Sunday, January 8, 2012

Autism and Backgammon

Over Christmas break, I started playing backgammon on the computer after several years of having not played the game. When Ed and I were dating, we used to play the board game, and as I recall, he won most of the time. At that time, my lack of experience at playing, along with my timidity in making daring moves that would put me ahead but could also risk my being sent back, made me an easy target for defeat. Playing on the computer offers me an ever-ready opponent and one whom I can insult without feeling any guilt. I often find myself sarcastically telling my computer opponent, “Oh, yeah, YOU rolled doubles!” or “Sure, send me back, you JERK!” I suspect that while I enjoy the mental stimulation of the game, I appreciate even more the stress relief of being able to insult someone whose feelings I cannot hurt.

In a past blog entry, I wrote about how Ed had commented that our life with autism is like playing the board game Chutes and Ladders. [To read this entry, click here.] His analogy was that at times when Alex is making progress, we climb the ladders to get to the rewards. Other times, we find ourselves tripped up by issues, such as anxiety, and find that we are falling down the chutes instead, going backwards. While I think this comparison is good and valid, my recent online games of backgammon have made me realize that life with autism is more like a game of backgammon. While progress in Chutes and Ladders, a simple game designed for children, relies upon pure luck in the roll of the dice, backgammon depends upon not only the luck of the dice but also the strategy of the players. In addition, Chutes and Ladders players don’t think much about their opponents’ moves, other than to beat them to the final blue ribbon square. By contrast, backgammon players try to anticipate their opponents’ moves that may not only beat them at the end but also hinder their progress along the way. While backgammon players learn certain basic strategies for protecting their game pieces and making progress, each move usually requires some thought about how to proceed safely and wisely to reach the desired end—winning the game.

In dealing with Alex’s autism, we started by playing the safe game, doing the traditional moves of speech therapy, special education, and occupational therapy. Later, we decided that bolder moves were needed to help him make more progress, such as homeschooling, sensory integration therapy, visual therapy, cranial therapy, and biomedical interventions, including putting him on the diet free of glutens and caseins, giving him nutritional supplements, and using chelation to rid his body of toxic metals. Some of these less traditional approaches were the equivalent of rolling doubles in backgammon as they helped us move Alex’s progress along much more rapidly. At other times, opponents, such as anxiety, blocked us, as opponents in backgammon strategically do, to keep us from moving along as fast as we’d like. Even more frustrating have been the times when we were taken off the board completely, put on the bar to wait our next move to get back in the game, such as when we’ve given him supplements that made him worse, including fish oil that makes him hyper and gives him insomnia. From these experiences, Ed and I have learned to think carefully before we make any new moves, researching the methods and discussing the consequences so that we don’t find ourselves being blocked from moving forward, or even worse, being sent back to the beginning. Perhaps the most valuable lesson that backgammon has reminded me in dealing with autism is the importance of always sticking together. A single backgammon game piece is always vulnerable, in danger of being sent back by the opponent; only those who are not alone remain safe. Despite the fears and frustrations the obstacles of autism bring, Ed and I have learned that we’re always strongest when we work together to help Alex. As we try to defeat the difficult aspects of autism, we keep working to get all of our game pieces onto our home board and then take them completely off the board, hoping for and striving toward victory and Alex’s total defeat of our opponent, autism.

“To what can I compare this generation? It is like children playing a game in the public square.” Matthew 11:16

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