Thursday, May 21, 2015

More monkeys, STAT! (Life With Unicorns)

Mr Bunches is a shopaholic, and a movie nut.  And has difficulty expressing his emotions, all of which come together when he is expressing his frustration with my latest scheme to slow down his buying and teach him the value of a dollar, so to speak.

(The value of a dollar, nowadays, is roughly equal to 14 ounces of chocolate. Chocolate is trading at 14 cents per 1/10 of an ounce. That's nearly 3 times the cost of chocolate when I was born. Measuring inflation in chocolate is better than in gold or silver, because we see chocolate all around us all the time, what with this being America and all.  Hershey's bars are 1.55 ounces, so each section of a Hershey's bar is worth roughly 14 cents.)

Mr Bunches, being 8 and autistic, has a hard time understanding money.  That's not so unusual; most people have a hard time understanding money, and Mr Bunches doesn't see money.  I don't use paper money anymore and the only reason we have coins around the house at all is because Sweetie saves them to go vacuum out her car (75 cents for three minutes, coin operated) and Mr F likes to throw coins on the garage floor, as though our garage is a wishing well. Which maybe it is.)  Anyway, it's hard to teach Mr Bunches about money when 'money' is a plastic card in my wallet and he's always been bought everything he ever needs.

A while back, I hit on the idea of giving him dollars for things he was supposed to do, like pick up his toys or take a bath or get dressed, and when he got enough dollars to buy a toy, he could go buy that toy.  That was about 2 years ago, and it petered out mostly because it's very hard to resist buying things for Mr F and Mr Bunches when they want it and we have the money to do so.  Whenever they ask for something, two reactions immediately take place.

The first is the usual parental reaction that demands a no, or at most a maybe.  I used to think that my parents were mean for automatically saying no to everything I asked, until I became a parent myself and realized just how many things kids ask for.  A LOT.  They ask for EVERYTHING.  It begins roughly 15 minutes before they wake up and continues until late into the night, little soft mumbled requests from under the blankets:  Can I get zzzammrrph, PLEASE?  To combat this, at the birth of a child, a gene flips on and parents automatically respond with no to anything that even remotely sounds like a question.  I, like all parents, have that reaction.

The other reaction is a mixture of guilt and pity that I feel for the boys.  They have such a hard life, I think almost immediately, and it's true, they do, even for 8 year olds living in a relatively luxurious lifestyle.  When I sit down to tally up the number of things that trouble 8-year-old boys (lightning and thunder, a parent coming home late, kids picking on them at school, etc.) and then add in the extra stuff that troubles our 8-year-old boys (people who aren't their mom and dad, worries that the bus will be in a different spot after school*, nicknames**, a missing red marker)

* this happened one time; the boys' bus was a minute or two late to the after-school lineup and so was two slots down in the string of busses.  Mr Bunches burst into tears and needed to be walked to the bus by an aide because it was so different.  Now he has nightmares about missing the bus and will sometimes wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning and ask if he can get ready and go outside to wait so he doesn't miss the bus
** sometimes I (used to) pretend that Mr Bunches was a superhero, or Buzz Lightyear, or a monkey, or something silly like that.  I stopped when he got really upset and nearly started crying and saying I am me.  I am a LITTLE BOY. 
One of Mr Bunches' favorite movies is
Kronk's New Groove...
... I end up with this overwhelming feeling of guilt and feel like maybe I should just go get the Lex Luthor Robot Suit With Working Missile Shooter (TM) because it's really a small price to pay to make a little boy happy and possibly make his life easier in the event that a loud truck goes by and makes him think it is thundering out, which will then remind him of the time five years ago the power went out during a thunderstorm and cause him to need to go for a ride in the car to calm him down.***

***a true story that happens every time it thunders.
So to balance those two desires and possibly avoid going bankrupt and having to disclose to the bankruptcy court that I have an extensive collection of Imaginext (TM) airplanes, Sweetie and I have instituted a new system for helping Mr  Bunches earn a toy.
The system is this: We have created lists of things that Mr Bunches can do, and if he does one of them, he gets a star (which we draw on a post-it note and give to him.) If he gets 9 stars, he gets to buy a toy.

It's nine stars because Mr Bunches knows how to bargain.  When I first set up the system, I said he would have to get 10 stars.  "How about 9?" he asked, and I was impressed with his negotiating skills, so I agreed.

... but you probably could've guessed that, if you knew
this picture.

The things that he can do to get a star include watching a new movie on the television.  Mr Bunches gets frightened at times of the TV, specifically if a DVD were to stall or freeze up.  He has been having panic attacks this year, and one of the things that causes a panic attack is the TV freezing up.  So he has for most of this year limited the television to showing only a couple of different DVDs that he feels pretty certain won't freeze.

To help remedy this, we got a Chromecast and set it up to play Netflix on the TV; Netflix rarely freezes, and so Mr Bunches has expanded his movie selection a bit.  We want him to be more open to change (and we want Mr F to get to watch some of his movies) so we've set up a list of movies that we would like Mr Bunches to let us play on the TV, and if he lets us, he gets a star.

Mr Bunches can also do chores, like put soda in the refrigerator or get himself dressed without help or pick up all the toys in the house, and he gets a star for each of those.

And we have a list of new foods he could try; he's a very picky eater, with only about 10 different foods he will eat, and he tends to fixate on one at a time, so for a whole day straight he might eat only the marshmallows from Lucky Charms, with cheese puffs on the side (he only ever eats those things together, in that combination).  So we've tried to get him to branch out there, too, and he gets a star for trying a new food.

This may not sound like much, but for him, it really is.  He likes getting his stars.  This week, he has been working towards 9 stars because he wants to buy a "My Little Pony Friendship Express Train." (He has discovered My Little Ponies and loves them now.)  So he asked the other day what he could do to get a star.  Since I was trying to get Mr F to eat an Oreo, I gave Mr Bunches a chance to eat a bite of Oreo for a star.

He got a look on his face like I'd offered to let him kiss a spider.  But he gave me a brave little "Ok," and I took a small piece of Oreo out.

He said: "How about just touch it?" and held up his finger.

"You have to eat it," I said.

He eyed the piece and then put it on his tongue.

"Chew it up," I told him, nicely.

He shook his head.

"It tastes good," I said.

He shook his head, but closed his mouth, keeping his eyes on me.

"Can I have some milk?" he asked.

I poured him a glass of milk, and he sipped at it, and then gamely tried to move his mouth in a chewing motion, but then stopped and ran to the garbage can, where he spit it all out before rinsing his mouth with a sip of cold milk.

"I almost blahed," he said, referring to the sound you make when you barf.  "Do I still get a star?"

I gave him his star. He earned it!

So that's this week, and the stars have been slow in coming.  He's up to six with three to go.  Yesterday morning, he was looking at his stars, and asked me if he could get more stars.

"When you come home and do your homework, that'll be worth a star," I said.

He sighed, and I heard him mumbling to himself:  "It's too short! We need more monkeys!" I recognized that as a quote from the movie Toy Story, where the toys are trying to make a chain of monkeys to rescue Buzz from outside the window.  That's something Mr Bunches does more and more often: he substitutes a movie quote to try to describe how he's feeling.  He didn't have words, really, for how it felt to only have six stars and not have a way to get three more right away, and the best thing he could do was relate it to how the toys must have felt, having an insufficient amount of monkeys to rescue Buzz.

He learned from a Youtube video
how to make his Hot Wheels' set
into a volcano.
(Which admittedly was pretty cool)

Which is simultaneously ingenious -- using movie quotes to demonstrate his feelings -- amazing, what with the ability to remember verbatim the right movie quote to use, and heartbreaking, not just because it suddenly hit me that if the need more monkeys emotion was how he was really feeling, then not having enough stars was like losing a new best friend and not being able to help, but also because it's already hard enough for anyone to express an emotion, but to imagine my little boy at 8 years old having trouble expressing frustration AND having to act out a skit from a movie to do it?

He almost got the other three stars right there, but I figured I had to stick to the system.

Mr Bunches does that other times; if he doesn't like what I'm doing, I'm apt to find myself being cast as a particularly villainous character in a scene. One time, when he wanted to go play in our bedroom and Sweetie didn't want him to (because she had to be downstairs watching Mr F), he acted out this scene from Lilo & Stitch:

in full detail, with all the bells and whistles.

I've found it's not actually that unusual for kids with autism to relate in this way; in fact, there was a well-circulated story a little while back about an older kid who used Disney movies to learn to communicate better, and as a model for interactions with other people. (You can read that one here). And as sad as it can be to think about how difficult it is for him to communicate anything, I prefer to focus on the more optimistic, glass-half-full part, which is that he is learning to broaden his communication.  There have been lots of times that I worried that I might never be able to have a full conversation with him.  Now I just have to worry that I'll mess up my lines.

PS: Today I'm guest-posting on J.M. Beal's blog, about the SIX greatest SCIFI novels of all time, plus how they make you a better writer.  Check it out by clicking here.

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