Thursday, May 10, 2012
On Thomas the Tank Engine
Thomas has been a staple in our house for well over three years now. On Boo's second birthday he received a starter set of "trackmaster" tracks and a couple engines. From that point forward most days have found our living room half covered in some configuration of tracks, bridges, tunnels, and stations. We watch the show on TV and we have several videos and books. Boo has memorized pretty much every plot, and most of the dialog. He re-enacts these on his track set. He has most of the major characters, but is willing to substitute one engine for another if necessary. This is one of his major ongoing preservations that ebbs and flows but never really fades.
Last year I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given at a nearby medical school campus by the developmental pediatrician who diagnosed Boo. She spoke on the subject of autism. The content was pretty basic, and while I didn't really learn anything new per se, I enjoyed hearing her perspective as a clinician. After the lecture there was time for Q&A and that was really the best part of the whole thing. I remember being struck when she commented that a great many of her autistic patients have a fascination with Thomas. She commented that she found it interesting that these children, who have such difficulty with effectively communicating emotion both receptively and expressively seemed to feel most comfortable with these characters who have faces that do not move. (This was before the popularity of the newer CG version of the Thomas show.)
For some reason, of all the things that were discussed there that day, this one idea stuck with me. I found it interesting, but it just didn't feel correct somehow. I couldn't put a finger on it, but it just stuck. Kind of like a piece of popcorn hull stuck down in your gums. And then a while back it struck me suddenly. I knew why she was wrong. At least for Boo. I can't speak for all the other spectrum kiddos out there who love the little blue engine. But for my Boo, the reason why Thomas is so comfortable for him, so easy to watch and respond to, is because of one simple thing. It's narrated! He doesn't have to work to understand context or implication. He doesn't have to figure out what a character is feeling or thinking, or what motivates his/her actions. The narrator simply tells you all that. He is not left feeling confused about what is happening and why. He doesn't have to ask incessant questions and feel bad when his parents get annoyed. He can just relax and watch and it's all explained to him. I think this is also why he responds so well to Word World.
I watch him play and interact with the world. He narrates everything he does! He talk non-stop. He explains every. little. thing. down to the last detail. Sometimes it can make me crazy. But having an understanding that this is a tool he uses to make sense of his world, to make order of the chaos, helps me know how to help him. And it gives me patience. And I find myself narrating things for him without even thinking about it. Because he does not understand sarcasm, implied humor, or subtlety. So when something happens around him that I know he won't understand intuitively like others do, I tend to explain it before he even has to ask. It helps to limit frustration on both our parts.
What about you? What do you do to help yourself or your child navigate the world a little easier? What are some of your best tools?