Not even a duck

Jonah’s really into Super Why!. The characters all have alternate superhero-ish identities (“They’re secret agents mom!”), and the arc of each episode centers around solving a problem for a character in a fairy tale. I like the reading bit. I like the way Whyatt’s (the main character) computer always directs them to a book. But their storytelling isn’t always exactly accurate, which is fine if a child already knows the story. Not so fine if it’s being presented for the first time.

Take a kid like Jonah. Whatever rendition of a thing he first gets into his brain, there it is. There it sticks. There it stays. This applies across the board: movies, books, the rules of writing. One Super Why! episode revolves around the story of The Ugly Duckling. I suggested getting the book from the library. J was all for it. But as we read the book before bed, I watched and heard his wheels turning. I’m not sure what story the television show told, but it was markedly different than the original tale.

“You mean, he’s not even a duck?!” The look on J’s face was sheer astonishment. He couldn’t get over it. He saw the difference between the duck who wasn’t a duck and the baby ducks. He had to know what happened. Where’d the egg come from? Why did the duck who wasn’t a duck leave the pond, leave the farm? Who took care of him? Why did he get so big? Why did he change? How did he become the most beautiful of all?

“You mean, he’s not even a duck?!” He repeated this question ten times.

Of course, my initial reaction to his reaction wasn’t accurate. I couldn’t help but think/want to believe that he felt the duck who wasn’t a duck’s difference. That he thought it was extremely cool when the duck who wasn’t a duck discovered he was something different entirely—a swan. Not only a swan, but a swan with swan friends and a swan way. A swan with a place in the world. Something big and mysterious and beautiful.

And who knows what he takes in, what he’s processing or how. Where I saw a chance to talk about his autism, he simply saw a story that surprised him. He saw a mystery being solved (he’s also really into Scooby-Doo and the gang’s Mystery Machine). He didn’t apply this to himself, and I got the sense that now’s not the time to go there. We don’t hide J’s autism from him. We use the word; we don’t talk around it. But we’ve also not had a sit-down chat. I just don’t think he has a framework to process it.

But saying that, you can never know what he’s taking in, and I don’t want to make assumptions. On some level, he knows he’s different. John once asked him, with a touch of exasperation, “Why can’t you be normal?” Jonah’s response: “I’m not normal! I’m funny!” Maybe not even being a duck will be the image that helps him understand. For now, I’m just glad he’s got the story straight. Because it’s a good story, and I wouldn’t trade my duck who isn’t a duck for anything.

The hard thing to sort out is when, and how hard, to push him to learn and practice being a duck (insert the word neurotypical here). Because it’s a pretty ducky world out there, and he needs to know how it works, even if he doesn’t always understand why it works that way. Do you make the kid use lowercase letters when he prefers to write his name, “JoNaH”? (Even getting him to add “Estes” causes a kerfuffle.) His OT, dad and I all have slightly differing opinions. When a six-year-old impervious to cold tells you he doesn’t need a coat, do you let him deal with the consequences of a stiff north wind or stuff a hoodie in his backpack?

These are questions for another day. Questions every parent wrestles with, with every sort of child. Where’s that Mystery Machine when you need it?

© Sarah B. Smith


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