The other day, Ed came up with the perfect analogy for our life with Alex and autism. He commented that he’d finally figured out that the ups and downs in Alex’s progress reminded him of the board game Chutes and Ladders. Explaining further, he said that last summer, Alex was making good progress in his development, figuratively climbing the ladders of the game, but recently he seems to have slid down one of the chutes, going backward instead of forward. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries, Alex seems to be dealing with allergy issues this summer that have made him listless and irritable at times. Under medical supervision, we have adjusted his nutritional supplements and have been treating him with a quercetin supplement to relieve his allergy symptoms along with vitamin C to detoxify his system. While he has gradually improved in his mood and become more his energetic usual self, he still refuses to talk unless he is mad about something. He will interact with Ed and me through eye contact and following our verbal instructions, but he doesn’t say much. This step backward has been very frustrating for us because we can’t figure out why he’s not talking, and he certainly won’t tell us why.
After Ed mentioned the game, I went down to the basement to find Alex’s Chutes and Ladders game board, perhaps as a nostalgic quest. Because the game involved numbers and dice, this was a particular favorite of Alex’s, and moving the game token was a good fine motor exercise for him. At some point, he became bored with the simplicity of the game and moved on to more strategic games, such as Monopoly. In our basement closet that stores games, I discovered the old Chutes and Ladders board, but in opening it to the actual game, I uncovered a piece of Alex’s past I had forgotten. On the Chutes and Ladders game board, cartoon children are depicted engaged in good or bad activities, which determines their consequences and leads them to chutes or ladders. Specifically, if the child pictured does something bad, the player gets sent down a chute, moving the progress on the board back several spaces. However, if a cartoon child is shown doing something good, the player is rewarded for that behavior by being able to move ahead several spaces using a ladder that helps make progress go much faster. As I scanned the board, looking at the various pictures, I realized that the game teaches more than just numbers from 1-100; Chutes and Ladders intends to teach a moral lesson about life: if you do good things, you’ll get a reward, and if you do bad things, you’ll be punished.
Looking more closely at the board, I noticed that I had written comments beside each child’s picture. For example, a boy is shown handing a purse to a woman, and I had written, “GOOD-Returning purse to lady.” This positive behavior allows the player to climb a ladder, moving ahead from space 71 to 91, where the good child is pictured eating an ice cream sundae, and I had written, “GOOD-Gets ice cream.” I suppose that we are to infer that the woman gave the boy a monetary reward for his honesty in returning the purse that he used to buy ice cream, but I wonder how many little kids playing the game make that connection. In contrast, a boy who is pictured mistreating a cat receives the natural consequence of being scratched by that cat, and the game player must go down the chute from space 98 to 78. For these two squares, I had written, “BAD-Mean, teasing cat (pulling tail)” and “BAD-Cat scratched him.” In my simplistic written explanations, I was trying to help Alex learn the lessons each picture was trying to convey. As I thought more about these captions I’d written, I remembered that little Alex would point to each picture and ask, “Means?” This was his way in his limited speech of asking what was happening and requesting an explanation. He was trying to make sense of the world, and by writing the comments on the game board, I was trying to help him understand human interaction, albeit with a child’s simple game board. As we continue to “play” the real-life version of Chutes and Ladders, we pray that the chutes will be few as we keep searching for the ladders that move Alex ahead more quickly. In the meantime, we roll the dice and try to do good things as we strive for that elusive number 100 space with its ultimate reward, the blue ribbon—for Alex, overcoming all of autism’s obstacles.
“Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9