FatherSon Ventures

Building a Relationship through Adventure

McDonald’s Play Place

Written By: Scot Butwell - Jun• 27•12

D and I set out of the house. D is four and a half, and we like to visit local parks and indoor playgrounds. Our motto is: “Leave the house, take pictures, don’t go too far.”

The Wife has set an “unofficial” five-mile radius for our father-son adventures. East. West. North. South. Thus, the “don’t go too far” part of our motto.

I know. Don’t ask.

All right.

The Wife believes I am careless (I once left the front door unlocked). I think the Wife is a Control Freak. She tells me how I should vacuum the living room to avoid leaving footprints.

Today, D and I are going to a new park. We’re in my blue Ford Escort at the first stop sign, ready to make a right-hand turn, when D says, “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 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,” I say. “Kids will be here soon.”

So D disappears into the play structure, and when he comes down a slide, two boys burst through the doors. He follows them into a tunnel, 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 like coming to McDonalds.

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

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

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Our trips to McDonald’s, I suppose, are my response to his autism diagnosis. I crawl through the tunnels with D, despite my six-foot-three frame, committed to developing a strong father-son bond with D.

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

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

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

A boy with down’s syndrome points his finger to shoot D, and he grabs his chest and falls down. This is a play action I’ve never seen him do. It is such a normal 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 a lack of interest in other kids at the park, and his mom and I have heard D repeat words and phrases (known as echolalia) instead of engaging in typical communication.

D has complied with the demands of his four ABA therapists for twenty hours a week which has often seemed repetitive and more focused on collecting data than on developing D’s social ability.

I don’t know if it has helped his communication ability or social skills, yet none of this matters right now.

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

***

Looking back, if there is any advice to I would give to parents of newly-diagnosed kids on the spectrum, it would be this: Do not read information books on autism.

Read one or two books to get a general understanding of what autism is, and then if you must read more, I suggest autism memoirs to see that kids on the spectrum are more than constellation of symptoms.

Reading five or ten books on autism will only regurgitate the same information, and if you are anything like me, you will stop reading and they will end up in a plastic storage bins in the your garage.

The Wife encouraged me to read books on autism–demanded is a better word–when she first suspected D might on the spectrum. They were on the kitchen table and bedside table, waiting to be read and absorbed.

I am not faulting the wife for this, but thanks to becoming fixed on D’s autism diagnosis (he was diagnosed by a psychologist at age three), I mostly looked at D through an autism lens for the next couple of years.

Whether at the park, his My Gym class or in the living room, I would notice that my sole focus was on analyzing his behavior rather than playing with him, looking for the autism characteristics.

But what screenwriting guru Robert McKeee says is true for movie characters in Story applies for having a son or daughter: we want three-dimensional protagonists, not characters marked by one dominant trait, but complex personas full of contradictions:

“Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written. Hamlet isn’t three-dimensional, but ten, twelve, virtually uncountable dimensional. He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first living and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash as he stabs someone hiding behind a curtain without knowing who’s there.”

In short, Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-outing, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad.

That’s what I want my son to be: a complex interplay of contrasting traits, and even at age five, that’s what he is. So I’ m sure he will be even more multi-dimensional as he grows older.

Maybe, it was just the shock of the autism diagnosis, and it was certainly helpful, but I eventually determined it was not beneficial to observe D’s every behavior through an autism lens because it led me to view him as one-dimension, rather than see all his other amazing qualities.

So, my second advice is, and I could write about this for many pages, is to find a support system among other parents of special needs children. I eventually started a parent support group at our church because I realized I was a special needs dad, and I wanted to connect with other parents sharing a similar journey, so we can support and encourage one another.

***

I am not saying these thoughts all ricocheted through my head at McDonalds as I watched D play, but I know some of them did in barely perceptible flashes of insight, and the rest crystalized over the course of the next several years.

 

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