FatherSon Ventures

Building a Relationship through Adventure

McDonald’s Play Place

Written By: Scot Butwell - Jun• 27•12

My son D and I set out of the house. He is four and a half, and we like to visit local parks, indoor playgrounds, and other kid-friendly places. My wife L has set a five-mile radius from our home for our father-son adventures.

I know. Don’t ask.

All right.

L believes I am careless (I once left the front door unlocked). I think she is a Control Freak (I’m just being honest). That’s all you need to know about us for right now: we’re dysfunctional.

Today, D and I are going to a new park. It’s sunny outside as my blue Ford Escort reaches the stop sign on our street, ready to make a right-hand turn, when D says from the back seat, “Dad, I want to go to McDonald’s.”

Sure, McDonald’s! What he really means is McDonald’s Play Place. Land of tunnels. Climbing and slides. High-pitched squeals and laughter. Germs and instant friendship. Every young kid’s utopia. Except, when we arrive this Saturday morning, the place is void of screaming and squealing kids.

“Where are all the kids?” D asks. “There are no kids.”

“It’s nine o’ clock. Kids will be here soon.”

D disappears into a tunnel, and when he reappears down a slide, two boys burst through the door. He follows them into the play structure, and I enjoy the rarest of parent commodities: Rest! Aside from spending time with my son, this chance to rest is one of the reasons I enjoy coming to McDonald’s.

D is an only child. He was diagnosed with “autistic-like” symptoms at age three by a psychologist, so we come to McDonald’s to have fun, but also to help develop his social skills, thanks to the replenishable supply of kids.

Outwardly, D looks like your typical Lego-playing toddler; he is rowdy and rambunctious, like a playful puppy. One of those kids who never or rarely stops moving: The Energizer Bunny.

D has received compliments on his appearance ever since he was a baby. He has light brown colored skin and curly hair. D is biracial, his mom African-American, and I am white.

Most of the time, you would not notice his “autistic-like” symptoms. He has a few quirky behaviors. What child doesn’t? But none distinguish him as much different than any other kid.

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Our trips to McDonald’s, I suppose, are my response to his autism diagnosis. When I first learned of his diagnosis, it didn’t feel like being smashed in the face with a frying pan, as one autism dad put it in his book.*

I didn’t really have a reaction at all. As a parent, I have always felt that my main purpose is to love my son, so I crawl through the tunnels with D, a Gulliver at six-foot-three, determined to establish a close bond with my son.

If anything, the one thing that scared me about autism was reading about how children on the spectrum have difficulty with social relationships, and this made me more committed to forging a relationship with my son.

I certainly did not think D’s diagnosis was a death sentence for a crime I didn’t commit, but I every parent responds differently to learning their child is on the spectrum, and I’ve never been one to have big emotions.

Crawling through the tunnels with D makes our visits more of a joint activity, but I also join him because he rarely plays with other kids. He is entertained by their antics, yet will often miss their overtures to play.

Lately, though, he has begun to sustain interaction with other kids which enables me to stay on the sidelines. This is what I observe today as I chat with a soccer mom and sip my coffee:

D is chasing two older girls, ten or eleven years old. He pursues them through the tunnels like a dog tracking a scent. After coming down a slide, I hear one girl say to herself, “I am sweating.” And then to D, “Can you please stop chasing us?”

A boy with Down Syndrome cocks his index finger at D, and he grabs his chest and falls down. This is an action I’ve never seen D do before. It is a normal play gesture, but supposedly not for a kid on the autism spectrum.

A few minutes later, D comes down a slide in a train of four kids, all laughing and smiling. I smile. On the outside and the inside. This might seem like an ordinary scene, but after all our visits to McDonald’s, I know it is something more: D is learning to find joy in being with other kids.

I’ve worried when he showed little interest in kids at the park, and L and I have often heard D repeat words and phrases said to him rather than engage in back and forth communication.

He has complied with the demands of his four ABA therapists (Pat, Sean, Maria, and Jasmine) in our home for twenty hours a week, which has often seemed repetitive and, honestly, more focused on collecting insurance data than developing his social ability.

L demanded I read the books on autism she bought when she thought he might be on the spectrum. L yelled at me when I didn’t read the books right away, claiming I was in denial.

I, uh, went sideways in my response to her yelling, developing an addiction by choosing to escape the hurt and pain, through getting an hour massage every time she would begin yelling at me.

D’s main symptoms at age three were a tendency to spin in circles and walk on his tippy toes, and he liked to watch a ceiling fan spin around; none of these behaviors seemed too unusual to me.

Yet, none of this matters right now.

I am just happy for the joy D has found in playing with other kids, and I say a prayer of gratitude for McDonald’s creating this haven of friendship.

No one else may know the significance of this moment, of D being caught in the ebb and flow of play with other kids, but I recognize he has made a giant leap forward in his development.

Every child is different, a mother once told me during a visit to McDonald’s, whose ten-year-old son didn’t start talking until he turned five. “You can’t push a button and speed it up,” she said. “You just have to be patient.”

“All parents want their kid to be just like every other child,” I remember her telling me. “We all want to rush things, but a kid can only be what and where they’re at in their own development.”

What did Neil Armstrong say when he stepped foot on the moon? “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s what this moment felt like to me: a huge leap forward after hundreds of many smaller steps.

And D realized it too. That was evident  from his continuous joyous smile as he stayed in a steady flow of interaction with the other kids at McDonald’s.

Or, maybe, he has been playing all along in the tunnels—with me—and now that I observed D from a view from 30,000 feet above, I can see the big picture: the mountain I missed seeing behind the tree in the forest.

*Footnote: Big Daddy’s Tales: From the Lighter Side of Raising s Child on the Spectrum. Lewis F. Stark.

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