. As he gets older, I am trying to be more aware of how blogging about him affects him, both now and in the future. He has veto and editorial power.)
You know how the best parents are the people who don’t have any kids? (Sarcasm) I used to think that all I had to do was maintain a good relationship with my pre-teen and everything would be smooth sailing. Ha!
I remember my childhood, and teen years, vividly. They were hard, painful years and as I was living them I swore I would do better for my kid. Here we are with me trying to be the parent I needed so desperately, and that’s not necessarily the parent that Builder Boy needs. So my plan that I worked on for twenty years is out the window.
In the past few years as Builder Boy has hit puberty and is trying to figure things out, I haven’t always been the best mom for him. Learning about autism and getting his official identification at age 10 (as of writing this he is nearing his 12th birthday) has been so helpful. What has helped us the most is me changing my expectations. Not expecting kiddo to act neurotypical, or “you’re N years old, you should know this by now!” Respecting his sensory needs, becoming more aware of when he’s struggling rather than assuming he’s being a punk, and finding the tools he needs. But hey, I’m autistic, too! So I should automatically understand what to do with my autistic pre-teen, right? Turns out, not so much.
I’ve never been good at playing with my kids. If it’s teaching them something though play, I can totally do that. I excel at that. Playing for the sake of playing….I suck at that. When I was first learning about autism while waiting for Lady Bug to be assessed and I came across the idea of “inappropriate play,” I assumed my kids were like that because I didn’t play with them enough. That, and that they were just unsocialized homeschool weirdos. (Said tongue in cheek.) Two years of knowing about autism, nothing has changed. I’m still terrible at playing with no purpose. I can engage Lady Bug in fun, playful learning activities. I can copy her scripts and engage her that way. But me playing to show the “right” way to play? Never going to happen.
Some of the absolutely best conversations I have had with Builder Boy in the past year have happened when we were in a situation where eye contact was not only not happening, but where by necessity I needed to be looking away from him. Specifically, in the car with just him, and while picking up and organizing his thousands of Legos in his room. While driving I obviously have to be looking around and paying attention to driving. This actually kind of takes off a lot of my internal pressure, and we can just chat. Driving around, very often something interesting will come up and give us something to talk about. And in his bedroom, away from siblings, sorting by color his many Legos into their different drawers, it’s nice. We focus on the task and talk. I don’t know what the “right” amount of doing this is. Right now I’m lucky if I remember to do it once a month. But that time is special; just us, not looking at each other, talking. Last time we did that, for the first time ever he started asking me questions about my childhood, based on a conversation he’s had with his dad a while back. I was blown away!
I’m not going to say that not looking at each other and focusing on a mutual activity is the magic answer for getting an autistic tween to talk. But doing it over time has helped us, so maybe it can help you.