Put Those Yellow Pieces Back In Their Place!
“Put those yellow wheels back in their place!” - eight words – eight words that were as music to my ears - and yet, the same eight words had resulted in disbelief for my mother-in-law and almost desperation for my nephew, Matthew.
We were visiting my in-laws in Canada when Zachary, my five and a half year old son with autism said those eight words. During this visit, Zachary had discovered K’NEX. K’NEX were toys that allowed you to put together anywhere from a few pieces to several thousand plastic pieces of all shapes, colors and sizes to make your own toys to play with. You could make trucks, cars, trains, rollercoasters, planes, rockets, robots and so much more with these puzzle-like pieces. These toys were available at major retail outlets and were made by K’NEX Industries, Inc. (http://www.knex.com).
Earlier that week, I had visited the homes of two of my sisters-in-law – both households were littered with K’NEX and Zachary, on this trip, had been given almost “free access” to them. In no time at all, Zachary had busily started on his own “creations”. As I observed him playing with these toys, I came to an undeniable realization – these toys offered exactly what I had been looking for – a way to make things in many different ways, going in many different directions, with little restriction in terms of “what you can do or create with them”. The flexibility of these toys was indeed amazing and they were made strong enough to last through Zachary’s periods of frustration!
I knew Zachary would indeed experience some frustration as he first started to use K’NEX and would be unable to complete certain things in “just the right way”, but, I also knew, that with a little time, he would easily get the hang of it. And, there was always Anika – the most wonderful sister Zachary could ever have – a sister who was always willing to help alleviate his frustrations by helping him out and making him understand how things work. I knew I was not that good at putting things together and quite frankly, sitting there for possibly hours, trying to figure out how to make some of these toys was not something I looked forward to at first. The model examples provided in the “manual” were great – it was just my desire to do this that was a little on the low side. But, I had gone through so much for Zachary, to help him leave the shackles of autism, that I knew I could get passed the motivation issue, too – if this was something that could help him progress further. And so, that was how K’NEX came to be part of our household, too!
Of course, as luck would have it, the toy I soon came to see as a perfect toy for children with autism had hundreds and hundreds of little pieces of various shapes, sizes and colors – all of which I could now picture in my own home scattered all over – with me having to pick up those hundreds of small pieces untold times and having to be careful not to vacuum them up each time I cleaned the house. I knew I could look forward to finding them in the couch as I sat down, on the floor as I stepped on a part that would poke at my foot, under the furniture, in kitchen and bedroom drawers and in pretty well all parts of the house over time. It seemed I had spent the better part of the last few years picking up hundreds of toy pieces of all kinds – puzzles pieces, plastic shape pieces, wooden blocks, Lego pieces, Tinker toys pieces, Scrabble letter pieces – and now, the collection of “pieces” would include K’NEX!
Yet, K’NEX were different from the other toys in that they allowed for a great deal more flexibility. In addition, the various shapes that snapped together, I knew would help Zachary with fine motor skills and issues involving limb apraxia.
It had only been recently that I had noticed how Zachary almost went “limp” when you placed a pencil in his hands. I was not sure if it was because he still did not really know how to hold it or if it was more of an issue with nerve damage in the extremities that resulted in weakness in the fingers. It was only recently that I had finally figured out the trick to having Zachary hold a pencil properly – a subject I will address later in this book. I had also recently purchased a couple of small sponge-like balls to work on building strength in Zachary’s fingers as we both squeezed a sponge ball up to thirty times a day. The K’NEX pieces I knew would also help with fine motor skills and issues of strength in Zachary’s fingers as they required just the right amount of strength to snap the pieces together or apart.
In my opinion, these toys were truly perfect for Zachary – providing that “next stage” for development. I knew he would try to make himself “some creation” he could spin because that “urge to spin” was still there when he was idle – as much as I had tried to break it – but I would simply have to deal with the spinning issues. I could easily enough divert Zachary’s attention when it came to “spinning”, but, I still found it hard in the sense that it was still very much something he liked to revert to if not engaged in some other activity and as such, there was still that daily “spinning battle”. Keeping Zachary active in productive ways, teaching him, showing him new things, I had always found to be key in minimizing spinning activity – and as such, that made for rather long days. Although I would have to watch spinning issues, I knew K’NEX would nevertheless be a new, intriguing and fascinating toy for Zachary.
For children with autism, K’NEX provided the allure of completing the puzzle – of breaking the code to figuring out “how things fit together”. They involved motor functions and perhaps most important of all, the flexibility to teach a child with autism that there can be more than one way to make things “fit together” and still have fun. K’NEX allowed for that “in-between” situation by providing a flexible tool that could be used in countless ways to create countless fun toys and that helped to move children with autism away from the need for sameness. In addition, the fact that there were “so many” pieces made it so that a child with autism would most likely get tired before he could use “all” the pieces… and that again, allowed for that “in between” situation – allowing the child to stop the project before all pieces were made “part of it”.
In the past, I had become very aware of the fact that Zachary had wanted to “use all the parts” – all the pieces to the puzzle, all the play dough, all the blocks, all the Tinker toys, etc. With K’NEX, there were so many pieces to use that it was almost impossible for a child to use them all in one sitting – and that for parents working with children who have autism – was golden in that it forced the child to come to terms with the “incomplete” in the sense that all the pieces were not being used – and that it was ok to “just leave some and move on”!
Just as golden as the toy itself, however, would be Zachary’s reaction when he would find this bin of K’NEX in the morning. Until this visit, I had not particularly noticed Matthew’s huge box of K’NEX in his bedroom closet – and neither had Zachary. It was really at Andrew’s house that Zachary had seen K’NEX toys on previous visits but had only briefly played with them since his cousin Andrew also had an autism spectrum disorder and K’NEX were Andrew’s coveted treasures – toys that had the allure of a puzzle, but the flexibility to create untold variations of wonderful “things”.
Many of Andrew’s creations had indeed involved putting together thousands of pieces - at times with special little motors to make the toys actually “work”. I certainly understood why Andrew was so protective of his creations. They had required a great deal of time and effort to put together, and the last thing Andrew wanted was to have his five and a half year old cousin breaking his stuff apart – and I certainly knew that if Zachary removed even just one piece from Andrew’s masterful creations, in all likelihood, he would go on to disassemble the entire structure Andrew had created – leaving behind a bunch of K’NEX scattered throughout the room and a shattered Andrew as well.
Although Andrew, now twelve and diagnosed as PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) usually prepared for a visit from Zachary by locking his bedroom and hiding as many of his own toys as possible, during this visit, Andrew had been much more open to sharing his things with Zachary. There were still some of Andrew’s many marvelous creations that were “off limits”, but, during this trip, Andrew had truly made an effort to be “nicer” to his cousin and had brought out a box of “extra” K’NEX for Zachary to play with. And so, on this particular trip to Canada, Zachary truly had the joy of actually manipulating and discovering K’NEX for the first time!
Since Andrew also suffered from autism, his mother and I had shared many a story, many a cry and many a laugh as we went through the trials of autism together. The trials always seemed to surface more during those times when our family would visit hers. Experience had taught us
that having two children with autism in one house could make the situation ten times worse. Andrew and Zachary just seemed to know exactly how to upset one another. A great deal of that surely had to do with the fact that they had the same interests and, as such, wanted to play with the same toys – at the same time – usually resulting in a rather stressful situation. It was a given that if one child showed interest anything, in a matter of seconds, the other would be there wanting to “take over” the coveted object.
Yet, along with the frustration, there were also laughs. Christine and I had become keenly aware of the fact that at times, Andrew liked to show off his toys and then parade them in front of Zachary. He would show them off to me as I admired the ingenuity and work behind what he had created and then at times, he went on to parade them in front of Zachary. Christine and I knew that – at times – this was done to make Zachary envious. After resolving “the tensions” between the boys, Christine and I would often sit and chuckle as we discussed the behavior of our children. Since both boys had autism, we knew they loved the same things and that could be either a blessing or a disaster depending on the situation and the events of that particular day, that particular hour, that particular minute, that particular second. With children who have autism, parents quickly learned to spring into action or adapt on a moment’s notice.
My sister-in-law, Christine, her husband David, and their children, Andrew and Allison, had truly been a blessing in my life. As difficult as visits could be, these times allowed time for sharing experiences and gave me an insight into what may be coming for Zachary down the road. Christine was a keen observer and completely devoted to her children. Under her care, Andrew had truly thrived since being pulled out of the public school system.
In school, Andrew, like so many children with autism, was being left behind. There often was no curriculum specifically for children with autism and in all honesty, it truly appeared “the system” simply had very little idea as to what worked with these children. Suggestions Christine had made, involving “role playing”, something I now also saw as critical for children with autism, had been completely ignored. Yet, as readers will come to see as they go through this book, Christine had been 100% correct in her assessment of what had been needed for her son – and what may be needed for many more children with autism.
But, on this particular morning, there would be no frustration, no tension between Andrew and Zachary. Andrew was at his house and we were staying with my in-laws. Matthew, a normal boy, age 12, had also been visiting my in-laws – his grandparents – and Matthew, like Andrew, was also a K’NEX pro!
The night before, I had gone to the store to buy two sets of K’NEX for Zachary. I had left one set, a bin with 250 pieces, in the living room, on the floor, so that Zachary would find it almost as soon as he awoke. That night, as I went to bed, I could picture the great joy Zachary would experience upon finding a bin of K’NEX first thing in the morning – just for him!
As was usually the case, Zachary was the last one to get up in the morning. As he came into the living room, I said, “Look Zachary, a present”. I had not wrapped the bin of K’NEX – it was just there – a nice size bin – right smack in the middle of the living room. When Zachary heard “a present”, he immediately responded, “Christmas”. I then answered, “No. It’s not Christmas. This is just an everyday present – because you are such a good boy”.
I knew immediately why Zachary had responded “Christmas”. As I explained in my second book, Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism: When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost!, children with autism live “by reference” and to Zachary, the word “present” was associated with “Christmas”. I did not bother to go into more of an explanation for Zachary in terms of why it was not Christmas today. I just wanted him to enjoy the moment. In a matter of seconds, the bin was opened, turned over – allowing the 250 pieces to fall onto the carpet, and the “manual” was being examined closely.
Zachary could now read pretty well any word as long as he knew the phonics. In no time at all, he had found the model he wanted replicated – the “jungle truck”. Of course, he had picked one of the harder models to make. There were 22 models provided in the manual. For the non- K’NEX expert - a person such as myself, such a request to replicate “the jungle truck” would almost send one into complete despair. I knew it would take me hours to make this thing. I just did not have that “engineering talent” in me. But, luckily for me, there was Matthew!
In no time at all, Matthew was busily putting together “the jungle truck” for Zachary. Zachary anxiously sat by, watching as the jungle truck was assembled. It must have taken Matthew – a K’NEX pro in my eyes – close to half an hour to make that jungle truck for Zachary. He had made it before and so, experience had paid off. What a relief! Zachary had his truck to play with and was thrilled beyond belief – and I was relieved beyond belief that I had not had to make it for him!
My in-laws lived on a farm. Matthew and Anika had already eaten breakfast and so, they were quickly off to see if the hens had laid any eggs and to see the eight new puppies in the barn. Meanwhile, Zachary was in the house with the rest of us. Zachary played with his jungle truck for about forty minutes, pushing it up and down the hallways and into the bedrooms and back. At times, Zachary would lie down and watch the wheels turn as he pushed his truck. Other times, he would just get either in front or behind it and push it. Soon, the motion of the wheels finally got the better of him. He wanted to “spin them”. Before anyone realized it, he had pulled apart the jungle truck – that masterful creation – and had the wheels spinning on one of the rods as he pushed the outer part of the wheels with his fingers to make them spin faster.
Zachary’s spinning activities had gone down significantly compared to what they used to be, but, if left alone or idle, it was still an activity that lured him back into autism. The intensity and duration of the spinning was not nearly what it used to be, but even spinning for a few seconds or minutes would have required the destruction of that beautiful jungle truck Matthew had so skillfully created. Upon seeing the demolished truck, my heart sank. As was so often the case, when something was “destroyed” or pulled apart, Zachary had to almost completely “destroy” or “pull apart”. What had once been a great “jungle truck” was now a scattered bunch of pieces. Of course, I also knew what was coming next – the request to “make a jungle truck” – again!
I had learned a long time ago that Zachary often did something before realizing the consequences of those actions. His urge to spin a wheel had been strong enough to make him pull the wheels off the truck and then, came the inevitable need to destroy the entire thing – that all or none obsession I had so often observed in Zachary – and the inflexibility to allow for the “in-between”. Zachary could not have simply pulled off the wheels to spin – once one piece had been removed, the entire thing would have to be ripped apart. Again, I would have to show Zachary that you could just take “one piece” and leave the rest almost intact. It was the constant need to show Zachary the “in-between” situation. He still had not been able to generalize what he had learned in other situations, with other toys. This was a new thing and he would have to be shown – again – that the “in between”, the “not all or none” was ok, too! I knew I could easily enough show him that by showing him “a broken truck” with just a few missing pieces.
Providing a “broken truck” label would make the partial truck an entity in and of itself – and that would be ok. Yet, for now, the jungle truck had been destroyed and there was Zachary, asking me to “fix it” as he said: “Make a jungle truck, mom”.
Well, I knew that I did not have the patience to even begin to attempt such a complicated model – at least not for my first experience with K’NEX. I needed to start with the simplest model, something flat, on the floor, with just a few pieces. Yet, here was Zachary, asking me to make one of the most complicated models in the entire manual. When faced with this situation, it did not take me very long to find the answer – Matthew! I would just have to explain to him that Zachary destroyed the truck and beg him to make it again! Actually, I decided to make Zachary ask him. In the next minute or so, Matthew and Anika had come back into the house to bring the eggs they had found. I told Zachary, “Go say to Matthew: ‘Matthew, can you make the jungle truck – I’m begging you!’”. I had learned long ago that I had to literally tell Zachary “what to say” to provide for him a “reference” for a particular situation.
In the past, I had told Zachary that if he really wanted something from me, all he had to do was say: “I love you, mom” and I’d probably give it to him. Well, Zachary obviously remembered that, and, in this case, had applied the lesson to a new situation. He walked down the hall with tears in his eyes because mommy had told him she could not possibly make this jungle truck. He went over to Matthew and instead of saying the sentence I had instructed him to say, Zachary said: “Matthew, I love you” as tears rolled down his little cheeks. Zachary then proceeded to ask Matthew to make the jungle truck in the manner I had instructed him to ask. My father-in-law had just come in and heard Zachary say this to Matthew although he had not heard my conversation with Zachary. All my father-in-law saw was Zachary attempting to manipulate his cousin with an “I love you” prior to the request. So, to my father-in-law, this was a rather hilarious thing to witness. Yet, I knew exactly why Zachary had preceded his request with a “Matthew, I love you”.
As I had explained in my second book, I knew that Zachary lived by reference. In this case, Zachary had simply generalized what had worked in the past, an “I love you, …” to get what he wanted from someone else – in this case, Matthew.
Matthew was a very kind child. He was easily persuaded to make the jungle truck – again! It was as he completed the truck for the second time that Zachary had uttered the sentence, “Put those yellow wheels back in their place!” I could tell Matthew knew Zachary would probably destroy the truck again shortly – hence the desperation I sensed in Matthew as he heard this sentence from Zachary - a sentence that had been as music to my ears. This sentence that seemed to arouse despair and suspicion of a near destruction in Matthew, I recognized as something totally new – a sentence created by Zachary completely on his own – eight words put together to express exactly what he wanted, in a perfectly correct sentence, in a perfectly correct situation, and perfectly correct context. I was thrilled as I repeated the sentence and counted the number of words on my hands – Put – those – yellow – wheels – back – in – their – place! - eight words – a perfect eight-word sentence – so perfect in absolutely every way!
I had heard some of Zachary’s “perfect sentences” before, yet each one was still so new to me that if they sounded “kind of long”, I always counted the number of words on my fingers. I was not surprised by the fact that Zachary could utter such a beautiful, such a perfect sentence, yet, as I savored what Zachary had just said, another sentence was heard. This time, it was my mother-in-law saying: “What? What did he say?” She had never heard more than two or three words out of Zachary at once and she stood there - almost in disbelief. I knew she was absolutely thrilled.
I had often told my in-laws that Zachary’s progress was coming along nicely. The problem was that unless you were around for a while, you probably would not necessarily realize that. Zachary was not a big talker by any means. He knew how to communicate, and could do so quite well if he had to, but, unless it was something he really wanted, you could wait quite a while to hear those perfect sentences that were now becoming more common in the life of our family.
“Put those yellow wheels back in their place!” Eight words - so precious to me, so unbelievable to my mother-in-law and so less than impressive to my nephew as he anticipated another soon to occur destruction of his masterful creation. I finally knew that Zachary was now well on his way to breaking the code to more advanced language – actual conversation. Things were finally coming along – slowly – but, yet, we were finally moving into to the realm of actual conversation. Zachary had come so very far in just three years – and what a long, but rewarding, three years it had been!