He soars through Central Park, his flight path twisting and turning to the delight of passersby, his satin cape shimmering and red hair ablaze in the early afternoon sun.
My son, Liam, and I sometimes get cooped up at home for far too long. Liam is on the spectrum for autism, and although he’ll have a typical childhood and go to typical schools, it will be because he was diagnosed early and received the care and therapy he needs. Four weekdays out of five, he either has therapists visit in the afternoon or must be taken to an appointment. Another therapist spends time with him at his pre-school every morning.
In short, my son puts in a lot of work every week. His only afternoon off is Wednesday so we always try to make the most of it. Liam’s favorite thing to do is to run, to fly, and Central Park is the best place in the world for that.
His magical world in Central Park
Our route through the park is long and winding. We usually enter at Columbus Circle, head east to the Central Park Zoo, and then turn north. We will go past the sailboats of Kerbs Boathouse, the Alice in Wonderland sculpture, all the way up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then we cut across the park to Belvedere Castle, and wind our way through the wooded pathways to the Bethesda Fountain. From there, we go to the bandshell, down the promenade, and hook right past the Carousel and baseball diamonds, to Heckscher Playground. There, Liam will run and play for an hour or so before we head back home.
Liam runs ahead of me the entire time, through his magical world of Central Park.
There’s a man who regularly plays the fiddle by the Heckscher Playground. He knows Liam by name, although he always calls him Batman, or Flash, or whichever identity he has chosen that day. Liam squeals in response, and the fiddler plays music for him to dance to.
My son’s imagination saves the day
Autism has not affected my son’s mental or cognitive faculties. He is as sharp as a tack, remembers everything and misses nothing. But one issue he had was with imaginative play. He was prone to lying on the floor, simply rolling a car or train back and forth in front of his eyes, fixated on its wheels, unwilling to expand his world out from his toy vehicle.
One of Liam’s therapists, Diane, found the key to coaxing him away from this laser focus on toy cars and trains. He would always get very excited when he heard a garbage truck outside, and would run to the window to see it. One morning, Diane pointed out the sanitation workers loading the truck. Liam simply had not registered them. He would only see the vehicles, not the people inside them.
This was partly our fault. His favorite television program was Thomas the Tank Engine, and he would watch some of Disney’s Cars every day. Both shows featured anthropomorphic vehicles and little to no human interaction. My wife and I had been unintentionally reinforcing his tendency to lock in on vehicles and ignore the humans operating them.
I’d been buying superhero toys and clothes for Liam since he first arrived. I make no apologies for being an unabashed nerd. It’s a big part of who I am. But when faced with the question of how to help Liam incorporate people into his play routines, and to help him branch out into role-playing and other types of imaginative play, I found the answer in superheroes.
Superheroes are big and bold, bursting with color, and impossible to ignore. Many of the toys come as vehicles and playsets. Now he would be required to deal with human characters when he played with vehicles. Capes, masks, accessories and clothing were easy to find, and encouraged imaginative roleplay.
Superheroes drew my son into more typical and varied realms of play. Once he saw how a cape flew out behind him when he ran, he became hooked. Now he would not only run, he would fly. His imagination would kick into overdrive.
He was no longer Liam, he was a superhero.
Watching people react to Liam as he dashes by has become one of my greatest pleasures. He actually lights people up. They smile. They laugh. They will try to take a picture of him, but he’s too fast. Their cameras only catch a brightly colored blur streaking away from them, but his picture stays in their mind, like the image of the sun does after you glance at it.
Walking next to my son is like walking next to the sun.
A dynamic duo
Liam isn’t the only one to dress up, of course. I’m all too eager to don a super suit as I follow him through Central Park. Liam chooses which superhero he wants to be, and then picks one for me. The end result is I add an extra kick to the sunny impact he has on people. Those folks already smiling about the pint-sized Batman who just ran past tend to break into even wider grins when they see an enormous Robin bringing up the rear with the stroller.
Dressing up as a superhero with my son has unintentionally practical benefits, too. Liam is more difficult to lose in a crowd, being an easily spotted explosion of color and energy in playgrounds swarming with kids. Conversely, my costume makes it easy for him to find me. Without planning it, our superhero outfits have become safety features, ensuring that we will never lose each other.
The superhero outfits, surprisingly, have also made me more approachable. Like a lot of dads on a playground full of moms, I’ve felt out of place at times, like an intruder. Granted, this feeling subsides (mostly because it isn’t really true) but that sense that I’m unwelcome, that I’m viewed with suspicion because I’m a man, comes back from time to time.
That all goes away when you’re wearing a Green Lantern outfit and your little Superman is directing you where to go to stop the next fiendish threat to the planet. It’s difficult to be perceived as a threat to anyone when you’re saving the world. You are immediately considered a safe space by all, and parents and children alike will come over and talk to you.
Making friends as a grown-up can be unnecessarily difficult, and a superhero shirt can circumvent that.When you’re focusing on what’s fun for your kid, you’re not worried about how others might be seeing you, and that’s the key to improving playground time for your child and you.
It’s seems weirdly ironic to not worry about how others see you when you’re wearing a Batman mask, but there it is. Superhero outfits can make you less self conscious while simultaneously making you more conspicuous. Funny, that.
So while I originally intended for superheroes to help Liam work through his issues, they’ve also ended up helping me with mine. But the secret here is not the costume but the time we’re spending together. Superheroes may be the conduit for that, and they can be switched out for anything else. Use whatever you are into — sports, music, bottle caps — as a starting point to find what your child really likes and how you can encourage him or her. That’s kind of a big part of what parenting is all about.
The point is, you don’t need to use superheroes, and you don’t need to be in Central Park. You can do this anywhere, with anything.
From Dynamic Duo to Justice League
It’s time for the play-date now. Liam’s preschool friends frequent Central Park as well, and we meet either on the Great Lawn or one of the playgrounds most every Wednesday. It’s a recent development, but a welcome one. The other kids all make sure to let me know they want capes, too. No problem. We have enough.
So we’ve gone from a Dynamic Duo to a full-on Justice League. Batman and Captain America team up with Wonder Woman and Paw Patrol Boy, or whomever else the children dream up. Now, whenever you visit Central Park on Wednesdays, you must keep an eye out for lots of low flying superheroes.
A little over a year ago, Liam was still barely speaking. He still had a tendency to withdraw into himself, and was slow to socialize with other children. To see him now, leading the Avengers in a charge across the Great Lawn seems nothing short of miraculous. Which is the kind of thing superheroes do, I suppose.
He soars through Central Park, his flight path twisting and turning to the delight of passersby, his satin cape shimmering, and the golden late afternoon sun setting his red hair ablaze, like a joyful fire.
My heart burns there, too.
“You will travel far, my little Kal-El, but we will never leave you, even in the face of our death. The richness of our lives shall be yours. All that I have, all that I’ve learned, everything I feel, all this and more, I bequeath you, my son. You will carry me inside you, all the days of your life.
You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine.” ~ Marlon Brando/Jor-El in Superman: the Movie