Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Return of Old Friends

As I described in my blog entry last month titled “The Return of Good Year Alex” (August 25, 2013), we have been delighted to see recent improvements in Alex’s behavior, health, and speech. In fact, I told a friend the other day that in many ways Alex is probably the best he’s ever been--praise God. After a year in which his senses were dulled by medication to keep his anxiety under control, he has become alert, enabling him to enjoy life. As part of this awakening, he has returned to familiar pastimes that make him happy. Perhaps because he couldn’t concentrate, he had basically abandoned reading and watching television, which had been favorite activities of his for many years. However, he once again has books stacked around his bed so that he can read before bedtime and as soon as he wakes up in the morning. He has also started watching television shows that were favorites when he was younger, and as he did when he was small, he refers to the people on the shows as if they were good friends of his. Not only do we welcome back our contented son, but we are also happy to have his old friends from television entertaining him.

One of Alex’s favorite shows when he was little was Thomas and Friends, the cartoon series about Thomas the Tank Engine. Apparently, this is a favorite of many children who have autism. Perhaps they like this show because they can easily distinguish the different trains through their distinctive colors and voices, or maybe they appreciate that the narrator tells the emotions that the trains are feeling so that the children don’t have to figure out what the faces are conveying. To be honest, I never paid much attention to the show until Alex started watching it again a few weeks ago, after many years of not watching it. While it may seem odd for a 21-year-old to enjoy this cartoon, I have discovered by watching it lately with Alex that it is a really good show with catchy music and good lessons for life, such as being patient and kind and hard working. My only complaint is that I have the theme song stuck in my head and hum it incessantly throughout the day.

Like many children with autism, Alex has been a fan of Wheel of Fortune from an early age. Between the spinning wheel and giant letter board, he was mesmerized by the game. When he was a little older, he also found Jeopardy equally engaging, and their all-time champion Ken Jennings became one of his personal heroes. Since game shows have been special favorites of his, he could spend hours watching the Game Show Network when he was in his teens. However, he lost interest in game shows over time, and he no longer seemed to want anything to do with his old friends Pat Sajak, Vanna White, or Alex Trebek. Lately, though, he has rediscovered the fun of playing along with these old favorite games on television, and we’re pleased to see his mental sharpness return as he solves the puzzles and blurts out the clues.

Although an unusual choice for a child’s favorite television show, Alex found the PBS political news show The McLaughlin Group, a weekly roundtable discussion of current events, completely engaging. Identifying himself as a political conservative, Alex aligned himself with fellow conservative Pat Buchanan and jeered political liberal Eleanor Clift, whom he deemed “annoying.” After not watching this show for several years, Alex has rediscovered how much he enjoys the debate between Pat and Eleanor, grinning as they present their points passionately. Each week, he eagerly anticipates Saturday evening so that he can watch the lively conversation among the five participants, which often makes him laugh as they interrupt each other, trying to make themselves be heard.

Probably the most surprising recent return has been Alex’s old pal Pinocchio. When he was about four years old, Alex watched the Disney video of Pinocchio hundreds of times, often several times in a row. He drove us particularly crazy rewinding the videotape repeatedly when the scene of the whale swallowing Pinocchio’s father came on; apparently the bubbles that rose to the surface of the water fascinated him. Not surprisingly, Alex eventually became tired of this video and seemed to outgrow watching (and re-watching) all of his Disney videos. The other day, he suddenly asked to watch Pinocchio, which meant that I needed to head to the basement, where they’re stored, and try to remember if we even still have a working VHS player. Fortunately, I was able to find his beloved old video and a video tape player that works, and he happily watched the entire movie, never once stopping to rewind the tape. Since neither of us had seen Pinocchio for more than fifteen years, watching it seemed like something we were doing for the first time. After what we’ve been through the past several months, I realized that in some ways Alex is Pinocchio. He has come from the wooden puppet that made foolish choices to “a real boy” with a second chance to enjoy life. As his Jiminy Cricket, trying to guide him on the right path as the voice of his conscience, I couldn’t be more pleased to see the new, improved Alex spending time with “old friends” on television who not only make him happy but also influence him in a positive way.

“I remember the days of old. I ponder all Your great works and think about what You have done.” Psalm 143:5

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