It was a Friday in January of this year.
It was just any other Friday, except for the weather. There were no rains! It was winter, which is the rainy season here, but it hadn't rained all of December. A drought had been declared in January. Finally there was some rain in late January and we started having a wet ground in the mornings. But it was not just the rains.
The color of the day was different. It had been different all winter. The sunlight had the gold color of fall. It was all a little confusing: fall sun color and warmer weather, within the no-leaves winter. So it wasn't just any other Friday. Even the plants, trees, birds and squirrels in the yard were confused in this golden twilight zone.
We spent the early morning outdoors, soaking up the moist air and crispy sunlight, by the dripping tree leaves and puddles on ground. By we, I mean myself and my son. We like the outdoors. There are no expectations from nature. There are no forces urging an interaction of this or that sort to bring about an outcome of convenience. Our interactions stay natural. He can be himself and I can be myself. And be on equal terms.
But the unseen forces acted soon enough and we came inside. Into a lull. Because we had spent more than our usual quota of time outside. You see, homeschooling is tricky like that. It has to flow smoothly or we’ll sink somewhere in the day. I have to manage my energies and his, while being a mommy and a teacher. Bounce from flexibility to discipline to flexibility, even on a low day. And when I can’t get the balance, pause for a bit, analyze, pick-up and move on. Moreover, special needs homeschooling needs special attention and even more so when the special needs are of autism.
Not surprisingly, M (my son) also reacted to the lull and went off to listen to music, his favorite activity.
I checked- Do you want to study?
I had some leeway with time: we were doing reasonably well in our school work; we had a teacher’s meeting earlier in the week and even an exam. But what do we do now? Time was a-clicking.
Maybe I should cook lunch, my mind raced. No, I had already set up my new slow cooker for a soup. My hope for more efficiency was working out, but I was suddenly facing a vacuum.
Then I remembered – Math Puzzles! I had always wanted to spend a part of Fridays doing out-of-box activities.
As a smaller child M hadn't been fully interested in games/puzzles, well, in some he was and in some he wasn't. More recently I tried the Tower of Hanoi and saw he was good he was at it. He also liked it. The puzzle has logic, strategy and sequencing, under the umbrella of math. I was mesmerized how the three qualities came together for him, so easily, when motivated by mathematical constraints of a puzzle.
But which one now? Oh, the coin game!
I had tried a game, which I later learned is called Nim, once before. It has a different kind of complexity than Tower of Hanoi. My husband used to play this coin game with kids who visited us.
I found some coins and arranged them in 3 piles of 7, 5, 3.
Do you want to try a math game?
We sat next to each other. I quickly explained the rules once again*.
My turn, I’ll start.
Time for his move. M picked, slowly, thoughtfully, hesitantly.
Then, unexpectedly, he brought the coin(s) close to his face. They had an odor? He had a smile on his face. I waited (I have a strong sense of smell but not like his. Coins are just coins for me. These coins were just quarters). His face had a whimsical look as he held them close to face, my imagination wondering what the smell made him feel, think. We don’t have these words between us. He could type, but it is not fast enough yet. So I waited in silence, watching his face, telling myself to ask him later (more so because this is unusual for him. He usually likes to feel textures- of a leaf, a flower, a pencil, paper, etc.).
It was time for my move.
His move. (Again brought the coins he picked close to his face. So gentle, so light. Whose stories are you feeling and I can’t?)
Try to win, I reminded. (His drive for winning is very different from mine. He doesn't rush for a win in a game, though he likes to win in an understated way and prefers his hi-5s to be low-key)
He wasn't sure he could win. I played to lose. He won, had the smallest of smile and gave me a look. It was the knowing look of he knew and he knew that I knew*.
We played again, the piles getting familiar, the need to feel the smell getting lesser, the people whose stories the coins carry, getting further. I forget who won.
We moved to another game.
There were a couple of moments in there, while we were playing-
1. When the pull from sensations was calling him into a sensory field (this can be from sounds, something visual or of touch or even breeze outside, but for now it was the odor, which was not apparent to me), but he came back to the flow. 2. When taking the coin(s), the pull between going for a comforting, routine move vs. trying a progressive one (there is a strong preference for safety the former, in autism), which he overcame.
In both these moments, his desire to meet with my waiting interactive force under this umbrella of math was what rode him out. As we continued, these moments got mixed in the flow, they did not stand out.
These moments, when they happen, are when I hold my breath. These moments are where he is as much out of autism as I am into autism. Where it doesn't matter who doesn't have autism or who has. And when we are on fully equal terms. These moments make me exhilarated. They fuel me. I live for them.
Exhilarated, and strangely, very calm. Maybe the reaching out into an autism mind is like that. There is quiet order and rest in it.
But the aroma from the slow cooker beckoned me soon enough! And I had to come back to the noise of the concerns of my normal world.
*If you don’t know autism, you perhaps wouldn't know we were doing what some say that people with autism, any autism, or maybe certain kinds of autism, can’t do.
Like, follow a self-thought dynamic strategy within a set of higher-order rules held in memory, while enjoying. Quickly comprehend a complex set of directions, casually interact while engaging in reciprocal inferences etc. The person with autism might just show all these differently. What I did was to facilitate the external, including setting-up a system where strengths stretch out while needs are adequately supported, including co-regulation.
** We continue to play the game. Every time we get to a new level but also find new bumps to overcome. Sometimes we do and some other times we rest in the shade of a bump. I find that – somehow, a math game seems to provide a context for some threads to hold out with each other that otherwise don’t prefer to do that, in the order of an autism mind. Then there are other threads and other contexts. I'm always on the lookout for contexts.It is often the context that builds motivation, for anybody, for doing most things, right?