Monday, July 11, 2011

Sportsmanship and Mindblindness

An interesting idiosyncrasy for many on the autism spectrum is their inability to deal successfully with loosing at game-play. Now this is not even a little crying or yelling event. This can become a knock down drag out no holds bar meltdown of epic proportions. Or the refusal of the aspergean to continue playing or never play again if they loose. They also tend to switch up the rules of the game so it suits their need to win or refuse to understand how the rules don't always benefit their view of the game's outcome.

This has been an issue for CM1 since he was a very young child. CM2 actually seems not to care so much if he looses only because he has found a way to renew his life points on any given game, time and again. But for CM1 it can be a devastating event, one replete with a very grumpy attitude, which puts him in a funk for hours if not for the day.

Personally I don't think that its tied into not truly understanding the rules or how things work when they play a game. Now I am talking about boardgames or videogames, when you are playing a static game, like soccer or football, they may actually get totally lost and not be able to follow and that ends up with a meltdown of different origin and proportions. This is even different than an individual sport like tennis or bowling.

Bowling has always been CM1's nadir.  Interesting as far as bowling is concerned, CM2 who had been on the bowling team in highschool couldn't bowl over 50 and it never upset him. He actually went to the practices because he could order chicken fingers, soda and a huge chocolate chip cookie while he waited his turn up at the lane. When the special education director once asked me if there were any sports other than bowling that CM2 enjoyed, I said only the ones where you can eat fried foods and sit on your butt for the majority of the time. (No not the best situation as far as exercise, but it was very good socially for CM2.)

However, the situation being discussed at this moment has to do with the inability of your child to deal with a situation in which they do not come out ahead of everyone else. It's interesting really and I am not sure if it is tied into their feeling lost in society in general. Many children who are overwhelmed with their lives try to compensate and create situations in which they are in control. It is one of the reasons that parents are told not to make food an issue. The only thing a child can control is what and how much they put in their mouths. Then there is the issues of doing what they want when they want it.

There is that control issue with CM2. If we ask him to do something, he needs to pick the time. Even if he is doing absolutely nothing at the moment, he wants to tell us when he will do his chores or the errand we asked him to do. That is why scheduling his time worked so well in the end when dealing with all his homework issues. As long as he controlled the time and place to accomplish his homework, it was done and with minimal fuss.

Perhaps its the need for the aspergean child to feel that they are good at something. Our children go through so many events in their day in which they feel that everything is just out of reach. Whether they have to struggle to understand what is being said in a  classroom, the language needed for stories or the math that everyone else in the class seems to get, our children deal with a tremendous amount of frustration. Then of course the social component of their days just creates a never ending feeling of just not being insync with everyone else. If you think our children don't realize that they lack certain inherent abilities you are wrong. They know it and the higher functioning they are the more these issues affect them. So they need to be good at something.

Why this need comes out in game competition I do not know. But that is the experience I have had and I know many others have had it as well. It is a need to win and win at all costs. Of course I could get used to the need to win. It is what propels CM1 to do well at school, but its the at all costs that is the potential for trouble. It is essential that our children understand that the ends do not justify the means. They must understand right from wrong and the difference between cheating and doing your own work. They need to be able to differentiate that just because you want to win does not mean you win at any price and what those consequences for breaking the rules happens to be, otherwise it is how someone ends up in prison for insider trading later on in life.

What I think is important is that as soon as your child shows some hypercompetativeness it is essential that you begin lessons on sportsmanship and appropriate social behavior in game play.

This is basically the art of playing by the rules to win. Teach your child that the rules are there to enjoy the game and ensure a proper win. Going outside the rules is cheating. This is not really any different than the rules society has about stealing and hitting or cheating in school. One thing our children are good at is rules. (Yes there can be another issue here, which I will discuss later on).

Go through every rule line by line to make sure your child knows what each rule actually means. Sometimes our children say they understand what they are supposed to do, but that is not always the case. Make sure that they can explain to you the objective of the game and how they can accomplish that objective. make sure they know what it means to loose a turn and why they may loose a turn.

Turn Taking
This is an essential skill needed for most every social event in our children's lives. Begin by using a timer and allotting five to ten minute periods that they would take a turn playing a video game. Then when the bell dings have them move on to another player and have your child watch player B play. Write out a social story of appropriate words of encouragement and how to be a team player and wish Player B well. They may not understand that you wish your opponent well, but it is good sportsmanship. Fair play is important.

Write out in short and succinct sentences how they are expected to behave during game play. Do not be afraid to make it absolute. 1) You are to take turns 2) You are to wish your opponent well 3) You are not to be angry if your opponent does better than you 4) You are to be gracious if you do better than your opponent 5) You are to congratulate your opponent if they win.

Now as I have said before it is very hard for CM1 to do these things. He gets very agitated when he does not win. We have been working on this issue since he was a little boy. He gets upset if he does not do well at his video games. How do we handle it when he goes overboard? We take the games away. It really is very simple. Yes he is technically a grown youngman, but there are times when he cannot regulate his annoyance with himself for loosing. So I tell him to step back and take a break. If he says emphatically "NO" which he is oft to do, I remind him that he needs to step back and why. That if he cannot handle loosing he needs to do something else with his time. Sometimes just a simple reminder at this point is enough to get him to readjust himself and use his coping mechanisms.

Coping Mechanisms
Honestly I find this very hard for CM1 to do on his own when he gets overwhelmed by loosing. As I stated above, I have to remind him to stop being aggravated over a game. He then realizes what he is doing and he does step back or take a break. Sometimes that is all you can have them do. Take the game away and have them sit and calm down. As they age they will learn what triggers their compulsion and that it is not always a good thing. When the game no longer is fun then it is time to put the game away for awhile. Some other coping mechanisms can be deep breathing, a realistic review of the game and the situation (with your help of course), and actually doing something else for awhile.

Rule Changes
There are times, that you have to change the rules to accommodate other players. Say if you are playing basketball with a younger child and want that child to have fun, you lower the basket and make the older child always shoot from the free throw line. Your aspergean will NOT get that this is fair. Be prepared for a meltdown of epic proportions. They will only see that you are changing the rules so someone else could win. They will view this as the ultimate betrayal and the destruction of their ability to be the best at the game they are playing. It does not matter to the aspergean youngster that the person they are beating is possibly years younger or have a physical disability. The rules to them are the rules. Well sometimes life requests that we make allowances for others and they need to understand that at a young age.

When CM1 was in middle school the children were playing kickball. They put a severally autistic boy on the opposing team.Now this boy could not really kick the ball and as with all ball sports, three strikes and you are out. When they continued to let the autistic boy try to kick the ball, CM1 was besides himself. He did not see an autistic child, remember CM1 understood quite well that he had autism too by this time, he only saw that someone was breaking the rules. This is mindblindness at it height.It is not your child's fault, but it is your fault if you allow it to linger without explanation.

Of course, the para who accompanied the autistic boy was beyond incredulous at CM1 for his attitude. He did not know that CM1 had aspergers. But once they explained it to him he understood CM1's issues too. They did take CM1 aside and try to explain it to him but he just wouldn't get it at all. When he got home we made a concerted effort to try to explain to CM1 that there are different levels of autism and that not all are like him.

I still remember when we signed up for a genetic testing program a nurse came to take the boys blood and both boys told her they did not know why they wanted to find a cure for autism as they were fine the way they were. She told them that they are some of the lucky ones and that there are alot of people out there who are very disabled and could not even talk because of their autism. That what they were doing was to help others. I swear I saw a lightbulb go off in CM1's head at that moment. He never questioned accommodating anyone ever again after that no matter what game they were playing and he even makes excuses for others (but not himself) if he knows they have autism (well except his brother). Yes the littlest thing will sometimes bring it all together for your children, you just need to keep plugging away at it until you find it.  It most certainly took time, alot of time and alot of years, but today both boys understand others' issue even if they cannot forgive their sibling their foibles.

I think it helped in many ways because over time CM1 and CM2 understood that they receive special accommodations because of their disability and that it is not a gift to make them win, it is a gift to make life even for them. To give them the opportunity to win if they can. That if they are entitled to accommodations for school and for certain aspects of life, then so are others who may have different issues. I suppose the fact that they did have to deal with the autistic boy who used to assault them did allow them to live the idea that there are different levels of autism too. Furthermore, since we live in a fully inclusive district they have had to deal with many different students over the years who have had many different disabilities and required different understanding  and rules adjustments.

Is there a magic bullet that allows you to teach your child about sportsmanship and that it is how you play the game not winning that counts? No not really. What I have found over the years is, as with everything with our children, you should just tape record the conversation and play it over and over and over again until the tape wears out and you make a new one and wear that one out as well. It is a continual emphasis of the rules while teaching around their mindblindness when it comes to the needs of others.

If all else fails too, take away the game or take them away from the game. It is one of those calls that you need to make at the time, in the moment of the event. But remember to prepare them for the game, prepare them that there may be a change of rules and prepare them too, that if they do not behave and show proper sportsmanship they will not be allowed to play, in the pool or on the playground or the computer. Teach them that actions have consequences whether it is being rude, disrespectful, lieing, hitting or tantrumming and ruining play for everyone else simply because you don't win. You will be doing them the biggest favor of their lives.

Until next time,