I think that all autistic kids have quirky, unusual obsessions, and mine are certainly no exception. Even when SB was very small, he would spend hours doing things like opening and closing the bathroom door and pushing the buttons on this toy telephone that lit up and made beeping and blipping sounds. He has always had an obsession with elevators, and therefore we have never been able to walk past an elevator in any shopping mall, parking garage, or medical building without riding it. Birthdays were another obsession. By the time he was in kindergarten, SB asked everyone he met, “What’s your birthday?” usually even before he said “hello!” Then he talked incessantly about whose birthday was when, showing off his fantastic memory. More recently, he and his brother went through a “Dead End” obsession. They both spent countless hours talking about dead ends and drawing dead end signs and drawing roads that dead ended into dead end signs. (That was one obsession that was particularly grating on my nerves!)
The latest, greatest obsession for both of my boys is a game app called Cut the Rope. It’s a nice, sweet game starring a fat, big-eyed, hungry frog named Om Nom. The background music is a catchy little tune interspersed with a cool, synthesized tuba line and also nifty synthesized, arpeggiated clarinet licks. The game starts very simple but gradually gets more challenging as it requires the player to use their best problem-solving skills to get the candy (or, in later levels, the donut or the cupcake) into the mouth of the frog. The player also collects stars along the way, and after collecting a specified number of stars, more levels (that are called “boxes”) are opened. Here is a little video of a few of the levels. Take special note of the disappointed sound Om Nom makes when he fails to eat the candy and pass the level. That will come up again later.
Om Nom is pretty cute, and as the game gets more complicated, it gets kind of addictive, even for adults. It sounds harmless, right? What’s not to like, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you: IT WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO BUST SOMEONE’S SKULL IF YOU HAVE TO HEAR YOUR CHILDREN TALK ABOUT CUT THE ROPE ALL THE DAMN TIME!!!!!
Sorry. Lost it there for a minute.
Both my husband and I each received a Kindle Fire as a gift from my parents a few Christmases ago. At first we kept our new gadgets to ourselves, doing grown-up things with them like reading ebooks and checking Facebook. But it didn’t take long for us to discover that there is a whole world out there of apps for children that would keep our kids happily occupied while we could do other grown-up things, like have conversations and drink wine. So while my kids played Angry Birds, Where’s My Water, and Fruit Ninja, and my husband and I enjoyed some uninterrupted time, I told myself that I was doing the kids a favor. I was introducing them to age-appropriate games that their peers were also playing, which would help them fit in socially by giving them appropriate conversation topics around other kids. Parenting WIN!!!! But then our ABA therapist, who is awesome at her job so we will forgive her for this, introduced us to Cut the Rope.
Very quickly, both boys became completely obsessed with playing Cut the Rope, and my husband and I had to put strict limits on “Kindle Time,” or they would truly never stop. Oh, they still sometimes play Fruit Ninja or Hangman, but Cut the Rope is definitely the shit right now. They want to be playing Cut the Rope ALL THE TIME, but we only let them have Kindle Time for certain periods of the day, which they have to earn. Therefore, they spend a good portion of the rest of their day doing this:
If I can’t be playing it every waking moment, the next best thing is to draw pictures of it and PRETEND to play it, right? To make it even more awesome for me, AB found a collection of Sharpies in a kitchen drawer, and decided that he could ONLY draw Cut the Rope pictures with a Sharpie. Being a tired, working Mom who is also going to grad school, I didn’t think much about this until I had to scrub Sharpie marker off of the hardwood floors in the kitchen AND we had to throw away a dry-erase calendar that now displayed the birthdays of his classmates for the month of March – forever. He was intensely disappointed when I handed him a pack of Crayola markers and told him that the Sharpies were off-limits from now on.
Another funny story happened when we were at my grandparents’ house for Christmas. SB brought the Kindle to me, somewhat upset, exclaiming, “It won’t work! It won’t work!” I stared at the screen for a minute trying to figure out what was going on. Apparently, the player has the option to buy “Super Powers” for Om Nom to help him get through the levels faster. These Super Powers can cost anywhere from $0.99 to $7.99. And SB was not able to purchase any Super Powers because (thank goodness!) my grandparents don’t have Wifi at their house. I told SB that he was not allowed to buy Super Powers, and then I set the Kindle back to the level he was playing. Thankfully he didn’t get too upset about it. Later that night, my husband and I both enabled our Kindles with parental controls that require a password to be entered before ANY purchase. (There had also been a previous incident where AB unknowingly purchased season 1 of “The Vampire Diaries” on my Kindle and proudly announced, “Look, Daddy! I’m watching a show!” Thankfully, my husband was able to cancel the purchase.) So we realized that it was urgent that we do this before leaving my grandparents’ house and going home, where we DO have Wifi. THAT’S just what I need – my 8-year-old buying toys, electronics, and furniture from Amazon, having it shipped to the house and charged to my credit card without my knowledge.
The most annoying thing about my children’s Cut the Rope obsession is how much they both talk about it. Really. ALL. THE. TIME. Both are good with numbers and like to talk about numbers, so the discussion is almost always about which “boxes” are not yet open on which devices and how many stars it will take to get those boxes open. “Tool Box is open on Mommy’s Kindle but it needs 16 stars to be opened on Daddy’s Kindle. Foil Box needs 40 stars on Mommy’s phone and 21 stars on Ms. K’s iPad. Magic Box needs 62 stars in Daddy’s Kindle and 102 stars on Ms. C’s iPad. Valentine Box needs 26 stars on Mommy’s phone and 12 stars on Ms. K’s iPad and 4 stars on Mommy’s Kindle.” And on and on and on…… It both annoys me that they can’t talk about something more interesting and also impresses me that they can store all of this information in their little noggins. Yet SB couldn’t seem to store any information about Pueblo Indians in his noggin when he had a test at school about THAT! Hmmm…
No, sorry, I just lied. Actually, the MOST annoying thing about the Cut the Rope obsession is how SB likes to imitate the disappointed sound Om Nom makes when he fails to complete a level. Om Nom makes this “Aww” sound during the game when he fails to eat the candy. SB likes to imitate it by making this strange, guttural sound in his throat that I cannot even try to replicate. And it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to both my husband and me! We actually had to make a “No Cut the Rope Sounds” rule in our house, because we couldn’t stand the sound he was making in his throat. Over and over and over again.
I actually considered getting SB an iTouch for his birthday in February. I thought that he would love having his very own device to play Cut the Rope on, and that his relatives could give him iTunes gift cards for presents on gift-giving occasions so that he could learn to budget his own money for Super Powers. But I eventually decided against it, because the dynamic we currently have with “Kindle Time” is SOOOO GOOOOOOD!! You see, Kindle Time is the most valuable, highly-rewarding thing we have right now. If I want either of them to do something, (or NOT do something) all I have to say is “You will lose Kindle minutes if…” and I usually get the behavior that I want. At home, Kindle Time is currently the reward for participating appropriately in Tae Kwon Do class and in swimming lessons, and for picking up toys in a timely manner. Kindle Time minutes can be taken away for pretty much anything – not picking up toys, not participating in activities, talking back, not doing what was asked, hitting your brother, etc. It also didn’t take long for their teachers to discover how powerful Cut the Rope is as a carrot to dangle over them, so both boys can earn time with their teachers’ iPads to play Cut the Rope at school for doing a good job. (It feels like the Burts family is the only household in America without an iPad. We are SO uncool!)
Cut the Rope gives my children much joy, but brings them sorrow as well. Just last night, I had to talk AB off of the ledge for a good 5 minutes while he sobbed and sobbed, barely able to breathe through his tears. It took a while, but I finally got him to explain to me why he was so upset. Apparently, when he sat down to play, Tool Box only needed a few stars before it could be opened on my husband’s Kindle, and he was certain that he was going to do it before bedtime. But at 8 pm, the time that they knew that they were required to turn the Kindles off, it still needed 1 more star to be opened. When he realized that he wasn’t going to open Tool Box that night, well, you might as well just give up on life right there, because clearly, the world was about to end. After a bedtime story and a few kisses, he was able to calm down, but I’m sure he was still incredibly disappointed as he fell to sleep.
I really shouldn’t be complaining about my kids playing Cut the Rope, though. Unlike the Dead End obsession, there really are some benefits to this obsession. Like I’ve already said, Cut the Rope is the most powerful carrot their parents and teachers have right now to motivate them to behave and do what they are supposed to. And I wasn’t really joking earlier about the social benefits of playing iPad/Kindle apps. I’ve been to several lectures and workshops about encouraging social interactions in autistic children, and video games are always a hot topic. The speakers at these workshops always stress how it really is important to introduce autistic children to the video games and apps (along with the TV shows, movies, and music) that their peers like, because they won’t naturally pick up on what is “cool” just by being around other kids. I also like that this game encourages problem solving. Back when they played a lot of Fruit Ninja, I thought about how mind-numbing that game is and how it doesn’t really take any thinking skills at all. (That doesn’t stop ME from playing it, of course!) SB generally has a pretty short fuse and tends to give up very quickly when something is a little bit challenging for him. I have been pleasantly surprised at how tenaciously he continues to apply trial and error to pass each Cut the Rope level. I’ve also talked to them about Om Nom’s terrible diet, explaining that Om Nom is likely going to get very sick eating only candy, donuts, and cupcakes, and that he really needs to eat some fruits and vegetables to be healthy! I really don’t think this stuck as a nutrition lesson, but it did make them laugh a lot, because they found the thought of Om Nom eating green beans completely hysterical.
One of SB’s latest ABA therapy programs is teaching him to use a “Talk Box.” The Talk Box is just a small, plastic box big enough to hold index cards. The therapist chooses a topic that is forbidden for a set amount of time, writes that topic on an index card, and then puts the card into the box and closes the lid. Now SB is not allowed to talk about that subject until the card is removed from the box. This will (hopefully) teach him not to perseverate on one particular topic so much, and help him learn how to find new topics to discuss when making conversations with others. He has been using it successfully in his therapy sessions for a month or so, and next week we are going to start using it at home as well. What do you think is the first topic Mommy is going to put in the Talk Box?