Free to Choose
On a trip to Arizona three years ago, my son Mickey asked to visit the airport gift shop. He rummaged through a display of stuffed animals. “Hey there little fella,” he said, clutching a small stuffed bear to his chest. For the next hour until it was time to board, he walked through the airport gripping his new toy.
For years therapists have urged us to encourage more “age-appropriate” interests. We have. But at 21, Mickey is still drawn to Sesame Street characters. His bed is piled with so many plush toys there’s no room to roll over. He sleeps with a large Sponge Bob pillow.
I’ve come to wonder if wanting him to be more age-appropriate says more about our comfort level than about Mickey’s development.
Professionals tell us he has a “spiky” profile: test scores show an uneven scatter of strengths and challenges. His interests are spiky too. He does have what would be considered age interests suitable to his age: he loves watching sports. He enjoys hanging out the mall, eating at the food court and buying t-shirts at Banana Republic (which he calls “The Gentleman’s Store.”) He wears Beats headphones to listen to music—Raffi as well as rock. We encourage his interest in championships, players, team rankings and game rules, which gives him conversational currency with peers.
But if carrying a small Sesame Street Grover beanie in his pocket makes him feel safe, why shouldn’t he? Don’t we all have our transitional objects, or habits and rituals that reassure? How many adults panic at the idea of leaving home without a smart phone? Why do we expect our children on the spectrum to be paragons of age-appropriate maturity, when we ourselves frequently choose age inappropriate activities or interests? One of my husband Marc’s favorite movies (sorry hon, I’m outing you here) is the animated Pixar flick “The Incredibles.”
Instead of focusing on having age appropriate interests, wouldn’t we all be better off focusing on teaching our kids the appropriate times and places to pursue those interests? Listening to Muppet music on an iPod with ear buds is fine; carrying a Muppets backpack is not. I don’t want anyone bullying him.
When Mickey was a toddler, he was evaluated by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, the architect of Floortime Therapy, a developmentally-based intervention that stresses following your child’s lead. Dr. Greenspan taught us to enter into Mickey’s interests. “Those passions are the window to your son’s emotional life,” he said.
Last night when I poked my head in his room, Mickey was engrossed with his iPad. “I’m watching Snoopy,” he told me. “He’s for everyone. Come see.”
I sat beside him. “Looks like Snoopy is doing his happy dance.”
“Yes!” he said. “I’m getting ready for my play date with Jake this weekend. Jake loves Snoopy.”
I shared that with Jake’s mother. “Aw,” she said. “I struggled for years to come to terms with him skipping down the halls and singing Barney songs.”
The bottom line is this: Mickey works hard all day to meet other people’s expectations of suitable behavior. If he wants to watch blooper reels from “Reading Rainbow” and outtakes from “The Muppets Movie” when he gets home, that’s fine. Why shouldn’t he seek out things that comfort or amuse him? We all do. Marc and I have watched so many “Seinfeld” reruns we could do a responsive reading of the dialogue. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
It’s his leisure time, not ours. Mickey gets to choose. I respect his choices because I respect him. I’ve stopped caring if his interests don’t fit someone else’s idea of appropriate.
As long as they’re appropriate for him.