“Can we get GNOG, pleeeease?”
Five words. Five simple words, asking for a new game. Five words that might pass with a “not now” or a “we’ll see” or a “we can’t buy every game.”
In another house.
In this house they’re like music. The good kind, with backup singers and a decent brass section. It makes my heart sing along when I hear it. I didn't always, and maybe that's why I indulge her a bit more than I might otherwise. Video games were the beginning of a bridge between us.
My daughter has autism. That means different things to different people, because the diagnosis means different things to different kids. For my family, it means my daughter has difficulties with expressive language and sensory processing. That combination makes emotional connection difficult, because a lot of the typical ways of emotionally bonding with a child become ineffective, if not detrimental. How do you convey the feeling behind a hug to a child for whom hugs are sensory assaults?
If you’ve done any reading about the spectrum, you’ll notice that you see a lot of words like “wall,” or “shell” or other language associated with barriers to describe what’s happening. As a writer, I don’t like those analogies. Words mean things, and the implication is that there’s a “real child” hidden behind the wall, and you must find a way to get through it. Read a bit further and you'll notice the fixes mostly involve words like “breach” or “break down” or other words associated with destruction. The problem is that the wall is part of the real child, because autism is part of the real child. I don't want to breach or break down an integral part of who my child is.
So instead of walls, I prefer to think in terms of gaps. It’s still an obstacle to understanding, and it may be a very large gap indeed, but it’s more open. And the words associated with solving the difficulties presented by gaps are constructive words. You don’t destroy a gap; you build a bridge.
Another nice thing about thinking in terms of gaps is that you can still see across them. What do you build your bridge out of? We found out what sorts of things she was interested in. She loved little toy figures of funny characters, building toys, and books.
And video games. My daughter took to video games as soon as she was old enough to hold a controller. Little Big Planet combined everything she loved: video games, building, and cute characters. It’s no wonder she started playing it when she was three, and still does. At this point she knows more about how to use the AI system than I do. Little Big Planet was a tiny spider-silk thread connecting us to her.
So we used that thread. Spider silk is, pound for pound, stronger than steel. (I saw that in a movie once.) We talked to her about Little Big Planet. We gently encouraged her to watch us play different games, and talked to her about those. We found she was more likely to want to try a new game if she were holding the controller, so we let her. We took that spider’s thread and built a suspension bridge. We connected.
I won’t tell you it was easy, because it wasn’t. Finding things that she was interested in, and could have fun playing, was a challenge in itself. In the beginning she was afraid to even look at anything new, and anything with cut-scenes is still hit or miss. Even that, though, allowed us to build connections. We learned about her, the real child that she always was and still is: What she liked, what she hated, what she loved and what she feared. It was a journey in itself, full of constant surprises, even to this day. (She’s afraid of Yooka Laylee, but adores Five Nights at Freddy’s. It’s a funny old world, isn’t it?)
It worked. We widened the bridge. Where it used to be a struggle to get her to try new things, now it’s all we can do to slow her down. She devours new games like Johnny Five reads encyclopedias. She finished GNOG less than 12 hours after we bought it, and she spent eight of those hours sleeping. She beat The Unfinished Swan without once asking for help, and she’s better than me at Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One (the only Ratchet and Clank game she's willing to play).
But that wasn’t all. Knowing what to look for, we found more spider threads of connection. Music, which had heretofore been a sensory taboo, was being actively sought. She began to ask to see new television shows, all on her own. She began reading, helped by our lessons and by the fact that she was reading menus.
Those threads each have grown into their own bridges. More bridges, more connections, more ways to show her how much we love her by sharing what we both love.
Oh, the conversations we have now! She tells me about whole imaginary worlds she’s created and the characters that live there. She pitches new games that she’d like to play. I installed Unity and bought the pro-version of GameMaker just to keep up with her. As I type this, she’s making her own levels in Garry’s Mod on her very own computer.
She tells me her dreams now. She tells me when she’s happy. She can tell my why she’s sad, or what’s hurting now. She can tell me why she doesn’t like the food in front of her at dinner. I won’t say we don’t have hard days, but we can talk about them now. When she retreats back across her bridge because she’s too overwhelmed and needs a break, I know she’ll be back when she’s ready to come back. I don’t worry about the gaps.
Because we have bridges.