comeback kid
28 May 2005

I can finally say with certainty that Damian regressed socially sometime last summer. We lost so much ground, it was upsetting and sad and puzzling. I felt helpless. How do you teach a child to interact with other children when you thought you'd already taught those skills, that he already understood? How do you do that when you don't even understand what's gone wrong?

But somehow, with the help of a strong, smart, sweet one-on-one aide in class, Damian took baby step after baby step, first with prompting and then without, and started joining in the fun at school. I loved reading her notes, it felt like she'd secreted a camera into the classroom, enabling me to witness what was going on behind those closed doors. And it was lovely to watch through her words, to see Damian's gradual transformation from a child who played with other kids reluctantly to a child who enjoyed moments of spontaneous interaction and finally to a child who, this week, invented a silly game of "throwing pretend ice cream at each other" with two other boys in the recess yard and later incorporated it into the spaceships they like to build during indoor free play. Ice cream spaceships. All with the aide smiling quietly in the corner, wishing for a video camera so she could capture his excited chatter and his delighted laughter.

I wasn't there, so I can't say how it was done, not really. I can't give you tips and tricks for your child, I can't even reliably repeat the process with Damian should it become necessary this coming fall. I know he had the skills already, I know he knew the pleasure of interaction already. I don't know why he shut down last summer, so I can't say exactly why he opened up this spring. But I do know that it largely had to do with his aide. On her gentle, warm insistence that yes, he can play with these other kids and with her, and yes, this can be fun, and look, Damian, he's building a spaceship too! Isn't that cool?

The process involves prompting as well as making it fun, involves knowing when to fade out and when to add more support. I do know that it helped when Damian figured out that some boys were more gentle than others, less intimidating and more interested in the kinds of imaginative games he likes. This became clear when one boy was absent for a week and the other kids reverted to the tease-the-girls wildness that the alpha males like to instigate. Damian (not) coincidentally withdrew for a week. It helped when the gentle group of boys developed games they'd play on an ongoing basis, so Damian knew what to do and could be flexible and open within that structure. I think it helped when he finally, belatedly, learned their names and personalities, when they became more than just this mass of noisy, intimidating childness.

An interesting turning point: We took Damian out of school for a week and a half in mid-April. We flew to New York to test the theory that we might want to (and be able to) move there (and we are). We weren't sure what Damian would make of it all. He loved it. Had a great time. Especially with the children he met along the way. For half the visit, we stayed with my friend Cathy, who has twins four days younger than Damian. He got along so well with Hannah and Isaiah that he now considers them close friends and is thrilled that he'll get to see them again soon. The three of them played for hours without any adult supervision at all.

When Damian and I went to visit a once-and-again friend of mine I hadn't seen since middle school, Damian was standoffish with her daughter. Checked out the room but not the girl. I worried silently. Was he only comfortable around Hannah and Isaiah, then? Then he picked up a toy cheerleader's baton (a prop from a recent circus excursion). He declared it a magic wand. The girl said it was a baton. They compromised: it was a magic baton. Then they started performing magic spells on each other, which involved one saying "You have to walk funny" and the other one walking funny and so on. Interactive? You might say that, yeah.

When we spent an evening with a high school friend of mine in the city, Damian and her daughter eased into a comfortable interaction. We'd brought a Playmobil playset. The two of them put it together and then started animating the animals. Playing imaginatively together. With zero adult supervision (Dan and I were far too busy enjoying our host's company). Lovely. The kids were sad to say goodbye.

We had a hiccup when we visited Laura's house: Damian was shy with her son. Withdrew, lost his language and his enthusiasm. He did eventually warm up, but I was disappointed. After this almost miraculous stretch of easy back-and-forth play with other kids, what went wrong? Was he burned out? Sick of other kids? Intimidated? What is it that turns him on sometimes and turns him off on other occasions? Is his autism now something that has an on and off switch? Is it on a timer? Will it come back, the paralyzing shyness that kept him so aloof at the beginning of kindergarten? What can we do about it?

Damian explained it to me later. He hadn't wanted to play that afternoon, not because he didn't like Jonah and not because he was scared of him, but because "I didn't know him."

"But you didn't know Hannah and Isaiah before we got to Cathy's, you didn't know Guthrie or Eve before you played with them."

"I knew their names so I knew them."

Bad mommy hadn't told him Jonah's name before we arrived on their doorstep. Damian apparently needs that seal of approval, that foreshadowing of another kid's identity. It's a crutch of a sort, a kind of magic dust that you can sprinkle on a child to say, "This one's worthy, this one's okay." But hey, if it works... I plan to learn all the names of every single kid in his class next year and help him memorize them before the first day of school!

On one of the last nights we were in town, we had a seder at Cathy's house. At the end of the evening, I went upstairs to the kids' bedroom to fetch Damian. But he wasn't there. "Have you seen Damian?" Isaiah shook his head. Hannah said, "I think he's in another room." Completely serious. Damn, I thought, I guess he ran out of steam. Earlier in the afternoon, he'd been playing a kind of monkey in the middle game on the outside trampoline with the twins, and after dinner he and Isaiah were flicking rubber strings at each other and giggling madly. Maybe Damian just got overloaded and wanted to withdraw into privacy for the last portion of the evening? He's entitled, I thought, he's earned it. He'll always be someone who needs solitude and down time. Doesn't mean he's done with friendship, right? But it made me a little sad. Until I noticed the way Isaiah studiously avoided looking at their bedroom closet. Hmm… I walked over to the closet. The kids jumped up and tried to stave me off. The closet giggled. Aha.

He didn't want to leave. They didn't want him to leave. He fit there.

He has friends. It looks easy.

I think his classroom aide built his confidence step by slow step throughout the school year, and that it all came together in his head: "Hey, I can do this! Hey, it's really fun!" when we were in New York. That was a turning point, that whole trip. He came back juiced up and ready to play with his classmates. And on his birthday, he had a great time in a light saber battle with his friend Corey and chasing various kids on bikes and trikes. All better now. Regression reversed.

All better now, truly? We can't really know, can we? I wouldn't be surprised if he continues to have ups and downs with this, if his enthusiasm and comfort for and with other children ebbs and flows with some mysterious emotional tide, but I can only hope and believe that it will flow ever higher, ever stronger, continually more sure.

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