|Little me, reading at three.|
So, how about ingesting a nice, healthy dose of “You seem to be stuck in parallel play,” from your therapist on a Thursday?
In late 2009, I was working on the film The Last Airbender in the Philadelphia area. My office happened to be at the director’s rustic, sprawling farm, about a forty-five minute drive from the home I rented in the historic neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. I loved the commute for the most part, driving past green pastures and incredibly ancient looking stone buildings (an unfamiliar site for a California native) but mostly for the celebrated occasions I’d have to tune into WHYY/NPR and listen to Terry Gross and her ever impressive interviews on the show, Fresh Air.
One of said celebrated interviews changed my life.
Terry interviewed the Pulitzer Prize winning Tim Page in 2009 on the topic of his memoir titled Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s. (The subtitle was later dropped as the author felt, according to the newer paperback edition’s revised introduction, “ . . . it seemed to suggest that “Parallel Play” was a sort of guidebook or “owner’s manual” for people with autism, something better found elsewhere.)
I tuned in just when Page began reading a quote from David Mamet’s book, Bambi vs. Godzilla:
“I think it is not impossible that Asperger’s syndrome helped make the movies.
The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutiae of the task at hand.”
Had I not been on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I’d have pulled over just to sit hard with that information to allow it time to fully process. As floored as I was, I somehow managed to comprehend that particular excuse, however valid, would not be acceptable nor considered “cute” by State Troopers. So I continued on.
Was Mamet describing me? I’d felt my entire life that no one understood me, yet, in this excerpt from Mamet’s book and the too-brief twenty-minute interview with Page, I finally felt somewhere out there someone understood me.
I arrived home, entered the front door, opened my laptop and before letting my dogs out to do their biologically customary duties, ordered his book along with the fastest, most pricey shipping option available. I wanted, or rather, needed his book yesterday.
And a year later, I received my very own, personalized gold plated Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis.
When reading Tim Page’s memoir, I absolutely fell in love with his quirky anecdotes of growing up in Connecticut in the ‘60s, memorizing portions of the World Book Encyclopedia (apparently a pastime we both shared), and tales of LSD gone wrong. I also partook in my usual habit of extracting all relevant data and storing it in an organized fashion, securely, in my cerebral hard drive. Somehow I completely missed dissecting its title, Parallel Play.
This past Thursday, after taking a two-month hiatus from seeing my therapist, I went in with a plan. I wanted some solutions, some answers. I wanted to get to the bottom of my social deficiencies, if any could be gotten to the bottom of, that is. The fidgeting, the unpleasantness of direct eye contact, the face blindness, the almost complete inability to trust fellow humans, the desperate need for ample solitude, the nervousness and anxiety. Are they all autism related, or could they perhaps also be the results of my, at times, rather horrendous upbringing?
“It sounds like you’re stuck in parallel play,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, after a moment of slow motion memory montage.
She began to explain that young toddlers, starting at about the age of twenty-four to twenty-nine months, engage in what is known as “parallel play” or “parallel activity”, a form of play in which each child engages in an independent activity that is similar to but not influenced by or shared with the others. They eventually, round about potty training time, begin to face other children and engage in the more advanced associative and cooperative stages of play.
So, not quite collaborating on how they, along with their peers, plan to reform their future education system, but perhaps mastering the art and science of speedy jigsaw puzzle assembly.
What could have happened to cause this affect, besides the sprinkling of autism I’d received? We explored that question.
Between the ages of two and three I had, among many other moderately stressful events, lost my father, gained a new one, moved house three times, gained a brother, then lost my parents to my brother who'd become the next big thing. I agreed, he was pretty darned awesome. I couldn’t keep away from the pudgy little troll. But I was on my own. Parental guidance had ceased to be.
Since this revealing discovery occurred, I’ve spent the last few days sifting through a box of old photos of my toddler years, searching for clues. I am mostly shown either alone or playing alongside others, but not quite engaging. Especially the rare times when there were large groups, such as swim class. It is obvious in the photos the little girl in the pink bikini is in her own little world. She wants to learn how not to drown, not how to engage with rambunctiously loud mini-people. I'm either shown staring off into space or looking to the photographer to rescue me from this hell, and pronto.
When swimming with others, I recall merely wanting to splash about on my own pretending to be a dolphin or mermaid (and sometimes suddenly freak myself out, convincing myself the dark shadow was indeed none other than Jaws). I hated the loud screams of the others, “Marco!” “Polo!” They’d splash me, getting an unpleasant twenty-five gallons of highly chlorinated water up my nose and in my eyes without my consent.
The rambunctious mini-people were always huddled together, likely engaging in higher, more age-appropriate stages of play than me, such as pointing and making fun of others, comparing and contrasting swimsuits, and showing off their pee-pees to one another. Activities quite similar to that of some adults I know today.
In the photos where I was a bit older I was reminded that when not alone drawing, reading, or attempting to lay on the floor like a dog, the others I did engage with tended to be younger friends or family members I would instruct. My friend Julie, who I’d met when I was four, was younger than I, yet just as logical and precocious. If I wasn’t teaching her the latest dance moves I’d learned from watching others in school, we were in fact working alongside each other creating. She was an exception. Sort of.
Tonight, in an attempt to shed some more light on this newfound wisdom, I listed some of the activities I could remember actually enjoying with others as a child:
· Swinging on swings on the playground
· Visiting the zoo (though with adults)
· Video games
· Disneyland (Except for the waiting in line bit—bleh.)
· Making up my own games and directing others
I realize all of these activities became overwhelming to me if I shared them with more than one other child. My reaction to said overwhelm would be to shut down, become mute, hold my hands/arms in a strange uncomfortable looking manner, and try to fade into the background as quickly as possible. Basically, if an invisibility cloak had been an option, I would have taken it.
I then listed some of the activities I actually enjoy with others as an adult:
· Dining in restaurants (preferable in a corner or near a window for ample people watching opportunities)
· Reading books
· Working on separate projects, side by side (art, writing, gardening, fixing/building things)
· Classic Car shows
· House painting
· Disneyland (Except for the waiting in line bit-bleh. Some things never change.)
· Visiting the zoo (Yes, its true.)
· Taking scenic drives
· Traveling by airplane
· Traveling by train
· Exploring new places
· Watching movies
All, from childhood to adulthood, seem to potentially be parallel play type activities. And all of them I also enjoy doing alone.
Standing side-by-side with another, viewing something from our respective occupied portions of the earth, is non-threatening. We are both free to judge the strange partially striped zebra/giraffe/alien-like Okapi at the zoo, or revere the perfectly polished engine of the 1966 Chevy Chevelle at the summer car show. But what to do when viewing and experiencing aren’t on the agenda?
I am forever kicking myself for leaving the only place I ever truly felt at home—Malibu, California. For a little over four years I rented an incredibly quaint, modest guesthouse (and when I say quaint and modest, I mean 400 square feet of absolute charming, simple, converted garage with terracotta floors, studio heaven). I’ve never stopped reminiscing about how incredibly at peace I felt there, just me and my Great Dane Audrey, happy as clams in a place as tiny as a clam shell. For the first time in my life I was proud of my home, and found myself relaxed enough to be a bit more open to having somewhat of a social life. Was it the view of the ocean? The friendly neighbors? The simplicity?
My husband and I began dating when I lived in my Malibu sanctuary and things were perfect with us. All fun and gobbly googly goop. And now, since this revealing observation from my brilliant therapist on Thursday, I’m able to connect the dots and see how with the way that place was set up was never threatening for a parallel player such as myself: one wall all windows facing the water, two deck chairs facing the water, sofa facing the window facing the water, no where else to go but those two seating arrangements. I never felt overwhelmed by human contact, by relationship, by emotion. I was safe to be me, an individual. I could listen to him talk and stare out toward the ocean. And when you’re at the ocean, this staring behavior is absolutely acceptable. It’s expected. At my current home where there is no ocean but rather a house across the street, I can’t very well stare out the window. I might be arrested. If I turn my eyes toward my bookshelf, my only other option, this behavior is unacceptable to other humans, including my hubby.
I was yanked from my little teepee of love when I accepted the job on the Shyamalan film in Philly. And there my soon to be hubby and I sat, facing one another in Chestnut Hill, and the vetting of therapists was inevitable.
“How did things become so hard?” we’d ask.
I realize now that sitting down and facing another for extended lengths of time somehow causes the brain to go bonkers, the ecstasy of enjoyment to end, and looping thoughts of “God, I can’t wait to be alone and back to my routine,” begin.
A good friend of mine I am most fond of is someone I worked with and was lucky enough to share an office with on a film in 2005-2006. It was the perfect set-up for parallel activity. She did her job, I did mine, and we could joke and laugh, but never forced our way into each other’s space. Even now that we aren’t working together I find we, within about a half hour of an in-person visit, end up on our respective laptops or iPhones doing separate things, close in proximity and still together. Others might find this incredibly bizarre. It works for me. I assume this may be the factor that brings gamers together, artists, mechanics, scientists perhaps. It’s why the majority of my friends are my friends—we’ve worked together before. Without the parallel activity supporting environment found at work, I believe I’d have an incredibly hard time finding and making new friends. It would be impossible. And now, without an office to report to, I found myself with a plan in my therapist's office on Thursday.
I wonder if the brain with its incredible plasticity will be able, with much work, to move forward in the stages of play or activity for a very young thirty-eight year old woman. Do I want to progress? How many other adult parallel players are out there in the world? Am I indeed stuck or an I merely slightly autistic? How many of my self-proclaimed introverted friends are simply stuck in parallel play as well? Do I reach out to others who, like me, would be happy to ride up the coast on a train, only independently viewing the scenery, knitting, reading, or napping? More importantly, will my hubby be happy to spend his life side-by-side with me, enjoying life in a parallel manner?
The million dollar question is: Do I force upon myself an attempt at changing the wiring of my brain or will this simply be a time of kind self-realization in which I can choose to further embrace ‘what is’ and see where it takes me?
We’ll see. At least I know where to begin.