Ironically, I was asked by an autism dad – a really thoughtful and kind autism dad “Does it work? Can you prove it?”
It’s a fair question – especially as a non-profit soliciting for donations and support. People have limited resources and they want to support programs with proof of real results.
I talked about measuring what matters as opposed to measuring what is easy and how complicated that all is. I cited studies about oxytocin and anecdotal evidence from families about improved sleep, reductions of maladaptive behaviors and the like.
But does it work?
Tell me some success stories.
These are the things people want to know and somehow, it irked me.
But it’s not fair that I’m annoyed. It’s my responsibility to help supporters and the community feel engaged in what is happening.
I sat with this pique. I stewed on why this logical question makes me cranky. Then I sat at the picnic table – the one that overlooks the arena – the one with goat poop on it because the darn goat loves to stand on it – the one with at least two dogs lying either under it or close by. And I listened to a parent tell me about her son learning to waterski and her fears about him aging out of services. I watched the kids in the arena playing with the horses who deserve a second chance.
Does it work?
Does anyone ask the baseball coach for the local all-stars “does baseball work?” Does anyone ask the Boy Scout leader “does it work?”
Does recreation work? Does play work?
Work. Work. Work.
A good portion of our lives is spent working – doing – earning for our families and for our advancement. If we are lucky we will take joy in our work. But recreation DOES work – by making our lives enjoyable – by letting us take pleasure in the movement of our physical bodies – by connecting us with others with similar interests – making friends, trying out new skills – of course it works!
I think what angers me is this notion that what we are trying to accomplish is to make someone “less autistic.”
Yes, we want to create skills to help an autistic person navigate a neuro-typical world and alleviate the more stressful factors of having a heightened anxiety response.
Of course we read eagerly about families that achieve breakthroughs in communication and behaviors through connecting in common interest. We live for those stories.
Focusing on an outcome for something designed to bring joy to someone denigrates our intention. The focus morphs to an intention to change someone – someone who might be perfect already.
Going to an art museum works because we see beauty and wonder and we get to see the world through the eyes of someone else. Kicking a ball back and forth with each other works because we focus part of our brain on the physicality and revel in each others prowess or lack of same. We’re actually learning math and physics at the same time, but that’s another story. Primarily, it’s FUN! Taking a walk on the riverfront with friends works because we see and engage both socially and with the water flowing past us. Bouncing on a trampoline works because it makes us giggle while a host of delicious chemicals rush through our brain and our proprioception systems re-boot. Recreation doesn’t just work – it’s essential to our well being.
Attaching an agenda to recreation because of a disability denigrates the freedom and the joy we all deserve as fellow humans.
I pose the question – why is it perfectly acceptable to recognize the value of recreation for non disabled people but for a disabled person, we want first to know if it “works?”
I asked an autistic friend her opinion on recreation and what she told me made a lot of sense. She said that it’s only recreation if you feel SAFE doing it. It’s valuable if YOU choose the level of risk – not others. Otherwise, it’s either terrifying or belittling.
This then makes the critical case for supported recreation for vulnerable populations. It’s Square Peg’s job to provide the supports so that each person feels safe enough to recreate. And that my friend – works.