Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Pac-Man saves the day

This guest post is by Jane Kim. A writer and mom of an eight-year-old with autism, she works in the field of immigration and lives with her family in the Philadelphia suburbs. 

These days, our household celebrates video games. They are an escape from reality, and while recognizing the inherent dangers of this, in the midst of a pandemic where the days are long and we often see a tad too much of each other, they are a welcome respite. 

Having a child on the autism spectrum presents unique challenges. For my son, T, managing his time with activities he truly enjoys and can learn from has not been easy. Therefore, his interest in video games has been awesome to watch. There are ground rules: no more than 45 minutes a day and he can’t play unless all his schoolwork has been completed. If we’re playing together – as a team or against one another – I’m a bit more relaxed with the time limit.  

I still have the Nintendo gaming system I played as a kid. Packed in bubble wrap, high on a closet shelf —indestructible to moisture or unexpected falls—my finest jewelry was more vulnerable. Years ago, I’d looked forward to the days T and I could play video games together, get our competitive juices flowing and show him that his mom had—and still has!—gaming skills. When I was a kid, playing video games was a time to unwind and engage in smack talk with my sister, in a strict household. Similar to books, video games provided an entryway to another world, and I remember feeling carefree and light.  

Vintage Nintendo!

As parents, we want our kids to experience the same things that brought us joy or peace or excitement or whatever feelings that shaped our childhood. It’s difficult for us to recognize that our kids may not seek out or value the same things we did. I didn’t anticipate that something that had provided me with endless hours of entertainment as a child would actually cause frustration for T, and me, too.

Difficulty with bilateral coordination and motor planning made video games challenging. I realized quickly that unwrapping my Nintendo gaming system was a bit premature. With a full schedule, would he find it relaxing and fun or would this be perceived as work? A secondary issue was his attention. Would he sit to play the game? I had not anticipated any of these roadblocks.   

So, as with many things, we made adjustments that let my son progress and built confidence. He started with a joystick, as it was easier to control; it ran about $30 on Amazon and came with 12 games. 

First T tackled Pac-Man, as the joystick was the only thing needed to play the game. To my delight, interesting conversations ensued about the ghosts. Which was the funniest? Why did they want to eat Pac-Man? We developed a strategy (don’t eat all the “energizers” or flashing dots all at once) and honed our attention skills (you can’t eat the ghosts when they transition back to their regular state)! 

We began cheering each other on, and then had fun trying to beat our personal best scores. Pac-Man saves the day, again.  

From Pac-Man, T moved onto Galaga and Dig Dug.  These games were a bit more complex as you needed to both control the joystick and shoot at the same time.  Yet more laughter, more cheering each other on.  T’s now having some success with Super Mario Brothers, but I suspect it doesn’t hold his attention as long due to the many nuanced bilateral hand commands needed like running fast, throwing fireballs and hunching down. He’ll get there. 

In the end, kids will be kids. There are certain things and activities many kids love: playing dress up, exploring playgrounds, swimming, riding bikes and playing video games. When my son received his ASD diagnosis, all the literature and research confirmed that communication and social interaction would be a challenge. I experienced this when he was a toddler, as he didn’t play with toys and interact with the other kids in the same way. His interests were limited and I was at a loss as to how to best introduce him to new things and experiences.  I knew it would be harder for him to connect with other kids if he didn’t share their interests. After all, aren’t shared interests the basis of most friendships?

Behaviorists will tell you to follow your kids’ lead and interests. But if interests are not innate or are limited, what is the best approach to nurture and develop them? As a result, typical kids’ interests often served as activity guideposts when T was younger, and still do somewhat. If there’s absolutely no interest, we don’t push it. But if there is, we witness his world opening up a bit more.  

For our family, it was never really about acquiring a new skill such as learning how to swim or ride a bike, although that’s always cause for celebration. It was about opening doors, nurturing connections and reveling in all the intangible benefits these connections add to our lives. These days, we can all use an extra dose of that.      

Find Jane on Twitter @JkimRites

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful way to spend time together during these challenging times and also building skills and also dabbling in childhood nostalgia. NES games are the best and it’s great you can share that with your T.


Thanks for sharing!

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