10/01/2012 10:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Best Football Game of My Life

Living with a child who has autism, as I wrote in my previous post, can sometimes be a source for immense happiness. Many other times, it's a source for big challenges. One of this challenges, and please feel free to comment whether this is familiar or not -- is that even intelligent children like Tal lack, at least at certain times, linearity or coherency that other kids their age might posses. Instead of going into a whole theory, I'll just tell you about one time, when Tal and I flew to England on holiday.

We stayed with friends near Cambridge, and on the second day there, we went into town for a little walk and sightseeing. Tal was just under five. He took to flying like a duck to water. He slept well in the unknown house, he adjusted to the food. Nonetheless, he hang on to his quirks.

We were with our host and good friend, Shani, crossing a huge lawn in a public park, where children were playing, and Tal said he wanted to play ball. I didn't have a ball with me, just my backpack with water, some food, my bare necessities (money, passport, stuff that people take with them abroad). And Tal's teddy bear, a 15 inch long, soft, yellow affair of a teddy bear, very old fashioned and beloved.

"I want to play ball," Tal insisted. He started howling and complaining. I explained, again, that I don't have a ball. I quickly consulted Shani, and she assured me that there's a sporting goods store within a 10 minute walk.

"I'll get you a ball when we get to the store," I promised my son. He whimpered and started running off into the great wide green. "I want a ball" I could hear him shrieking.

"Stop," I cried after him. "Let's play with.... Teddy."

He stopped in his tracks, turned around and looked at me suspiciously. I took the teddy out of my backpack. I decided to recreate a game that Tal loved. In that game, I'd kick a football (soccer ball, actually) as high and I could, and bellow: "ballllllllllllllllllllllll." The ball would land somewhere, and Tal would run and catch it.


photo: Shani Eliraz

"Ballllllllllllllllllllll," I shouted. Tal's eyes widened and he jumped up and down and joined me, "Teddddddddddddddy." We did that for a while, then I picked up the teddy and started running, calling Tal to chase me and take the "ball." So we played a game of teddy football, or teddy rugby (we were, after all, in the British Isles) for a very happy, oblivious half an hour. Teddy was not harmed, my mood was cheered and my confidence in our ability to enjoy the overseas vacation was established. Tal was cheered up, too. He agreed to continue the walk into town, where I got him a football as I had promised. We had a great afternoon in the lovely university town.


photo: Shani Eliraz

Improvising isn't just about making up games where there are no ready-made toys. It's about listening to what your child needs. Tal wanted to play ball with me. He got to play with me. There was just one other time that I was more satisfied with my improvisation. It was almost a year earlier, and we were at home, getting ready to go out. Tal sat on the floor and complained his legs were dirty. It was strange, since Tal has such a low sensitivity, he never cared about a little dirt. But that time, surprise, a challenge. Tal refused to get ready, because his legs had something on them; he emphatically thumped on his shins to drive the point home.

So I kneeled and rolled up his pants, and showed him that his legs weren't dirty. "There's nothing there, Tal, look." I kept repeating it, and Tal kept insisting; he was upset and wouldn't do anything I asked him. I was miffed. And then it hit me. If Tal thought he had something dirty on his legs, I could help him.

So I said, "Here, let's brush the dirt off." I brushed his shins vigorously, once, twice and thrice.

"It's clean now," I announced confidently. Tal nodded, got up, and off we went to our business.

I felt like a genius that time, but there were many other times when divine inspiration didn't hit me so quickly. I can't say that there's an improvisation for every situation, or that a good solution will work more than once. There are people who find it hard to improvise. For these people I would suggest to memorize solutions that work, plan ahead for several contingencies, look around for inspiration. And above all, be there with the child and feel what he or she really needs, not necessarily what he/she asks for. The solution is sometimes very simple, literally.