Like many kids it seems, my son Kirby loves Frozen. In his “always on” autism media rotation, that’s a big deal because not much new breaks through the ever recurring Thomas videos and the Cars and Planes Pixar movies.
In the difficult process of getting Kirby to put together a Christmas list, I was surprised when Anna and Olaf from Frozen turned up – isn’t it Elsa the one everyone loves? Olaf even took several categories: stuffed animal, knit winter hat, hide and seek Olaf game, and a Frozen book with Olaf on the cover.
I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise when with the first snow of the year, Kirby went nuts dragging any adult he could find outside to “build Olaf”. And soon “an Olaf” was constructed with great care and attention. He looked pretty good. I thought that we were done but not so…
While I stood admiring our work, Kirby made multiple trips into the house and back out with various hats for Olaf. Kirby loves hats and often wears multiple hats at once, so I assumed it was a “style thing”. I critiqued each hat and held the discard pile for him. It wasn’t until he ran over and grabbed my hand and drug me over to Olaf saying “daddy make Olaf alive” that I got it. The hats were an attempt to reproduce what he’d seen in the Frosty show.
Many young kids imagine that Frosty or Olaf can come alive and so that’s ok. But a child with autism doesn’t necessarily have the cognitive abilities to understand the explanations of reality vs make believe. And frankly I’m not sure I wanted to hurry that along anyway.
So the usual explanations one might use with a young child on why I couldn’t make Olaf come alive didn’t work. He was sure I could do it. And he desperately wanted it to happen. I was failing him and there was nothing I could do about it. He pleaded and pleaded…
You see it was more than a passing whim, Kirby wanted to play with Olaf. Olaf the character on the TV and iPad had become a friend to Kirby. A safe friend like Thomas the Tank Engine, who understood Kirby and Kirby understood him. In all of the ways that “typical” peers could not play with Kirby, Olaf could play. If only I could succeed in this simple request to bring Olaf to life, Kirby would have a real three dimensional physical friend instead of ones stuck behind a screen. Alas there was nothing I could do and I’ve never felt more useless.
So I did what any parent might do. I tried to divert the hysteria elsewhere, allow time to pass, and hope that this obsession would fade. After 12 years of autism parenting, I should have known better. So I grabbed Kirby tightly, I hugged him, and I tried to calm him. I explained that I could not make Olaf come alive. And he said “you do it, like Elsa”. And without thinking, I said “I am not magic like Elsa, only Elsa can make Olaf come alive”. I didn’t even realize the mistake I was making as I said that…
Being the problem solver that he is Kirby figured it out right away. “Daddy, go get Elsa”. Uh oh…
So I explained that Elsa lived far away – hand me a shovel folks and I’ll just dig myself a deeper hole. This was no problem as far as Kirby was concerned, my simple and easy job was to summon Elsa and then we’d just wait. Daddy would summon Elsa and Elsa would come. Easy peasy. Kirby sat down next to Olaf to wait.
And there he stayed. Waiting.
Finally it was getting dark and I had to make Kirby come inside for dinner and bed time. It took an hour but finally he agreed to come inside but he was worried about Olaf being alone in the dark waiting for Elsa. He gathered all of his outdoor toys: Tonka trucks, dirt movers, etc. and he brought them to surround Olaf to keep him company for the night. I was in tears.
And it can only get worse right?
The next day the sun was out and the temperature was up. Kirby checked on Olaf and the Elsa summons before he boarded his school bus. Nothing yet. When he came home, Olaf, guarded by Kirby’s motorcade, was slumping. Olaf was fixed up and refreshed and Kirby joined in the waiting. This went on for three days until after school one day Olaf was no more than a hat, some sticks, a carrot, and some stones. Kirby was sad, he said “goodbye Olaf” to the pile of bits and walked away.
I stood and cried.
I cried not because Kirby couldn’t understand why I, and Elsa, and the world had failed him. Not because he was developing more slowly that his peers and so still believed in magic at the ripe age of 12. I cried because Kirby wanted a friend. A real friend. And that there was no human in the world, not even the most compassionate and autism savvy human, that could fill Olaf’s shoes.
I think that Olaf, Cars, Planes, Thomas, and other TV characters attract autistic kids because some how they are safe to relate to – predictable facial expressions, minimal body language…
And now I wish that I was a cartoon or a machine with a face because I know that my son would play with me and we’d be truly be friends. But I’m not magical enough to make myself into one and Elsa isn’t coming.