Birthday parties and swimming pools. I hate them.
I suppose that sounds harsh. Who hates birthday parties and swimming pools?
The problem with birthday parties and swimming pools is that they expose Martin’s remaining social weaknesses.
Case in point No. 1:
In December, two boys from Martin’s class held a joint birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese. If you’re an American parent, you’ve probably experienced a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party. Video games. Pizza. Noise and flashing lights. Giant automated rodents manipulating musical instruments.
(Digression. More than three decades ago, I had my ninth birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese. It may be the fog of time to blame, but I remember the place very differently than today’s Chuck E. Cheese. In my memory, Chuck E. Cheese is dimly lit, with more stages and Skee-Ball, fewer arcade consoles, and—could this be pure imagination?—physical play like a ball pit. Also, a candy counter with mammoth speckled gobstoppers. The candy counter was out front, before the entrance turnstile, and I used to duck into Chuck E. Cheese just to pay 50¢ for a gobstopper so big that I had to extract it from my mouth, repeatedly, until I sucked it down to a manageable size.)
I have written before about Martin’s difficulties when we attend class play dates. Half the boys in his self-contained special-ed class have speech/language delays but no social impairments. The class breaks roughly into three groups: the boys who instigate some imaginary game or roughhousing and play together, the boys who play alone and seem uninterested in joining the others, and—Martin. Martin, who wants to participate in cooperative play yet still doesn’t quite grasp the “how,” or have the confidence, to make others include him. Martin, gazing through the window, never beckoned to enter.
Chuck E. Cheese in December was a disaster. The flashiness overwhelmed Martin, and he couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand any of the video games. I managed to sit him in front of me on a fake jet ski and run a virtual course for a few minutes, until he (quickly) bored. Soon he went instead to fixate on the mechanical mouse band. He ran hither and fro in front of the stage, occasionally tried to climb aboard, refused to venture back to the game section, where his classmates played.
Late in the party, after the pizza, and Martin’s special GFCFSF pizza, I was happy to find Martin and Jack, one of the more social boys, together in a walk-in video console, all smiles, pretending to play the game. I asked, “What are you two doing?” Jack answered, “We’re shooting aliens!” At that moment, Benjamin, another social boy, appeared. He pointed to Martin and said, “You go home!” Then he yanked Jack’s arm and said, “Jack, come play with me!” Jack obliged, exited the video console, and scampered away with Benjamin.
Martin stopped smiling. He looked at the empty space beside him, and said, “Mommy, I’m ready to go home.”
Yeah. Unstructured group play dates suck. Birthday parties suck double.
Case in point No. 2:
Last week, we were vacationing in Florida with my father-in-law; Adrian’s 13-year-old nephew, Luke; and Adrian’s 11-year-old niece, Rosie. For two days of our trip, we were joined also by another couple and their almost-three-year-old son, Marty. (Pardon the confusion. Their son happens to have the same name as the alias I chose for Martin in this blog. Not my fault. I started the blog before they named their son.)
Luke and Rosie, who see us infrequently and (by Adrian’s choice) have never been told that Martin has autism, showed their cousin due attention, amusing him, sharing iPad games, keeping an eye on him near water. If Luke and Rosie perceived Martin’s differences, they may have chalked them up to the language barrier; neither Luke nor Rosie speaks English, and although Martin undoubtedly understood his cousins, these days he refuses to speak Spanish with anyone except Samara. For the most part, Adrian and I were pleased with the children’s interactions. Rosie even had Martin sleeping in her bed at night.
When almost-three-year-old Marty arrived, however, The Martin Show was over. Once an adorable, lightweight—pick him up! carry him around! push him on a swing!—preschooler is on the scene, who wants to hang around with an awkward, sometimes stand-offish first grader? Luke and Rosie turned their attention elsewhere, and Martin was left to his iPad.
One morning, while the rest of the adults went parasailing, I took Luke, Rosie, Martin, and Marty to the resort’s splash pool. Little Marty was in high spirits as Luke and Rosie sprayed him with water, helped him through tunnels, and solicited giggles. Martin, my Martin, responded by focusing entirely on me, asking just-to-be-talking questions. “Mommy, are we in Florida?” “Mommy, did your cat named Billy die in 2002?” “Mommy, are you looking at me?” I told Rosie that I thought Martin might be feeling lonely. Rosie sweetly approached Martin, took his hand, and asked whether he wanted to climb into the model pirate ship. Martin said, “Go away.”
Martin also complained, to me, that he wanted to leave the splash pool and go to the nearby swimming pool. No one else wanted to leave the splash pool, and whereas I couldn’t let either Martin or Marty out of my sight, I told Martin he’d have to wait. He waited, kvetched, begged. At last I told everyone to move to the swimming pool, hoping Martin might re-engage.
Another disaster. I’d forgot the way Martin generally behaves in a crowded swimming pool. He likes swimming these days, I think because of the sensory aspects. Those same sensory aspects seem to prompt him to turn almost entirely inward. He bounces around the pool steps, half-floating, tunes out other children, and if he speaks, directs the comments only to me. He had followed this pattern for three days already at the resort. I’m not sure why I thought it would change now, and it didn’t.
Luke and Rosie, for their part, took over the complaining, because they wanted to take Marty back to the splash pool. So after 15 minutes of Luke, Rosie, and Marty ignoring Martin in the swimming pool, and Martin ignoring them, I moved everyone back to the splash pool. Martin isolated himself again, this time with the added unhappiness of having had to accede to others’ wishes.
Golden. Martin competing with other children sucks. Swimming pools double suck.
I’m going to put birthday parties and swimming pools out of my mind. Instead, I will imagine fluffy kittens chasing butterflies through a meadow.
It’s not denial. It’s survival.