Last week, I had The Talk with my neighbor’s nine-year-old daughter.
I’ve written before about the terrific kids who live in my vertical community, and how well they treat Ryan when playing in the back yard. They think he’s cute and entertaining, and they go out of their way to include Ryan in their games, even when it’s obvious he needs a lot of help to properly participate. The reasons behind his differences have gone largely unspoken – the neighborhood kids accept him and love him just as he is. (I never take this for granted; these kids are awesome.)
So, last week Ryan and I were playing with acorns on the patio when nine-year-old Alison rolled up on her scooter. Ryan immediately popped up and shouted, “Hi Ally! and hugged her. She’s a sweet kid, and very maternal with Ryan. Ryan went back to babbling at the acorns, and Alison sat down next to me, waiting for the other kids to show up. After a moment, she very politely asked me, “Why does he talk like that?”
I took a breath and we had The Talk.
“Well, Ryan has autism. Do you know what autism is?”
She shook her head.
“It means that his brain is wired a little differently than yours, and there are some things that are harder for him, like talking and playing with other kids. But he’s still smart, and he’s still a good kid, right? And there are lots of things he’s good at. He just needs a little extra help.”
“Oh, I had always wondered about that,” she said.
And the issue was over. Five minutes later, of course, I was kicking myself, thinking of better ways I could have explained things. I’ll have to work on my elevator speech.
Last night, Ryan and I went outside after dinner, and Alison and the other three kids who were playing in the back yard were delighted to see Ryan – they needed more players for their game. “Can Ryan play Animal Catcher with us?” they asked me.
The boy in charge of the game – he had played it in gym class that morning – went through several permutations of the rules to adapt the game to the small group of kids he had on hand. I’m not really clear on the rules, but it seemed to be a game of tag in which the animal catcher is in the middle, and the animals run between two bases on either side of him. It’s keep-away with bases and white tigers and cheetahs.
Anyway, JC asked Ryan, “What animal do you want to be?” I rephrased the question for Ryan: “It’s a running game. What running animal do you like?”
“Horse!” he announced. A perfectly good, appropriate answer. I beamed.
The kids showed Ryan how to play the game. Russel held Ryan’s hand and told him when it was time to run. They showed him where to stop and how to step on the base.
And he played with them. Perfectly. He gleefully ran across the patio and stomped on the base exactly as the kids had shown him to. He was delighted. I was grinning and cheering from the sidelines. He played this structured game with them for a solid 10 minutes.
As they played, I sat next to Alison’s mother. I told her I had had The Talk with Ally. I told her how I had explained autism, so she would have a framework if Alison came to her with further questions. Ally’s mother thanked me, and cheered along with me for how well Ryan was playing the game.