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Bulldozer had been looking forward to this playdate for weeks. He was so excited to go bowling. The morning had gone extremely well. There had been incentive enough to motivate Bulldozer to get himself dressed. For the first time in forever, he was waiting for me to get ready. On the way there, we talked about possible conversation topics. Bulldozer made a point of mentioning which snack he'd like to select from the vending machine. He also mentioned he'd like to ask his friend about movies she likes now.
It had been months since they'd spent any time together, yet Bulldozer had hung on to so many fond memories from the summer before. This friend was one of the first that Bulldozer has ever desired to think about or spend time with. When they do spend time together, if there aren't any other distractions or activities, Bulldozer enjoys socializing. He may need a few seconds to process what's being said and/or get the words out, but he tries, because he enjoys spending time with her so much.
Today's playdate however, did not go as anyone intended it to go. I'm sure it didn't help that we kept running into problems finding a bowling alley locally, who's open bowling schedule matched the schedule on their online site. (Thankfully, the third bowling alley we went to worked out.) But that didn't seem to throw Bulldozer. However, as I learned later, it did.
I know that the noise and the sensory commotion of an unfamiliar bowling alley threw Bulldozer a tiny bit, but he was the first to mention how he'd been there before when he was really little and that he remembered it. It was easy to think that he had made the transition to the new place.
I first noticed my own raw feelings when I had asked Bulldozer to take his shoes off upon entering the bowling alley. My eyes were on Dinomite, the friend, and myself, as I removed my own shoes. It was when I went to move everyone forward that I realized Bulldozer didn't have his shoes off. He needed two more verbal prompts before he was able to follow directions.
I didn't think much of having to put on Bulldozer's Classic Kids Rental bowling shoes. He still hasn't mastered putting his shoes on yet. Even when Dinomite started to have a mini freak out over being handed shoes that tie, I calmly said I would help him and I did. Dinomite refuses to learn how to tie his shoes because he thinks it's too hard. Eventually we will tackle this skill, but so many other skills seem more important at the moment.
The bowling alley was packed. We literally took the last free lane available. Bulldozer, Dinomite and their friend had a place to sit close to our lane, but the friend's mom, little sister, and myself remained standing. I wondered if this would throw Bulldozer. We usually sit at a table farther back from the lane at our favorite bowling alley. Sure enough, it did.
Usually when we go bowling, the boys choose a snack and drink from the vending machines before we start our game. With the bowling alley so packed and no where to sit, we didn't do that. When Bulldozer asked about it, I said we might get snacks later in the game, but if not, we could pick something up on the way home. Both boys seemed okay with this. I felt good. (If nothing else Sunshine and Princess are teaching the boys how to be flexible with plans. There are definite times when we have to turn the car around, or leave where ever we are, because of behaviors. They know I always make this up to them by doing something else with them as soon as we settle the girls.) So again, It didn't seem like this little detail threw Bulldozer off, but it did.
Bulldozer was fourth in line for his turn. We've been bowling several times, so I wasn't concerned about this at all. However, when it was his turn, he decided he was going to try a new throw, the same that his friend was bowling with. The only problem with this was that he'd never tried it before. At first he used he wrong fingers. I tried to help him the second time around, teaching him which fingers to use to throw the bowl. But after only two tries, he switched back to his preferred way of bowling.
I think we were in the 5th frame when I noticed that Bulldozer's score was lower than everyone else's, including the friend's 2 year old sister. It was during his next turn that I noticed he was on the brink of a meltdown. This was about the same time that a table was available for everyone to sit at. Everyone took five to get snacks, drinks etc. I was praying silently that this would be enough of a distraction to pull Bulldozer out of his funk. But then this bowling alley had different snacks in the vending machine. Bulldozer still chose one, and seemed okay, but it was one more thing to throw him off.
Bulldozer's next turn to bowl arrived. He did hit some pins on his first try, but the second time he threw the ball, he missed all of the pins. This is when I knew we were in trouble. He came back to the table obviously upset with tears coming down his cheeks. When he's upset or crying the volume of his voice increases to almost a yell. He was very quick to express his frustrations.
"Every time I bowl a second time I miss!" I tried to remind him that we were here on a playdate, and that this was supposed to be fun. I tried to remind him that the score doesn't matter, it's about spending time together. Nothing worked.
Desperate at this point, I tried to change the subject, prompting Bulldozer to ask his friend the question he had mentioned in the car.
"No! I don't want to talk about it." At this point, I could tell his friend was trying to understand what was going on. Still trying to salvage the situation I asked the friend his question.
"I don't know," was the only answer I received. Great! Thanks. In the friend's defense, I probably wouldn't have said much at this point either with Bulldozer going on next to me as he was. But still, her non response wasn't helpful.
It was at this point that I knew I had to remove Bulldozer from the situation. I searched for anywhere quiet and private. Eventually we ended up in the ladies room. It was there that Bulldozer broke down completely.
"I always get spares and strikes! Today I'm not getting any! When we used to go bowling all the time I was good. When we bowl at the other bowling alley, I do it! I just can't do it here."
Calmly, I reminded Bulldozer it wasn't about the game. He is the most competitive child I have ever met. Whether it be board games, sports, etc. He always struggles when he's not winning. Bowling had been the only situation where he'd not shown this competitive nature. When I had his attention, I gave him two choices, he could either stop playing, or he could continue and spend time with his friend. He chose the latter.
When we returned from the bathroom it was Bulldozer's turn. As he threw the ball for a second time I held my breath. Thankfully he hit several pins and was satisfied with his turn. He even smiled. I exhaled slowly smiling at him.
By this time, I realized that there was no chance that Bulldozer, Dinomite and the friend were going to socialize with an adult around, so I quickly removed myself from the table. It wasn't long before Bulldozer joined me. I reminded him he was on a playdate, and that he should go up and sit next to his friend. He did part of the time, but as I watched from the corner of my eye, I knew he wasn't socializing, or even talking at all for that matter.
It was pure luck that Bulldozer bowled better after his meltdown. The game ended, and miraculously he was okay. But then came time to leave. Bulldozer was completely out of it. I lost track of how many times I asked him to take off his bowling shoes. He definitely needed verbal and physical prompts to initiate getting the job done. By the time I put his shoes on, helped him with his jacket, and paid for our game, I was so ready to leave.
You see, I made a big mistake while I was there. I started observing all of the other children bowling around us. They were "typical." Their behaviors didn't depend so much on the sensory stimuli around them or the rigid ritualistic routines they have when they come bowling. The other children were happy, smiling, and well behaved. They were kind and loving, and such a delight to be around. Now I know I don't know any of the children I observed enough to know they're "typical." The bowling alley could be their favorite place and they could just happen to be having the best day ever, which could be why their parents were so laid back, relaxed and smiling. But, the point was, it had been a long time since I'd felt so different and so out of place, with Bulldozer's autism so exposed. By the time we were heading to the car, I was trying so hard to fight back tears. This was supposed to be a happy time. We were supposed to have a super fun afternoon. Yet, for me, it seemed the opposite.
Bulldozer complained all the way home that he was hungry, begging for a treat. This had started before we left the bowling alley, but I had been able to postpone the conversation until we were in the car. By the time we arrived home, I was visibly angry.
I couldn't put words to my feelings, but the girls, Jason, and the boys knew to stay away and give me some space. After making the boys lunch, I knew I needed to talk to Bulldozer. Still upset, I came across more cross than I had intended.
"You were on a playdate! Did you even speak to your friend?"
"I tried... I was thinking about it."
"I even tried to help you start a conversation and you refused. I can't believe you melted down like that. When will you learn that it's just a game? It didn't matter what happened during the game. You were supposed to be having fun with your friend." By this point Bulldozer was starting to cry.
"Why are you so angry with me? I tried to do my best! I'm sorry. Mommy, I forgot I was on a playdate! I forgot." Bulldozer cupped his hands, covering his face as he sobbed.
"When you calm down, I will talk to you about it." I should have been over my own feelings at this point, but I wasn't.
After a couple of minutes, Bulldozer started to talk again in between sobs.
"You left me Mommy! You wouldn't sit by me. I was all alone. I felt like I was all alone when we were bowling."
As hard as it was to hear his words, I instantly felt gratitude that he was able to use them. A year ago, I wouldn't dream of him being able to express his emotions. But once again I was reminded of the reality of Bulldozer's autism, his differences, and his lack of social skills. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.
I must confess and as horrible as it sounds, I left the table at that point, telling Bulldozer to eat his lunch. In order to help Bulldozer, I knew I needed to get a handle on my own emotions. Thankfully I was able to keep myself busy doing chores around the house. But with each chore, I became closer and closer to tears.
Am I doing this all wrong? How do I help Bulldozer learn to function and participate in social situations? Do I feed him to the lions hoping he'll eventually learn? But then what happens when he doesn't learn? I know what social anxiety looks like as a result of missing cues, being bullied, and worrying about doing everything right. I've seen what it's done to my autistic husband first hand. I know the statistics when it comes to those with autism who try to take their own life because of social pressures during their teen years. And then what happens when those he tries to socialize with don't want to be his friends? He has autism and auditory processing issues! Bulldozer can't respond as quickly as one might like. Even if he wants to get the words out quickly they don't come. And when they do come, he has a one track mind with no filter. That doesn't even take into consideration sensory stimuli around him and how that effects his ability to function. How do I do this? It's a catch 22, no matter what way I look at it. We talked about this playdate for weeks. Bulldozer was prepped for it. He had all the right answers when asked what to do and what to say. But when it came down to it, none of it was enough.
I can't remember the last time the reality of the boys' autism hit me like it did today. One would think after 9 years of this, I'd be used to it. But the truth is no matter how much you love your autistic child... No matter how great things are going, there will always be those moments when you do feel like you've been punched in the stomach. It will take your breath away. There will be tears. And you evaluate everything you've done up to the present moment, in an attempt to help your autistic child be successful in life, worrying that you've done it all wrong.
After I worked through my own emotions, Bulldozer and I cuddled and had a nice chat. I apologized for being so angry, trying my best to explain difficult feelings to him. He was quick to forgive and smile knowing that I know he's the best Bulldozer ever. It's always been a goal of mine to be real with my children, showing my feelings, the good and the bad, and admit when I've made a mistake. To me, teaching my children the power of an apology and forgiveness is extremely important. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes even Mommies and Daddies.
As we talked, I learned a lot, not necessarily from what Bulldozer had to say, but through what he was talking about.
There were several reasons Bulldozer forgot he was on a playdate. He was working overtime to adjust to all of the little changes in plans that had taken place. Though he did fabulous with them in the moment, he still had to work through his own mental process, and that takes time. Bulldozer loves bowling. He always has. Ever since he was little, he would stim off of the pins being knocked over and the balls flying down the lanes. (He's my visual stimmer.) Chances are, because he was working so hard to adjust to changes, he was hyper-focused on the game, trying to self regulate. When he couldn't knock down pins, he couldn't self regulate, and that would definitely be a reason to be upset. Of course I didn't think about this at the time.
Bulldozer is developmentally between the ages of three and four, depending on the skill. His behaviors today were completely appropriate for his developmental age. Three and four year olds do not carry on long extended conversations with their peers. They're a bit more self-absorbed than that. It is so hard sometimes to remember my autistic kiddos in regards to their developmental ages instead of their chronological ages. Yet when I remember to do so, their behaviors and social skills make so much more sense.
Bulldozer has a desire to be social. He enjoys going out in the community and doing things. If he can find a reason to throw a party and celebrate something he will. Throw in a "feast" and/or "treats" and Bulldozer is the happiest kid on the planet. But he does best when these events occur on his turf, whether it be his home, "his" bowling alley, "his" movie theater, etc. And even then, you may not know if he's enjoying himself until after it's all over and he starts talking about it, because in the moment, he's too busy soaking up all of the sensory stimuli around him. He loves being surrounded by people, to share his joy in all aspects of celebrations, but at this point, it doesn't really matter who those people are. Developmentally, he doesn't understand what friendship is yet, and that's okay. The fact that he thinks about others, considers them friends, and wants them to join him in something that he loves shows that there's potential for greater things in the future... when he's ready.
Bulldozer has grown so much over his first 7 years of life. Though it's slow, it's steady. It was less than four years ago at 3 1/2 years old, that he could barely utter 2-3 words at a time. As we were talking tonight, he said he didn't like talking about this stuff, because it was too hard. Quite honestly, I believe him. If I wait a year, he may have words to put to his emotions.
And as far as today's playdate goes.. It was a singular event. That doesn't take away the fact that all other previous playdates went well. Today's incident doesn't mean that all future playdates will go poorly. When I look at the facts, Bulldozer did an AMAZING job! Yes, he had a meltdown, but he worked through it.
What threw the day most was my choice to compare my children to others. Bulldozer melts down all the time. He struggles to function in public places all the time. What made today's behaviors feel like a punch in the stomach, was my unrealistic expectation of his behaviors and social skills, based on today's circumstances. It is amazing how your view of your autistic child can change based on what you're choosing to focus on.
Today was a great reminder of how important it is to focus on the positive. When you don't, it's so easy to go to a dark place in your mind. Over the past few months we have really been struggling with some of our girls' behaviors. I know that choosing to compare the "typical" children I saw today hit that much harder because of experiences I've had lately. I am thankful that tonight, I can recognize what happened for what it was and choose once again to focus on the positive. And you better believe I'll be sure to give Bulldozer some extra hugs and cuddles!
Update: The very next day, while at church, Bulldozer extended an invitation to another friend to go bowling with him. We're making plans to go next Tuesday.
Photo Attribution: By Nan Palmero from San Antonio, TX, USA - Bowling Pins Being Hit by a Bowling Ball, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39932963