Until recently I still viewed DS1’s inability to leave the house at the weekend – sorry, I should focus on his abilities: DS1’s ability to lie on the sofa watching television all weekend – as a major concern.
Whatever we tried, he invariably dug his heels in and railed against the barrage of ‘stupid’ suggestions we made in the perverse name of having some fun, venturing outside… or doing his homework.
But I have now discovered the wonder that is ‘energy accounting’. As a result, I now feel comfortable with the fact that DS1 spends most of his free time in solitary, sometimes curled up on the sofa under a blanket watching TV – or to be more accurate, watching people playing FIFA on YouTube – sometimes playing FIFA, sometimes making lists, sometimes sorting through his Match Attax, sometimes nipping outside to play football (on his own), sometimes a combination of all of the above.
You see, this concept of energy accounting is all about keeping your head in balance. Going to school drains him mentally, not just from a learning point of view, but from having to deal with everyday stuff, such as concentrating, listening to instructions, processing information, talking to his friends, understanding social nuances and generally holding himself together – all in the name of trying to fit in without appearing different to the expected norm.
The same applies for going into shops and the associated anxiety caused by possibility that he may have to interact with someone, or seeing grandparents who may ask him questions he’s not prepared for. Even the stuff he enjoys – like going to a friend’s house, playing football with others, after-school clubs – they all zap mental energy from him.
To regain his equilibrium he just needs to do something that is totally his own, free from having to deal with other people. Focussing on a special interest at the expense of everything and everybody else aids that process.
For some autistic people that special interest is one thing and one thing only throughout their life. It can be as obscure as lawn mowers, motorways or lampposts, even Ariana Grande. For DS1, fortunately, this passion changes periodically – having been so obsessed with it to the point of saturation, then, as quickly as it was taken up, it is tossed aside without a care.
Football is the one constant, bubbling away in the background, coming to the fore when there is nothing else on the horizon. We’ve had trains, Pokémon, Harry Potter, certain TV shows, Xbox, family trees, kings and queens and World War I and II along the way.
Currently, it is Match Attax.
The first line of defence is Attax
This season has seen a change in his Match Attax accumulation. Sure, he has been into these pesky football cards for a while, but they were more about playing matches with them rather than collecting.
While there are still hundreds of the little blighters from the various incarnations of these money-sucking packets taking up valuable floor space, this year’s Premier League cards have, for the first time, found their way into an album.
Said album is taken to school every day, where he engages in serious trade negotiations with his peers. While this may cause issues for the teachers, as far as DS1 is concerned it’s invaluable – it’s a way for him to interact with others (not just his immediate friends) more easily, to learn how to negotiate and compromise – and, overall, just communicate. It is safe ground and he knows his onions.
Last week, though, DS1 (along with a few of his friends) had some of his cards stolen by another boy. While this, understandably, caused upset at the loss of some of his ‘shinies’, he didn’t go off on one.
Yes, he moaned about it quite a bit – and who wouldn’t – but he handled it very maturely. He didn’t go postal, he didn’t attack the thief and he was happy for me to talk to his teacher about it – something he has shied away from in the past when he has an issue at school that needs resolving.
He even accepted having to do swaps to retrieve some of his stolen cards back off another friend who had unwittingly traded them with the thief.
What is also good is his understanding that stealing is wrong and that it is definitely not a profession he would enter into. Although, he was quite happy when a fellow Match Attacker nicked DS1’s missing Chelsea Awesome Foursome card back off of the perpetrator – even though the modern-day Robin Hood has yet to return said card to DS1.
Another bonus of this Match Attacking is that it is teaching him about managing his money – it’s his own cash he is spending and when his pocket money runs out that’s it for the month. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s teaching him about the value of money, however.
“Dad, can you get me the Invincible Card?” asked DS1, waving £15 in my face.
“£15 for one card, do you really think that’s value for money?” I queried, flabbergastedly.
“I don’t think so.”
“But it’s really rare.”
“But it is my money.”
“It is… but then you won’t have any money for anything else.”
That didn’t seem to matter.
“Erm, ask you mum,” I blathered.
Fortunately she was away with work, so he couldn’t action that suggestion immediately. I’d bought some time – and money can’t buy time (or happiness, kids).
But not for long – he spent the cash on 15 packets instead.
The gift of conversation
Match Attax are also helping to smooth another problem.
DS1 is still ignoring his grandparents – this has been going on for seven months now. Getting nowhere, I had aborted my attempt to reintegrate my parents into DS1’s life by inviting them for coffee every Saturday morning – in the hope that he would get used to having them around again and realise that it wasn’t the Spanish Inquisition whenever they put in an appearance.
He wasn’t having any of it, though – locking himself in the garden or the bathroom whenever they came near. It was clearly stressing him out.
Then I had a brainwave – and it’s not often I have one of those – get them to come over bearing gifts, i.e. Match Attax.
I briefed him beforehand. “I don’t care, they are still not coming,” he said. But I could see the conflict he was experiencing – weighing up having his grandparents in the house against receiving their precious gift.
“You never know, there might be a [prized] ‘Golden Baller’ in one of the packs,” I said.
He remained silent. I took that as a positive.
Come 10.30 last Saturday, my parents duly arrived, Match Attax in hand. After they had had a coffee, I suggested they ventured into the boy’s sanctum and offered up their equivalent of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Only, he’d locked himself in the bathroom. They returned to the kitchen crestfallen.
I popped downstairs and managed to coax DS1 out, leaving a virtual trail of Match Attax back into the lounge.
He crouched down in the corner of the room, shielded from the doorway by an armchair.
“I’ll go and get them,” I said. “Do you want me to stay with you when they come down.”
He gave a slight nod.
I returned with Nana and Grandpa in tow. I sat down next to DS1 – as he cowered, looking at the floor – creating a further barrier, while the olds sat nearby.
But he wouldn’t engage.
Do you want the cards or not?” I asked, exasperated.
“You know,” he mumbled, staring at the floor.
Taking the packets from Nana’s outstretched hand without looking up, he ripped them open – his face lighting up when he discovered a Chelsea Elite card and several Tottenham ones inside. He had no intention of keeping the dirty Spurs cards, mind – they were a good bargaining tool for one of his friends who’s a Tottenham fan.
Gradually, the conversation developed as I discussed various cards with my Dad as he looked through the album, DS1 chipping in when we got a fact wrong or to clarify a query.
Although he only responded to the questions I asked him and resolutely remained looking down, this was his subject, his domain – and things can only get better (I hope) as the relationship is rebuilt on a house of cards.
The way to a boy’s heart, it seems, is through his football cards – although, at this rate, all my inheritance will be spent on bloody Match Attax.