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Do As They Say, Not As I Do

Patrick Gann | 23 Apr 2012 15:00
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Before I had children, I'd recover from a stressful workday by spending an hour with a game. After having children, this ritual (like everything else) became exponentially more complicated. I had dreamt in my youth that, when I became a parent, my as-seen-on-TV "bonding moments" with my children wouldn't involve fishing or football; instead, they would involve consoles and controllers. But life rarely goes as you hope or plan.

I want to be a good dad. I also want my kids to understand why I love the things I love, and how to properly appreciate them without getting obsessive.

The eldest of my three children has a unique temperament. According to the best child psychology professionals I could find, Andrew has a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). The official medical transcript cites PDD-NOS (the "NOS" being "not otherwise specified"). But the doctors said that, in a few years, they can be certain whether or not Andrew's diagnosis could be refined to ADHD, or something on the Autism Spectrum, such as Asperger's. Also slapped on the menu of DSM-IV-approved diagnoses for my son was Sensory Integration Disorder. That term on its own has a variety of meanings, but for Andrew, it means that sudden drastic changes in auditory or visual stimulus can send him into a panic. A house fly can ruin his entire day; if I had known his diagnosis beforehand, I'd never have attempted initiating games of "peek-a-boo" from around corners.

The Sensory Integration Disorder is treatable, and in the last year we've seen significant improvements thanks to regular therapy sessions and prescribed treatments we'd use at home -- body brushes, special headphones with extra-special audio, the works -- but the lingering behavioral issues aren't something to be "fixed." Especially for anyone within the bounds of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders), the best that can be hoped for is empathy for all parties, and adjustment for the one who is not "neurotypical."

(Relevant aside: To The Moon is a great indie game that broaches the subject of ASD.)

I have worked diligently to read and understand all the advice I could from local and published experts. When sources conflicted, I'd trust Andrew's local therapists over anything I could read in a book or on the Internet.

I want to be a good dad. I also want my kids to understand why I love the things I love, and how to properly appreciate them without getting obsessive. Essentially, I want to my fatherhood to look like the Film Nerd 2.0 project, just with videogames.

One day, after demonstrating the joys of a particular game to Andrew (I believe it was Braid), he had an enormous meltdown. We've all seen little kids have tantrums, but special-needs kids put a 10th-power multiplier on certain tantrums. I remember in my youth wanting to play a game after having it turned off; heck, I still have that feeling on occasion. But Andrew's reaction was so ferocious and overwhelming that I decided to ask his therapists what I could do to help him transition in and out of gaming sessions.

Their advice? "Limit all 'screen' time and don't give him any access to videogames."

At first, I wanted to dismiss this advice as generation-gap technophobia. But, in prying further as to their reasoning, I found a very smart, pragmatic way of thinking. It goes like this: If it's not necessary for the child's development, and it causes problems when introduced, cut it out.

So I tried "cutting it out." My own gaming time was now limited to those rare and brief periods when I was home and awake but Andrew was either not home or asleep. I chalked it up to being a requirement of responsible parenthood and moved forward with life.

It didn't take too long to discover that it wasn't just videogames that could consume my son's every waking thought. After getting a special "Super Mario" edition chess set from an in-law for Christmas, Andrew begged me to teach him how to play the game. I was skeptical that a 5-year-old could learn the rules, but after a few weeks, he was picking up basic piece-protection strategy. Of course, this happened because of his insistence that we play multiple times a day; and I, looking for opportunities to bond with my son, was only happy to oblige.

Over time, chess became the only thing he'd want to talk about, and my attempts to decrease the amount of time we spent with the game brought about the exact same mega-tantrums I'd witnessed with the videogames. Disturbing as this was, I chose to distance myself from the momentary experience and consider, as an intellectual exercise, why this would be the case. I was hoping, secretly, that this would be my chance to overthrow the logic of the expert psychologists and therapists and re-introduce my son to videogames. The way I saw it, limitation from one form of entertainment would only force him to narrow and/or redirect his desires, so it doesn't matter whether it's a videogame, a board game, singing songs, or free-play with toy cars. With that in mind, I should be able to take Andrew back to the world of videogames and start working on what I had identified as the true root problem: addictive personality traits.

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