Why Buddy Plays on the Phone, But Not Outside

As usual on social media, there are more than a few memes going around. These are “holier than thou” memes, the type that likes to judge others, look down on them, and degrade them because they partake in something viewed as less than ideal.

When I was growing up, people looked down on the “Trekkies,” people who liked to dress up in costume and go to conventions. It was cool and perfectly fine to dress in costume and go to sporting events, meet your favorite players, but Trekkies were looked down upon.

Thanks in large part to the incredible run of superhero movies, being a nerd is much cooler than it used to be. People who dress in costumes or “cosplayers,” are not as looked down as they used to be. Unfortunately, people still need to look down on others in order to feel better about themselves, and here come the condescending memes.

The ones that are bothering me the most right now say something to the effect of, “It’s lazy parenting to give your child a cellphone. Get them outside!” “When I was a child, we didn’t have cell phones. We had this thing called OUTDOORS.”

I have always loved to read. People often told my mother that I needed to get outside more often. Being on the spectrum, it was just too overwhelming for me. I was incredibly disappointed when my mother saw Buddy on the phone and said, “Is he ever not on that thing?”

Let me try to explain why the cell phone is better for Buddy than being outside. For someone who isn’t autistic, this is going to be difficult. Take a moment right now and listen to everything around you. What do you hear?

While a neurotypical person focuses on something, they can filter out background noise. As you focus on each sound, do you notice the others sort of die down?  Buddy can’t do that. If he were in my room right now, he would hear my typing, the hum of the computer and heater, cars driving by, my sniffling (I have a cold), the TV from the other room, the wind, his own heartbeat, and the kittens playing through the house. He doesn’t hear these as separate sounds, though. He hears them all at once, as one sound.

Imagine that. Imagine being fully aware of all the sounds around you, and you have trouble filtering them, trouble deciphering which is which. Then an adult comes and tries to talk to you through all those sounds and gets upset when you aren’t compliant. This never ends. No matter where Buddy goes, he hears every sound, all the time, and they bombard his ears. When we go into a mall, he hears every conversation, the sound of shoes, the janitor’s cart, trays of food, the rustle of bags, the music from various stores. And that’s just sound! That doesn’t include the stimulation from sight, smell, or touch.

Now pretend that someone puts something into your hands. As long as you look at it, everything else disappears. There’s no blinding sunlight, no barking dog, no car horns, or loudly laughing people. There is, for the first time in your life, a quiet space.

That’s what it’s like to play a game on a cell phone or read a book. For the time you’re engaged, you’re finally free from all of the stimulation. I’ve heard some people compare it to being in excruciating pain and then the painkiller kicks in. The relief is so incredible that you want another pill before the first one wears off, to make sure you don’t have to go back to being in pain. I see Buddy start to panic when the cell phone batteries get low. I know how he feels.

Let’s look at this from another angle. When Buddy was first born, his brother was five years old. One day, he asked to go outside. I had to take care of Buddy, but our backyard was fenced in, so I agreed as long as he stayed in the yard. I was practically glued to the window the entire time. As he got older, I gave him permission to go across the street to the playground, go to friends’ houses, or ride his scooter around.

I can’t do that with Buddy. Because Buddy is autistic, he’s prone to elopement, something I mentioned in a prior post. Buddy is always trying to escape all of the stimulation, even if he isn’t aware of it, even if it seems quiet to the non-autistic person. He seeks out quiet, dark places. He may want to stay in the backyard, but maybe the drainage pipe in the ditch looks better, all dark and quiet. Maybe he would wonder off and not find his way back.

I was playing in the backyard with the children one day, when we noticed that Buddy was missing. We looked and called. I was just about to call the police when I noticed movement from inside the car. It was the middle of the summer in the south. I flung open the door and pulled him out; he was completely red-faced. He flinched away from the sun, covering his face with his hands.

He has no idea the danger he was in. The playing just got to be too much for him, so he tried to escape.

Ever since he could walk, we’ve had to battle this. He couldn’t walk in stores; we had to put him in the cart. He wasn’t belted in the stroller during our trip to Disney and disappeared. If I had to go to more than one store, he would start having meltdowns.

Finally, earlier this year, Buddy’s brother won a smart phone from school. Since he’s too young for one and not responsible enough yet, he passed it on to us, and he got our old flip phone. We put on a game that Buddy had expressed interest in, and it was like having a different child.

At first, he would focus on it and panic when he couldn’t have it. He would beg and bargain for it. As time went on, he now only uses it when the world is becoming too much. For example, if we go to a restaurant, he waits until after he’s done eating. By focusing on the phone, he’s learned that he can focus on other tasks, such as eating. Once he has nothing to focus on, he starts having issues, so when he finishes his food, I let him play on the phone. If we go somewhere I know will be noisy and hectic, he wears his noise-canceling headphones. If we’re going to be there a while, or if he needs to pay attention at times, he has the phone.

Here’s another example: We won tickets to Medieval Times. I knew the kids would love it, and I was right. When we got there, though, we were crammed into a room and had to wait about an hour before we could be seated. Buddy was given the phone; there was nothing else for him to do. The noise and jostling of the crowd was too much for just his headphones. When we sat down and the show started, he would set down the phone and only pick it up again if there was a pause in the program.

As it turns out, Buddy is a natural when it comes to technology. Although he cannot read yet, he downloaded a game I had never heard of before and still don’t know the name of. It’s an amazing engineering game. He has to carefully construct a bridge under various circumstances to get from one side to the other. He does so well, he flies through the levels. He then goes back and does them again, only he experiments to see what works and doesn’t work and if he can find a new way of doing things. My son isn’t just vegging out; he’s learning.

I’ve also seen him look up tutorials (I have no idea how; again, he can’t read yet) and try doing it their way and compare it to his. Sometimes he’ll “correct” the person in the video. “That’s not right; you should do it this way.”

If a child is texting his friends, be glad he’s socializing or even the fact that he has friends. In today’s business world, most communications are done electronically, and children struggle to make friends. If you see a child taking pictures, encourage them toward photography or toward the subject of their photos.

Yes, Buddy is on the phone more than he plays outside. Rather than judge the next time you see a child on a cell phone, stop and listen to everything around you. Really listen. Count how many different sounds you hear, how many different sights you see, what you feel on your body and what the weather is going. Take a moment to enter that child’s world and understand that perhaps that child simply can’t handle it all right now. It isn’t forever, and it isn’t all the time. It’s okay to need help once in a while; it’s not okay to make someone feel bad for needing help.

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