Second grade is officially underway, and so far, so good. I'm skeptically optimistic that this might shape up to be a pretty good year for Ben. How's that for motherly thinking?
Before the year began, I sat down with Ben's new teacher and described some of my concerns for the year--things that I thought we'd better get a jump on before Ben's behavior spiraled out of control. I suggested that Ben continue his routine of spending one recess outside, and one recess working puzzles in the office so that he could emotionally "reset" for the afternoon. I warned that Ben might need a special spot on the rug where he would be away from the kids and out of the general noise and touching that goes on in the heart of the rug. I noted that Ben struggles with spelling and would probably need some special accommodations if he was going to succeed in that particular academic discipline.
And I'm wondering if Ben's teacher thinks I'm crazy now, because Ben has been the poster child for well-behaved students this year (at least, that is what I'm seeing on his end-of-week report cards, and that's what he's reporting when I pick him up after school). Here's a typical after-school conversation:
Me: How was school today, Ben?
Me: Did you have any problems?
Ben: Um...I don't fink I did.
Me: Good! Did you play outside today?
Ben: Um...yes. I did play outside.
Me: Did you play with any kids?
Ben: Well, I fink I did. At one recess I did.
But my favorite conversation of the year continued when I asked him what he did during recess. I expected the same answer I've gotten since Kindergarten ("I don't really remember. I don't know."), but I nearly cried for joy when one day he said, "Um, well, I played soccer."
Now, mothers of normally social children won't think much of this response. Why wouldn't a child play soccer at recess? But Ben has never played a social sport in his life (not willingly, anyway--and I hardly think the things he did on the t-ball field count as "playing a social sport"). He has never had much interest in playing with other kids at any time. So when he announced that he had played soccer "on the field with the big kids" one afternoon, I couldn't have been more surprised if he had announced that he had built a particle accelerator and successfully split an atom. Frankly, the atom-splitting seems more likely.
But it gets better. Because when I pushed him to tell me about playing soccer on the field with the big kids, he announced in his characteristically nonchalant manner, "Oh, we all did. Because I'm in the Club of Boys Who Are Awesome, and Logan is in our club and he wanted to play soccer so we all played soccer." I don't know Logan, but I hope Santa Clause visits him weekly and showers gifts and glory upon him regularly. Because Logan is also in the Club of Boys Who Are Awesome. He may be the only other one in the club, of course--I don't know, because Ben can't say who else is in the club, or how he came to be in the club, or any other of a number of questions I tried to pepper him with upon hearing this unexpected news, but frankly, I don't care. Ben feels like he belongs to a group of children. And this is a miracle of unexpected proportion.
Ben's new interest in some social connections has raised another interesting issue, though, and that is Ben's inability to remain clothed for an entire day. I haven't officially timed him, but I'm pretty sure that it takes him somewhere around 6.7 seconds to come in the door after school, and immediately strip down to his underwear. Growing weary of the "tighty-whitey" look, we recently bought him some boxer briefs that at least marginally create some semblance of decency, but even when he's wearing briefs, Ben can't wait to get out of his clothes. I've asked him why he insists on introducing near-nudism to our home, and he always says something about how his clothes make him hot, or how the tag itches his neck (even though I've removed every single tag from every single shirt), or how the collars of his shirts (even t-shirts) feel uncomfortable touching his neck. The bottom line is that he can't stand the feeling of the fabric against his skin, and he just feels better without any clothes at all.
Some of his anxieties at school are being taken out on his shirts this year (which is infinitely better than taking them out on his peers). Every day, he comes home from school having chewed through the collar of his shirt. His t-shirts are soaking wet from neck to mid-chest; they are twisted and often riddled with holes and rips. On his end-of-week report this week, his teacher noted that she has been working on the chewing with him during school, and sometimes she can get him all the way until about 2:00 before he can't hold off anymore. I've done some research on shirt-chewing, because I know that it's not unique to autistic kids. However, most children apparently outgrow the habit by age 4 or 5, and those who don't often need the help of an occupational therapist to overcome. In autistic kids, chewing is a fairly common way to express anxiety or stress, so it makes sense that Ben is chewing his clothes in the afternoon every day--I suspect that he just reaches a point where he starts to get overloaded, and chewing is one outlet for that. I've read that I can get special necklaces that are made for chewing, but I don't know if Ben would like that or not. If the behavior continues, I'll have to check into them.
I have noticed lately, though, that Ben has begun to understand that certain social situations demand clothing. For example, when he hears that the babysitter is coming over, he occasionally will slip upstairs and reemerge wearing clothes. He did the same thing when he heard that his grandpa was coming over one afternoon. However, as we urged him to get dressed so that we could go over to his aunt's house one day, he demanded, "Why can't I stay in my underwear? Everybody knows that this is how I like to be comfortable!"
And one morning last week, as I was trying to get him dressed before school, he announced that he did not want to wear pants to school. Playing on his new social connections, I asked, "Ben, what would the Club of Boys Who Are Awesome say if you showed up to school wearing no pants?" He thought for only a second before responding, "Oh, they would say, 'You're fired!'" And then he put on pants and went to school.
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles.