Movies and Snacks: Finding Connections With Your Autistic Child
On the tv show Paternity, one of the characters, Max Braverman, is a boy with Asperger’s syndrome. Max displayed many of the classic traits of autism, including an obsession with specific issues. One of his areas of greatest interest was pirates. Max loved dressing up as a pirate and acting out his made-up stories. His television father, Adam, was struggling to find those connection points with Max that he longed for so he decided to dress up as a pirate and enter Max’s imaginary pirate world. The episode ends with Adam and Max running around in their pirate outfit having a great time together. It was really moving to see them both having fun as father and son.
This scene from Parenthood struck a chord with me as the parent of a child on the spectrum. Our son Trevor certainly had things that he became obsessed with growing up, including the TV shows Blues Clues and Spongebob Squarepants, puzzles, and drawings. He never got bored talking about his areas of interest and could remember even the smallest details with ease. He could keep busy for hours on end, which in some ways made him very easy to care for. At the same time, letting him live in his own world without interaction was not good for his long-term growth of social skills. Today I know more than the average parent about SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, Sandy, Mr. Krabs, Plankton, and Pearl (Mr. Krabs’ sperm whale daughter).
As Trevor got older, her interests grew with him. When you were young, your food menu was very limited to a handful of items. However, as he grew older, his interest in food grew to a point where he is now willing to try almost anything that isn’t spicy. Now, as an adult, he doesn’t eat a wide variety of foods, but he also loves to cook. Another of his obsessions are movies. He loves movies so much that he graduated with honors from Arizona State University with a degree in Film and Media Studies. He runs a movie review website, Trevor’s View on Hollywood, where he writes reviews using his own 32-data-point rating scale.
Now I love watching movies and I LOVE food. Given her passion for both, these are two natural connection points we have together. One of our favorite movies is Men in Black. We have seen it many times over the years. In fact, when the third Men in Black movie came out, we went to see it together at the movies. Before the movie, they had a MIB trivia quiz. Trevor and I asked the questions and came home proud owners of black MIB jerseys. We also love going out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner together at places ranging from The Melting Pot to Costco for hot dogs. These are things that we both love to do together, and as a parent, I fiercely protect our time for these activities.
Do you see this as an area to work on? Here are some tips that can help you strengthen those connection points, as well as help your child with socialization and exposure to new things:
- Enter their world – Look actively to see those areas in which your child shows interest and actively plan the actions that you can take that will allow him to be a character in your world.
- See reactions – With some things Trevor preferred to be the only actor, like drawing when he was little and photographing as an adult. He is happy (and prefers) to do those things on his own and for me to be a cheerleader and fan. My role was not to draw with him as a child or to take pictures with him now; is to support their interests.
- Look for opportunities to introduce new interests – Trevor wasn’t born loving SpongeBob; he was exposed to it and developed an interest. Take advantage of the time you spend together to explore potential new interests. For example, we set out to have a family dinner every night at 6 pm This is where we introduced the “Ten Times” rule for trying new foods. Trevor had to try something ten times before deciding he didn’t like it. In hindsight, we should have called it the “Three Times” rule because that’s what it worked out to be. However, Trevor knew he needed to try something new more than once before saying he didn’t like it. This was key to expanding their menu options.
- Create a routine around areas of interest When Trevor and I did things, it was usually after dinner, whether it was watching a favorite show, playing a computer game, or doing some other activity. He knew when to look forward to that time together, so it was a welcome activity. I learned not to approach him out of nowhere and suggest that he do something, since he already had his activities planned; my unplanned activity was disrupting their schedule, which is something people with autism generally don’t appreciate.
- Your son is not you – I used to love playing sports when I was a kid. Trevor wanted nothing to do with sports. While it would have been great to see him launch a perfect game, I couldn’t project my interests onto him to where I would hate doing something just because I loved him (and therefore he holds a grudge against me). Of course, introduce him to new things, but recognize when it isn’t going to happen and don’t force it.
I cannot stress enough the importance of finding those connection points with your autistic child. While there have been struggles along the way, I am thankful that Trevor and I have those connection points where we can enjoy activities together and build on the great relationship we have.
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