Recently, I've gotten addicted to an on-line card game called Hearthstone. It involves strategy, you can get on at any time and play a 10 minute game, and it's something I can do to motivate myself when I need to get going with other work---"Okay, I can play one game, and then a load of laundry, one more game and a bunch of dishes..", that kind of thing. It's the kind of at home treat I think every parent of a child with autism needs---just something to help get through the day that requires no preparation and can be indulged in any time there is a few minutes to spare.
Freddy enjoys a game of Hearthstone now and then too, and last night, he asked to play. Which was great, except for one thing. It was during the first half hour after Janey got home from school. That first half hour is crucial in determining how the rest of the night goes. There are very specific rules for what I do during that time, specific and simple. I am supposed to be on my bed. Janey runs right in as soon as she is home to make sure I am there. I take off her shoes and she lies down next to me, and we snuggle. Then, depending on her mood, she gets up to do other things. You would think that would mean I could get up too, but you would be wrong. I need to stay right there. Like other things in Janey's world, like the TV and Wii remotes, there is a correct place for me at certain times, and after school, that place in on the bed. It is important to Janey that I be there. She checks back often to make sure I am where I'm supposed to be, and doing what I am supposed to be doing, which is nothing---I can't read, listen to music, play with the iPad---I am supposed to just be there, in case she needs me.
When Freddy asked to play, I knew I was taking a risk. Janey's been in a great mood lately, and I wanted it to stay that way. However, as any parent of a teenager knows, it's not that common to get an invitation into their world. I knew if I said no to playing with Fred, I wouldn't get another invite soon. And it's extremely important to me to be there for my boys, too. Teenagers, and I think boys in general, don't come out and tell you they need you around, they need to talk, they need you available, but that doesn't mean they don't. They do. So I decided to throw caution to the wind, get up and play some Hearthstone.
The results were quite predictable. A few minutes into the game, Janey came over and grabbed my hand, and said "Snuggle on Mama's bed!" I said "In a few minutes, Janey. I am playing with Freddy right now" If you think that worked, you don't know Janey. She repeated herself, more loudly, and then tried hard to reach over and turn off the monitor. I didn't let her, and she rapidly got more and more upset. I could see I was about to lose her into her screaming and crying world. But I also knew I was going to lose the round of the game to Freddy in just a few moves, something I don't usually do (yes, I'm fairly good at the game, not to boast or anything...) I decided to hold out, to not quit, to keep playing. And of course, Janey melted down, a meltdown that lasted until she went to sleep.
Now, what should I have done there? That is where there is no right answer. Should I have given in and quit the game, because Janey is younger than Freddy, is autistic, has greater needs? And also, because I knew the immediate result of not quitting would be drastic? Or was I right to stand my ground, to give Freddy some time and attention? Over the years, I know my boys have been shortchanged because of Janey's needs. Often, with teenagers, that's not a totally bad thing. I think most teenagers like a little space. But there's a limit. Also, I was enjoying myself. Janey was watching a video while also watching Tony make supper. She didn't plan on staying on the bed with me. She just wanted me there.
Unlike in Hearthstone, where making the right series of moves leads often to a win, and in which there is a clear win or lose at the end of a few minutes to show you if you've decided correctly, there is no clear answer so often when it comes to making choices about family life and autism. I'm sure I've made the wrong choice very, very often, on much bigger issues than this one. And I'm sure I'll continue to do so. Autism doesn't play by rules. It asks more of us than we can give. We can't do everything right. We can't be a perfect parent to all our children, all the time. We have to just make our choices and hope for the best, and accept that it's a rigged game in many ways. There isn't going to be any clear winner, but hopefully, we can play the best game we can along the way.