Something major happened over the weekend. OK, well, maybe the earth’s tectonic plates didn’t shift, but An Event happened in our world. Most people wouldn’t even think of it as An Event. But I say we have to mark the moments that come, and celebrate each and every step forward.
Miracle #1: Our 12-year old – on his own and without any parental prodding – pulled the puzzles off of his shelf. OK, so maybe one that was missing some pieces got tossed across the room. But after that was dealt with, he quickly settled. (Since changing schools, that is our new norm. He still teeters on the verge of possible meltdowns, but they are no longer gathering full steam and with minor redirection we have been able to deflect them for the most part).
After the puzzle toss was over and his dad left the room, our guy remained there quietly for enough time that we began to distrust the calm. Still, we stayed away, having absorbed all we have been told about needing to give him time to self-regulate. Eventually, he came downstairs without any fuss. It was only much later that he mentioned in an off-hand way that he had completed a puzzle.
Miracle #2: He had done a puzzle on his own.
We went upstairs, and there it was – all beautiful 50 US states of it, perfectly assembled, on his floor (four days later, it is still there, I am not allowed to put it away, so I think he also knows this is Something Special).
Maybe completing a 60-piece puzzle doesn’t sound like much to you whose kids were doing this at a tender young age. But for our guy, this is huge. For us, it is extremely heartening.
From the get-go, the way he approached puzzles was one of the first signs that his brain was different. I remember time after time, even with some of the very basic puzzles, watching him literally try each piece every possible way to see if it would fit (trying to force the triangle into the square on a pre-puzzle). He understood the idea of puzzles – that they all should link together, but he couldn’t seem to visualize in his head what a particular piece would look like turned 90 degrees to the side. He couldn’t seem to grasp that if there was green on that bit, and green on the piece in his hand, then that is where they would match up. He could not understand that all the straight edges would link together to form the frame. He didn’t seem to get help from looking at the picture on the box, and then translating that onto the pieces in his hands – that if it is blue in the upper left corner, that blue piece will go up there.
We now understand that his brain, due to the injury caused by alcohol while in utero, can’t handle abstractions, at least not in the same way as other kids. And what’s a puzzle if not one big exercise in making something abstract concrete?
We have learned over time that our guy doesn’t have a learning ‘curve’ – he has never progressed slowly upward in a steady arc. He seems to plateau and then without warning leap to the next level. It’s like one day something ‘clicks’ and then he ‘gets it.’ It’s hard to explain, and nearly impossible for the schools to wrap their heads around. We keep arguing that everything goes in, we are convinced of it. Sometimes it just takes a long time for him to be able to access things, to work things out. Seeing this completed puzzle was a very welcome reminder of how he makes intellectual leaps and intuitive jumps. Quite often these sorts of leaps happen after a period of seeming regression (which we have most certainly just experienced with all the school tension at the beginning of this academic year). We don’t know if this is a trait of those with FASD or if it is just him, but it is the way he learns. We have seen it time and again.
And interestingly, these leaps often don’t happen in isolation. We had noticed a couple of days before this that he suddenly started to play a Lego Harry Potter game on his tablet. Again, you might think this is no great breakthrough, but this game is different from Candy Crush, for example. This game requires him to plan ahead, to move through rooms completing various tasks, remembering where things are that are needed to do certain other tasks. It is a more strategic sort of game. It takes time and patience and ‘remembering’.
In fact, he is taking a new interest in all kinds of toys and crafts that we have here at home, including a new basketful of sensory items (magic sand being one of the biggest hits, second only to the oobleck that took over our kitchen for a few gooey days). All this activity is keeping us on our toes, but in a positive way, rather than chasing after those debilitating mood swings we were facing only a few weeks ago.
We see more clearly in hindsight that the pressures of getting through the day at his old school affected so many aspects of his life. His every nerve was taut and tight. He had no mental space for these other things. It’s not that this new school isn’t posing some challenges, particularly as he tries to understand the different atmosphere and tries to understand the behaviours of some kids who have even less ability to self-regulate than he does. He is staring at and trying to correct the others, which isn’t helping anything. But those sorts of challenges, real as they are, can be managed by an expert staff and with some reinforcement from us at home.
I think the proof that he recently has made a great leap forward is right there on his bedroom floor. I’m hesitant to box it away too. We are already googling for more puzzles, maybe a 100-piece one this time?
Really, we just want to shout it from the rooftops. He did it!
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