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The Game I Use to Explain the Challenges of My Son With Autism to Those Who Don't 'Get It'

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I was talking to some friends the other night, and we were discussing my son and his autism. They were trying to figure out why Soren knew certain things one day but not the next, or why he would progress in certain areas and fall behind in other areas. I explained in the technical terms, and they didn’t quite understand. So I gave them my best analogy for it, and it seemed to help them understand a lot, and so, I would like to share it in hopes that it may help some of you.

Do you remember the old game Jenga? The one with all the little wooden, rectangular pieces you would stack in a tower, then have to remove one from the bottom and put it at the top without making it fall? You can think of my son like a human Jenga tower. You see, Soren is a very smart boy and is eager to learn. He wants to be able to do all the things his peers and elders do, even if it can be difficult for him. So he will practice and practice until he learns a new “trick.” (That trick may be running, learning how to throw a ball, learning how to make an unscripted sentence, etc.) Then, when he masters this new trick, something else may fall behind, or he might forget things he already knew. This is the metaphorical removing of the lower block and replacing it on top.

And along his way to learning new “tricks,” we encounter lots of meltdowns. Maybe he can’t master the art he’s going for, so he melts down. Maybe he did it incorrectly and someone corrects him, so he melts down. Maybe on the process of learning this new trick, he forgot something important to him that he once knew, so he melts down. These meltdowns are the tower shaking, that heartbreaking, breathtaking moment when you know it’s about to fall, and you panic. Do you try to fix it? Do you let it fall? Or do you sit there and watch as the tower shakes and leans?

Then, after he’s learned so many new things and forgotten so much old information, he can plateau or appear to stop learning anything. This is like the time when the tower falls. You see, all that information has fallen away from him, and he has to shut the world out. Then, he can relearn the things he needs to know in his own time and rebuild his tower, and then the game starts over again.

This may or may not be true for you, but this analogy helped my friends to understand so much more about what it is my son goes through on a regular basis. I only hope this helps someone else to understand as well.

The Mighty is asking the following: How would you describe your disability, disease or mental illness to a child? If you’ve done this before, tell us about that moment and the child’s reaction. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: May 17, 2016
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