It Used to Be Fear

Over Labor Day weekend we visited Dr. Zelinsky, near Chicago. It was an easy day trip. Martin and I caught a 10:30 a.m. flight from LaGuardia to O’Hare. My friend Chris picked us up at O’Hare, we had a delicious brunch at Prairie Grass Café, Chris worked nearby while Martin and I were in Dr. Zelinsky’s office, and then we stopped at a playground on our way back to O’Hare.

Dr. Zelinsky had many perceptive observations about Martin’s development and brain functioning; she always does. Enough said. This post isn’t about Dr. Zelinsky. It’s about the playground.

The playground was random, selected by me and Chris from Google Maps as we drove. It turned out to be lovely, tucked in a wooded suburban acre. While Chris looked for the parking area, Martin and I walked a path to the swings and slides. He asked whether other kids would be at the playground.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe.”

Martin has long avoided kids he doesn’t know, especially in contexts like the playground, which can be overwhelming. Playground kids clump and run together, and Martin can’t keep up. I assumed he was worried and wanted the playground to himself.

One girl, it turned out, was there, sitting on a swing.

Martin investigated some climbing equipment. After just a moment, he walked over and sat on the swing next to the girl.

“Hi there,” he said. “I’m Martin and I’m seven years old. How old are you?”

The girl was seven too. She asked Martin where he goes to school. He responded—she didn’t recognize the name, of course, since we were in Chicago and Martin goes to school in New York—and then he asked where she goes to school.

That’s right. A reciprocal question.

“The Ryan School,” the girl answered. Or something like that. It was hard to hear her.

“Where?” Martin asked, then, when she repeated and he still didn’t get it, “Where?

The girl’s dad, who was seated on a bench near the swings, turned to me and said, “She’s got a bit of a lisp that makes her hard to understand. We’re working on it.”

It’s not you kid. It’s mine. First time anyone’s said that to me.

“He’s not going to know the school anyway,” I said. “We’re just visiting from New York.”

We shared a laugh. The kids said a few more kid things, and then some sort of who-can-swing-higher competition ensued. Or at least Martin treated it as a competition.

Around that point, I realized something: Martin hadn’t asked whether any kids would be at the playground because he wanted to avoid them. He’d asked because he wanted to play with them.

The realization was confirmed the following week, when I took Martin to an indoor playscape near our home and he said, “I’m going to look for some kids to make my friends.”

The girl in Chicago eventually lost interest in Martin, and he didn’t succeed in finding any kids to make his friend at the playscape.

Nevertheless, he was seeking kids out, instead of avoiding them. That’s progress.


Martin at the playscape, looking for friends.

Martin at the playscape, looking for friends.


Okay, this wasn't taken at any location described in this post. But I couldn't resist! It's Martin and a buddy at an amusement park.

Okay, this wasn’t taken at any location described in this post. But I couldn’t resist! It’s Martin and a buddy at an amusement park.

Fledgling Attempts

Berkeley, California, last month. We have a couple hours free, so I bring Martin to Codornices Park to play. After a few trips down the 40-foot concrete slide, which he abandons when a rowdy group of unsupervised boys arrives, Martin wanders to the swings. I’m sitting on a nearby bench, kind of zoning out in the pleasant Pacific breeze. When I look up, Martin is talking to a boy on the swing next to him. I hear Martin say he’ll be seven in three days and ask the other boy’s age. The boy says he is already seven and asks Martin where he lives. Martin looks for me, waves, and yells, “Mommy, I’m making this boy my friend!”, and then tells the boy that he’s from New York. The boy asks what Martin is doing in California.

Martin replies, “We are going to visit my mommy’s client. She has one daughter and two sons.”

We are indeed going to visit one of my legal clients. The woman, however, has only one child, a daughter. Martin added the part about two sons because he thinks it is funny to lie.

The boy on the next swing starts to ask another question. Martin interrupts and says, “No, she doesn’t have any sons!”, and then starts laughing.

The other boys asks, “Why did you say she had two sons?”

Martin continues laughing, and doesn’t answer. The other boy gets off his swing and walks away, watching Martin over his shoulder as he goes.

Laguna Beach, California, last month. My brother Rudy is working, so Martin and I have time to kill. I take him to the main beach playground. Two other boys are there. I would guess them to be about six and eight years old—chronologically speaking, one on either side of Martin—and they appear to be brothers. They are supervised by an older woman, maybe their grandmother. I hear the brothers speaking English to each other; the grandmother calls to them in a Slavic-sounding language.

The younger brother begins to follow Martin, trying to engage him. At first, Martin pays him no mind and goes about climbing alone. The boy is persistent. He wants to play with Martin. He even ignores his older brother, who keeps tagging him and running away while yelling, “There’s no way you can catch me!”

Eventually Martin accepts the younger brother’s overtures, and they start playing together. At least, they’re engaging in the same activities: trying to climb over each other on the rope bridge, balancing on the logs. I don’t hear them speaking. The older brother continues trying to get the younger brother to chase him instead, to no avail. The younger brother is hooked on Martin.

Martin waves to me and yells, “Mommy, I’m making this boy my friend!”

I half-ignore the inappropriate declaration and whip out my iPhone to snap a picture, which I text to Adrian with the caption, “We are at a playground, and I think Martin has made a friend!!!”

The iPhone rings. It’s Adrian. “Tell me more,” he demands. I tell him that Martin is engaging in cooperative play with another boy. I promise more pictures as available.

When I get off the phone, I see that the older brother has given up trying to steal the younger brother from Martin, and all three boys are together in the playground’s covered structure. Better yet, I hear them talking. Names are exchanged. The older brother says something I don’t catch. Because Martin still lacks voice modulation, I hear his answer clearly: “My dad comes from South America!” That’s true. I hope it’s relevant. I hope Martin has asked what language the boys’ grandmother is speaking, and that one of the boys has told him that their mom or dad comes from somewhere, and that Martin has responded by saying where Adrian comes from. I hope.

The grandmother calls the brothers, and they leave without saying goodbye. If Martin is disappointed, he doesn’t show it. He returns to playing alone.

The last time we visited Laguna Beach’s main beach playground, two years ago, Martin ignored everyone and had a potty accident. Progress!

Laguna Beach again, two days later (the intervening day having been the Disney trip). I take Martin to a newer playground, at Aliso Beach. We’ve never been to this one before. It starts weird: Martin removes his shoes and runs onto the sizzling sand, which burns his feet. Instead of running off the sand, climbing on something, or dancing, Martin stays put and screams for me while his feet continue to roast. I get some Crocs on him, and the weirdness passes.

Two little girls show up together. Martin tries to engage them. He says hello and follows their lead, climbing where they climb. The girls acknowledge Martin but don’t return his interest. They continue playing together. Martin hovers nearby, plainly looking to be included.

More kids show up, until seven or eight total are playing. The bigger kids, the ones around Martin’s size, start running as a pack, chasing each other, kicking a ball, shouting instructions and comments. Martin gets left behind. He goes instead to a swing. Although he is capable of pumping his legs to propel himself, as high as he wants, he calls me to come push him.

When Martin is rejected, Mommy is his safe place.

Slide at Codornices Park. Martin is the top kid on the stairs, carrying cardboard in his left hand.

Slide at Codornices Park. Martin is the top kid on the stairs, carrying cardboard in his left hand.

Poor photo quality, because I had to zoom in from afar. Main beach park, Laguna Beach. Martin is on the right. His new friend is behind him.

Poor photo quality, because I had to zoom in from afar. Main beach park, Laguna Beach. Martin is on the right. His new friend is behind him.