Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Convention Spectrum

Dealing with a family member with Autism can be a difficult and stressful thing at the best of times. At its worse it can feel like a never ending battle and with no hope in sight. It can be very easy in caring for someone else to forget about yourself.
We have been very lucky in that we have access to a respite carer who can watch over my son for a time. The problem for us was finding something to do that was out of the house. My wife and I both happily admit to being homebodies and prefer a night in with the WiFi over a night out.
So being fans of geeky fandoms, my wife suggested we go to Comic Con.

In the last 18 months we have been attending comic conventions within driving distance of our home. My wife used to live in California so was a regular attendee of the San Diego Comic Con in the 80s (a much smaller affair to what it has now become). There is a Con based in Manchester, close to where we live, which is an annual event in July (and has actually been joined by a new one this year in May). We went to this first in 2013 and it was a enjoyable and had a lot of cool things to see and buy. However the thing that most intrigued me was the Cosplayers.

Cosplay, for any of you who are unaware, is a more detailed and involved fancy dress to be fair. It is a way for a person of any age, gender or size to become a character from any medium, such as Movie, TV, Comic or Video game character.
I've always been impressed with the work that goes into the costumes, some of these characters haven't been designed for realistic reasons so when you see a comic or game character walk past you its pretty epic.
I really wanted to do a cosplay once, just to see how it felt, but didn't really have an idea on how to start. Luckily my wife had done cosplay when younger and we have a friend who has been doing it for the last few years, so I had lots of encouraging support.

So after a couple of months of getting various items off eBay I walked into MCM Midlands , a Con based in Telford, as David Tennant's 10th Doctor. I was extremely nervous doing this; 'do I look an idiot?' 'will I be laughed at?' 'was this a really bad idea?' were all going through my head.
I spent the first 25 minutes at the Con in the entrance hall, we couldn't get any further as my friend, my wife and I were being asked to pose for photos by attendees. Its a hell of a rush.
Originally we had planned to only do maybe 2 or 3 Cons during the year. In the end we attended 8 during 2014 (This weekend we attend our 6th in 2015). It's been a great way to meet people with similar interests and make friends who we see at later Cons.

However, for an activity we do to have a break from Autism, there is probably more people with attributes from the Spectrum at a Con than I've seen in any other activity.
Some of the stats given are that 1 in every 10 boys and 1 in every 100 girls are Autistic. I feel I would be under estimating if I said over 50% of Con attendees were on the Spectrum.
And this isn't a bad thing. Comic Cons and Cosplay both make the social aspect of Autism a lot easier to deal with. You can tell who likes the same things as you, they're wearing the t-shirt or dressed as a character. OCD? Not a problem, you can go to town with details on a costume or collecting those figurines.
You have your collectors, photographers, costume designers, weapons and armour makers (real and cosplay safe), make up artists, crafters, painters, sketch artists. The list of interests that can allow someone on the spectrum to delve into this world is wide and can suit so many.

One day I do hope my son will be in a position to come along and enjoy these with us, but for now its nice to have something to look forward to. Especially on those really difficult days.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Autism and Video Games

Dusting off the old blog for what is becoming my traditional April post (I promise to try and use this a bit more in the near future as I have a few posts I'd like to do).

This article was up on the BBC news site recently http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32051153 and I wanted to say a few thoughts about it.

My first gripe, no one EVER grows out of Lego :-)

Anyway, video games have been a way for me to relate with my son in the last few years. I hadn't been a big console gamer for quite a while (my last console had been a Super Nintendo) but I had been playing PC games and MMOs such as Star Wars Galaxies, World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic for years.
I'll probably do another post at a later date about MMOs as they were the only social aspect of my wife and I's lives during pregnancy and early parenthood.

Once my son was old enough to be out of his cot and playing, I purchase an Xbox 360 to have something to kill time when I couldn't get to my PC. After a while my son started to show an interest in what I was playing, so I made sure I only played age appropriate (to him) games such as the Lego games by TT Games. At this point he was only watching and didn't show much interest in actually playing himself.
I then got the games Portal and Portal 2 as they had interested me for a while but hadn't had time or money to get them until this point.

Portal 2 was a major turning point in how my son would interact with me. Before this my son was non-communicative, and would just exist alongside the world without actually acknowledging anything within it. Something about Portal 2 really grabbed his attention. He would ask me to play just so he could watch me, it got so I could complete the game in a 4 hour session just because he wanted to watch.
After a couple of months of this he asked to have a go himself. At this point my son's hands weren't quite big enough to hold the controller properly but in a short time he picked up what he had to do and was away.
This was fascinating to watch as when he played he would position his portals in exactly the same places I did. Because he didn't communicate it is always difficult to determine how much of a situation he was taking in, you spend a lot of time talking to them in the third person or almost forgetting they are even there. Watching how he copied my gameplay exactly made me realise that there was a child in there who just couldn't find a way to break out in the normal way.
The character of Wheatley really appealed to my son. He would laugh at scenes and try his best to even say the quotes. One particular one was his favourite, so I searched for the video of it on YouTube to show him one day https://youtu.be/dDbmu9YYoHA (Mashy Spike Plate was the sentence of choice at home and school for several weeks afterwards).

YouTube was the next step in this adventure. The Mashy Spike Plate was on constant replay for awhile, but due to YouTube having its list of similar videos my son discovered over videos from the game. This led to him finding videos or Easter eggs in the game. I remember my son playing the game and going to one of these hidden areas and thinking 'How did you know about that!?!' as I hadn't even known these areas existed.
This period of self discovery let to him getting more involved in not just his games, but also wanting to play the games his Mum and I do. (Which led to saying the NPCs in World of Warcraft 'fell down' as I was not ready to try and explain the concept of death to my child).
He also found, and led me to finding YouTube channels such as https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUJXm3LMFLSEe_A2IBf8GwQ which bring out such a love to the subject beyond the realms of the game.
It was through these related videos that my son first found out about Minecraft and led to him becoming a regular viewer of this channel https://www.youtube.com/user/stampylonghead

Compared to most videos about computer games, Stampy is quite child friendly as he is very aware of the age of his audience. This is a godsend as the amount of videos on YouTube with swearing and questionable language make it rather uncomfortable to let your kids just wander unchecked on the internet, even with the filters enabled.
Stampy and his friend iBallisticSquid https://www.youtube.com/user/iBallisticSquid have such a fun way of introducing different aspects of the game that it's appeals to children and their voices aren't annoying so it doesn't drive the parents to distraction from the constant playing of the videos.
My son became fascinated by the different things in the videos and would even make characters out of his own Lego pieces to show to us. When it became obvious this interest wasn't going away any time soon I bought the game for the Xbox 360.

Compared to the PC version, the Xbox version I find easier as the crafting recipes are in the game (the PC version you have to know what to do unless you install mods). My son loves this game. The ability to have complete control of not just his own character but the environment as well gives him so much freedom to express himself in ways he cannot in real life. The sheer joy he displays when he's found something new and then comes running to find either myself or his Mum to show us makes a day just a little bit easier to cope with. Currently he has the game on Xbox and iPad and interestingly he plays both in different ways as he enjoys the 'Survival' aspect on the Xbox but is more interested in the 'Creative' play on the iPad (Possibly due to the touch screen aspect). His Grandparents also have it on Xbox for when he goes to visit them.

So back to the BBC article. Should parents ever worry about Minecraft?

My main issue with the article is it is written like 'I have no idea why my kids are into this so much and have no interest in finding out why'. Now I know as a parent it is difficult to know about every little thing your children are in to, but if your kid is devoting hours a day to something, maybe you should find out a bit more about it. It's not a babysitting tool to distract them while you do something else.

Minecraft has managed to teach my son so many things in a way that helps him to relate to the world and translate this to aspects of his home and school life. Building structures, farming for food, the treatment of farm animals, where food comes from, mining and materials found in the earth, different types of terrain found in the world, as a teaching tool it is an incredibly versatile piece of software.
Artistically (as long as you can cope with everything looking square) you can make the most beautiful creations of both real and imagined items. It does get compared to Lego a lot but this is like having a never ending supply of Lego bricks and then being able to play inside your own creations. As a child I would have loved this.

Is it addictive? Humans will always devote time to things they consider enjoyable and the line to obsession is easy to cross. Adults should be aware of this and try to moderate their time (to varying degrees of success) but a child will always keep doing something until another outside influence stops them. If you are worried, regulate their time on it. You're a parent, try acting like one instead of ignoring your kid.

What about griefing? This is not just common to Minecraft but to any game with an online aspect. Personally I currently do not let me son play online on servers so this doesn't affect us, but if people are worried about this you can create your own servers and only let who you want on them, or remove the ability to destroy things. And really should you be letting your young kids loose on the Internet in that way without some form of supervision?

Compared to games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, Minecraft is a very safe game. Yes it has zombies and monsters in it, but depicted in ways that hopefully shouldn't give your children nightmares. I will admit I am not personally into it as much as my son, but this is because I need more structured goals to accomplish in games and the open sandbox aspect of the game leaves me quite direction less. But in a way to be able to now talk to my son, discuss things and break him out of his shell, I will forever be grateful that something like this exists.

Friday, April 25, 2014

One Year Later... well almost

Time is an illusion. Blog time, doubly so.

There never seems to be enough time to do everything I need to. But on the rare occasions I do have some spare, I'm at a loss what to do with it.

I also seem to spend a lot of it staring at this:

Visual timers, of one sort or another, have become a common item in our house as when he was younger my son had no concept of time. Previously if I told my son it was time to finish an activity it would end in a tantrum. With the timer he now can see how long is left and for the most part will finish happily (however recently he has started arguing with it and has tried to increase the time himself when he thought I wasn't looking or even break the clock).
We've also got a travel sized version for when we are out, it has also been handy (we just need to remember to take it with us more often).

Unfortunately the other clock in my son's life isn't as effective.

We've been using night light style timers to encourage him to stay in bed until a reasonable hour. However my son's internal body clock thinks 5:30am is a perfectly suitable time to wake up (my own would prefer 9am, but I'll settle for 7am). And when he's awake, he is 'awake' so even with distractions in his room he makes so much noise I can't sleep through anyway.

It has also lead to a Catch 22 situation at night. If I've been up early with him I should really go to bed early myself. The problem is that I need some time without him to mentally and emotionally wind down and recover. However that meant that when he got up early the next morning I was tired so patience was limited, more tantrums happen, and it just gets worse as days roll by. 

I did try the sleeping when he sleeps thing, but without the break I started to resent him. Probably a terrible thing to say, but it's true. It is highly likely I was starting to get depression from it as well. To work around this my wife and I alternate who gets up with our son as best as possible. But this has lead to a lack of time for us to be with each other.

It is frighteningly easy to see why dealing with a special needs child can cause some couples to break up. It can be highly stressful and emotionally draining and is not anything you would actively sign up for. The only way I could do this is with my wife at my side (I can't even begin to imagine how single parents survive).

My son recently turned 6, and this July he will complete his 2nd year of school. I realised recently I don't have too many photos of him from the last couple of years (even though I have a camera phone my hands are usually too full to get it ready, someone get me Google Glass please). I'm scared that I'm too busy to make a record of this.

I just need more time...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Watching the Big Screen

My son's Autism means I tend to have to think hard before trying new experiences with him. Some of this is due to expense (really don't want to spend up to £50 on a trip to find I have to leave immediately after getting there) and some due to how public the event is. Because of this I have resigned myself to the fact there are some things I may never take my son to.

One such thing was the cinema. My son is constantly active (he can't even stay still to eat meals, a 90 minute film wouldn't stand a chance) and quite vocal even if he enjoys what he watches so the idea of trying to take him to see the latest kids movie hasn't ever really been an option.

However last month, Cineworld announced a partnership with Dimensions to have Autism Friendly screenings of movies. An Autism Friendly screening is different from a regular screening due to this:

  • Lighting will be kept on during the screening
  • Volume levels will be reduced
  • There will be no advertisements or trailers
  • Seating will not be allocated
  • Customers will be allowed to bring in their own food
  • Screenings will be at 11am on the first Sunday of every month.

Unfortunately my local Cineworld in Didsbury wasn't one of the cinemas available for the first month but then I saw a message on their Twitter account to say they would be part of the scheme from May and would be showing Finding Nemo.
Completely by coincidence, I have recently been watching several of the Pixar movies on DVD with my son (mainly to have a change from watching the same episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that he's become fixated on) and he had really enjoyed Finding Nemo as he likes the fish and turtles.

So last Sunday, Son, Dad and Grandad went to the Cinema. My son really enjoyed the drive as he has taken to calling out when he sees a traffic light (Green light Go!) so the fact the cinema entrance is opposite a major road junction with loads of lights meant getting him in the building took a little longer than usual.
As this is my local cinema I'm used to where everything is but there were signs up directing people to the Autism showing, the toilets and also a timeout area that had been provided as well as members of staff to assist.
We had arrived about 10 minutes before the show started so we grabbed some snacks (Crispy M&Ms, yay) and headed in to pick a seat. At this point the place was empty so after having a good look at all the rows of chairs, we picked a place in the middle and sat with my son between myself and Grandad.
Two other families (or carers) arrived before the showing so there was lots of space to choose from. This works well but I presume it is hoped for future screenings that more people show up. I wouldn't have wanted the room full but I would hate for it to not get enough people in to stop the showings completely.

During the showing my son appeared to enjoy himself a lot. Wearing his ear defenders and happily munching on M&Ms he remained in his seat for most of the showing and only needed quiet encouragement to come back to his chair on the occasions he wanted to stand and watch. He did choose for about 15 minutes to sit in another chair in the row, but as he was within arms length I let him. It was just nice to not have to worry about him disturbing other people (I would have taken him to the Timeout room if necessary but there was never a reason to).

So a successful trip and a chance to do something 'normal' with my son makes it worth the price. I will definitely be checking what film is showing in June. Thank you to Cineworld and Dimensions for giving me this opportunity.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Goodbye LucasArts.

So Disney have just closed LucasArts, the games division of the Lucas company.

A little sad as I grew up playing a lot of their games in the 90s. I had the Super Star Wars trilogy of games for the SNES, but my first PC games of my own came from getting the LucasArts Archives: Vol 2 (which consisted of Rebel Assault 1 & 2, TIE Fighter, Dark Forces demo and a behind the scenes disc called Making Magic)
I completely missed out on the Monkey Island series, only got into that recently with the SE versions, however I did get Grim Fandango and wish it was available to download now.

To be honest, there hasn't been a game recently done by LucasArts in recent years I'e enjoyed as much as the back catalogue. KOTOR was a Bioware job with Lucas logo printed on it, Lego Star Wars the same but for Traveller's Tales, Force Unleashed is only okay and the sequel is a cash in, Kinect Star Wars is awful to play, Battlefront was fun.
There hasn't been a really great game since the Prequel movies came out.

Tonight I will remember fondly the hours/days playing the following:

TIE Fighter
X-Wing vs TIE Fighter
X-Wing Alliance
Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series
Grim Fandango
Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine
Rogue Squadron

Hopefully the staff that have been laid off will find new jobs soon. Thanks for the games, LucasArts.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Autism Carer Awareness

Today, April 2nd, is World Autism Day. There is lots of info on the day and the 'Light it up Blue' campaign that is to raise awareness over the month.
I've been a little lacking in blogs recently, Real Life got very busy, but I've got an enforced two week period of not contracting (called School Easter Holidays) so thought I better do one for the day.
However instead of writing about my son's Autism, I'm going to write about what I have discovered about myself through caring for my son.

The Past is very easy to forget and vanishes in a heartbeat. As difficult as the last few years have been it still doesn't feel like the 5 years it actually has been since he was born.

The Future is scary and unknown and is best not thinking about. The time has yet to be written and for all the worst case scenarios that can play out there is an equal chance of best case. It's never worth worrying about 'what could be'.

The Present can be a gift but is sometimes only known in hindsight. I get to spend more time with my son than most parents do if they work. And for all of the things that make communication difficult for us he can still find ways to make me know he loves me.

My patience levels are linked to my amount of sleep. Also I have levels of anger I didn't know I had and this scares me. Nothing that would ever make me harm another, but enough to make me know when I need to walk away for a few moments to compose.

I can see how easy it would be to fall into depression when being a carer. I don't think I currently do suffer from depression, but I may have come close at times.

I sometimes will need to escape my son, but this doesn't mean I want to run away. I just need to know I can trust someone else to keep watch over him for a few minutes.

Before my son was born I never thought I could care for someone with Special Needs. I'm still not convinced I can, but I haven't given up yet. I'm kinda proud of this.

When my son does something that reminds me of myself I tear up.

I'm so glad to have my wife with me on this adventure. I couldn't do this alone.

I need to be more aware of how my son sees me as he learns from what I do, and I'm not always the best example.

I need to be better at encouraging and trying different things with my son. With his issues of routine it is too easy to fall into the same trap and not improve or explore. I shouldn't let fear stop me, but backup plans also help.

I can't remember life before my son was around.

I need to remember my own health as well as those around me.

I need to be a better Dad, without worrying about being the best.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Party On Dudes

Been a little quiet on this front. I've been doing contract work whilst my son is at school and it has made it a little difficult to fit in the blog. I'll talk about how that's worked at a later date but I thought I'd bring up a different subject whilst it was fresh in my mind.

Birthday Parties. Since starting school last year my son has been invited to a few parties. For the first couple we made our excuses and didn't go. There were a few reasons for this: we didn't know who the child was (my son doesn't talk about school or his friends at all at home), we didn't want to face the threat of a meltdown in front of the rest of the parents (we've only just got him in mainstream school, last thing we needed was the parents to warn their kids off our child) but also not wanting to face the embarrassment if the worst should happen.

That last one might seem a bit selfish, but anything unknown just means more work for my wife and I as we'll need to be constantly vigilant to make sure my son doesn't do anything he shouldn't, we can't just leave him with the rest of the kids and go and have a cup of tea and chat in a different room.

Then one day when picking up my son from school, one of the Mum's came up to me and asked if my son would attend her son's party. In my head I was already making excuses, but then she said that her son talks about mine all the time and has said he'd really like him to come to the party. Because my son doesn't communicate like a normal child, I tend to forget that other kids and parents tell each other things over than say 'Smoothie, Xbox and No bedtime'.

So I said that yes we would attend the party and then spend the next few weeks worrying about what would happen. The day of the party arrived and up to stepping into the venue I was worried it was a bad idea. However the party actually had hired a giant bouncy castle and bouncy slide for all the kids to play on (I may have to have one of those for my birthday). But also, once we turned up, the boy who's party it was spotted my son and instantly came over, helped him get his shoes off, then the 2 of them, along with a few other friends spent the next hour or so going on the slide, then running around to go again.

This was the first time I'd seen my son play with his friends as we haven't seen any of them out of school as I don't know the families and didn't know they had these friendships. It was really nice to see and because of the environment I did manage to relax more than I thought I would. It was also nice as the kids obviously knew how my son sometimes needs help so if he went the wrong way round the bouncy castle, to where the generator was, they would just call him back and take him the other way. So that party was a success all round.

So when the next invite came, we decided to chance it and accept this one too. We were running a little late for this one, and as we got there, this voice suddenly started booming out of the venue. It was a magician on a PA systems. My wife and I just looked at each other and seriously considered just turning around there and then. But we didn't, we just grabbed my son's noise reducing headphones out of the bag and put them on his head and then went in.
Inside you had the magician at one end with PA systems and the kids sitting in front. Then clear the other side of the hall you had the parents all sitting around talking to each other. And in between you had about 10 metres of open hall.

To his credit my son tried. He went to join the other kids and did sit down for about 5 minutes. But then his patience/curiosity got the better of him and he started to get up. I could see in his face he was about to go and checkout the PA system so managed to call him over to me and got him to sit on the floor with me and the parents. Again after a few minutes he wanted away, so the two of us went and sat with the other children and I kept him sat in the same area as best I could and tried to discourage him when he wanted to go explore. After about 10 minutes of this, most of which had been completely ignoring the magician, he started to curl up on my lap and look really sleepy. Not wanting to have to carry over 3 stone of 4 year old I asked him if he'd like to go home, and he said yes. We made our goodbyes and left the party.

I think for the next invite I may have to ask the parents what kind of party they are having.

I must admit a part of me doesn't want to go to too many as I already know when the time comes we won't be holding a big party as birthdays are a just a family affair in our house, so part of me doesn't want to end up buying presents for half of the class when there won't be the opportunity to get any in return. Also the idea of organising and running a party for over 20 five year old's terrifies me.

I've got a couple of months to see how things go. I may consider a small gathering of my son's close friends if I can think of anything to do, and can afford it.