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Picking Up the “Oops!”

  • Posted on February 5, 2011 at 10:00 PM

When I first started studying how to be a parent, I read a lot of claims regarding the importance of monitoring, limiting, or disallowing television and video watching.  However, when Willy first started talking again after his regression, he picked up many of his first words from his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine videos.  Later, Alex picked up words from Veggie Tales videos.  Now, Ben is doing it, though he watches a much larger variety of shows—his viewing habits are far less rigid.  Like Willy, Ben is also picking up gestures and facial expressions from the shows he watches.

Mostly, despite the expert advice, I encourage this.  In our experience the boys picked up more words (at least, in the beginning) from their intense video watching than they did from their intense therapies.  They also had fun and picked up other things.  Alex, for example, likes to reinterpret Veggie Tales images in his own art.

But, now Ben’s picked up something I rather dislike.  In one of his shows, one of the characters spills something in dramatic fashion.  In the show it is an accident.  “Oops!  Sorry,” the character says.  Ben recreates this scene with growing frequency—and for Ben, it is no accident.

He gets the spill part.  He gets the “Oops!  Sorry!” part.  He doesn’t get the accident part.  To him, it is a fun, dramatic scene with big movement, emotive expressions, and funny reactions.  It’s a fun role to play—for him.  Not so for Mark and me; we have to clean up the mess.  We’ve even made Ben help—which is a chore by itself, since cleaning up is not so fun and dramatic as spilling is—but he continues to do it.  And he still doesn’t get the accident part.

Now, this could be just another frustration that we experience as parents, but over the years of raising my children with autism I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern.  Like Ben, Willy picks up on certain aspects of stories at the exclusion of what “we” consider important.  Willy reads books for class, and his summaries and book reports have more to do with the things he found engaging and less to do with themes or the point of the book.  “What is this story about?” is a question that gives Willy great difficulties.  He gets so caught up in the details that he doesn’t see the big picture, so his answers are about those things that caught his interest, not what the book is actually about.

From a teaching perspective, there’s this sense that they’re missing the point.  The point of the spill, after all, isn’t how fun it is to spill things or how enjoyable it can be to reenact dramatic moments.  It’s about accidents, forgiveness, and taking responsibility.  Ben misses that.  From a teaching perspective, Willy’s focus on a particular image or scene, at the exclusion of the point of the book, is a mistake.  He’s focusing on the wrong thing.

Or so the teachers say.  As a writer and storyteller, I’m inclined to agree.

But…isn’t the richness of art that there is something for everyone, or so the artist hopes?  Isn’t the point that there is more in any work of art than the artist intends, because the audience brings their own realm of experience to the work?  Isn’t that part of it, too?  So, why do my boys’ interpretations get dismissed as wrong?  Don’t their observations matter?  Sure, it’s a different focus than the general population, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

I believe in teaching the boys to see the point of a story—or, rather, the point as it was intended.  But I worry that teaching this skill—the ability to think about the story as a whole—is being done at an exclusion of respecting their way of seeing the world.  And that worries me.

I wonder how I can teach my boys to see the point as it was intended without disrespecting their attention to details and their own interpretations of works of art.  It’s so easy for me, as a writer and a student of stories, to say to Willy, “That’s the wrong answer.  The point of the story is…”  But saying that is the wrong answer.  How do I communicate in a simple, direct way that—while I appreciate his observations and there is room for him to share them—there are expectations that need to be met to satisfy his assignments?  How do I teach him to see the whole, without taking away the pleasure he gets from the details?