Friday, May 29, 2009

It's Great to Have Friends -- I Think

LR was still home today. But the monotony was occasionally broken because he had a friend with him. No, we did not recklessly expose another child to an ear infection and week-long diarrhea. This friend was an invisible baby bird. This particular choice seems to have been inspired by our not-so-exciting encounter with a baby mockingbird on Wednesday. (I'm still kicking myself that it didn't occur to me to take pictures until three hours after I let her go).

I know it's completely normal to have an imaginary friend; our son has an invisible menagerie. Today, it was a baby bird. Earlier in the week it was several animal friends from the t.v. show Little Bear. Another day it was a number of animal friends from the t.v. show Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. The rest of the time it is usually invisible incarnations of his friends from school; I'm sure they'd all be amazed to find out how often they're "visiting" LR.

I have no problem with any of this, although it can get a bit confusing as to exactly who is here on which day and my getting such things wrong is treated as a mortal sin. My problem arises from the way in which he interacts with them. While he is generally able to tell me where they are, he categorically refuses to speak to them directly. In fact, he insists that he cannot hear them at all and he therefore relies on me to provide a running commentary from them about different things he may be doing or watching. I cannot begin to describe just how quickly these "conversations" wear thin. "What's the bird think about this picture?" "Does he like my super bouncy ball?" "How does he feel if I lose it?"

Now, my understanding of imaginary friends, while admittedly very limited, is that they are most often used to work out some fear or problem in their lives. As one psychologist explains:
Imaginary companions are an integral part of many children's lives. They provide comfort in times of stress, companionship when they're lonely, someone to boss around when they feel powerless, and someone to blame for the broken lamp in the living room. Most important, an imaginary companion is a tool young children use to help them make sense of the adult world.
In my case, this actually provides me with a fair amount of insight. The vast majority of the questions my son asks about his imaginary friends are about emotions. "How does my friend think that boy in the book feels?" "What does my friend think about that girl who accidentally spilled her paint?" LR is trying desperately to comprehend emotions. Exactly which feelings make up which emotions; when do people feel certain emotions; what body language and/or facial expressions convey specific emotions. It's not that he doesn't experience these emotions, he has a great deal of empathy and gets very upset if someone else is sad, but he is having difficulty in reading other people's emotions.

And that would appear to be why he insists that only I can hear them, that I have to tell him what they think/feel. He is constantly trying to monitor his own emotions and reactions to things, and to understand the emotions he sees displayed by others. When his friends "comment" on these things he is able to compare their answer to his internal thoughts/feelings and he can use them as a learning guide when he truly does not know how someone is feeling.

It is extremely difficult for any child to fully understand the concept of "putting ones self in another's place" until they have gown through the five to seven year shift. They simply don't possess that cognitive ability. For children with Asperger's this problem is significantly worse. Pretty much by definition, they have a problem learning and understanding the non-verbal cues in social relationships; this includes those cues, such as facial expression and body language, that help one to determine another person's emotional state.

As annoying as these seemingly endless, one-way conversations with invisible people and animals can be, I am astounded that LR seems to have come up with what I think is a rather ingenious method of trying to learn these cues.

I should probably consider myself lucky that, at least for the moment, he does not expect me to have his Chinese friends (e.g., the ones from Ni Hao, Kai-Lan) speak to him exclusively in Mandarin Chinese. I suspect that day is coming.

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