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Last weekend I had a crazy thought regarding all the wonderful people who gave us such fantastic gifts when Dar was born. Do any of them want the gifts back now that they know Dar can’t use them?

I know, ridiculous. Our second kid uses them. No, of course they don’t want them back. I had this silly notion – or as people say who watch Thomas and Friends as often as me, an idea flew into my funnel – because of the toyapalooza that is the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. My wife’s workplace offers us a gratis day there once a year, and last Sunday, we took advantage.

As a side note, what’s up with calling these places museums? Shouldn’t that term be reserved for places where you passively view art and antiquities? I know, I know, let’s encourage interactivity with art, but I don’t love these Child Play Centers co-opting this term as though to make themselves more highbrow. Might they be turning off lower-income families? Perhaps their research indicates that lower-income families actually benefit because after their kid does a “Discovery Museum” the same kid is more likely to want to see, you know, a real museum. Or perhaps the places figure to get more money from the opera-supporting crowd when they change the name from Center to Museum. (Bingo.)

I have no idea what sort of kid-friendly experience the Bay Area Discovery Museum is missing. There’s the standard comprehensive wooden structure garden-playground. There’s all of the art studios, where you can indulge in paint, sand, legos, paper-folding, goop/oobleck (they call it flarp, what are they, trying to trademark that or something?), and a variety of fixtures I can’t even begin to name (popsicle sticks, coins, fake eyeballs, you get the idea). There’s a room with a bunch of model trains, weaving in and out of intersections, up and down many hills. There’s “lily pads” where you bounce on small water-blue trampolines and press the wall buttons to activate noises of crickets, frogs, ducks, etc. There’s froggies “trapped” behind glass and water, but you can push a pedal to make them blow bubbles. There’s the imagination playground with hundreds (yes, hundreds) of kid-sized foam blue blocks that can be used to build – heck, almost anything. Hula-hoops and easels and low-tech musical instruments dot the in-between spaces.

There’s a major Curious George exhibition right now, which lets you interact with George and his friends in all kinds of ways, including miniature golf, pipe-fitting, turning a wheel to make George wash skyscraper windows, helping George process blocks in a “factory,” etc. (R was freaking out because he’s all about the George.) Past the Lookout Cove, there’s kind of a house plus maze called Peekaboo Palace made all of very thin willow sticks, which is very arty and reminded me of Andy Goldsworthy but was in fact built by Patrick Dougherty; you can see the cool time-lapse video here. Near this palace are other back trails that feel very NorCal. So: of this entire museum, what was Dar into?

Welllllllll…not much. I noticed five things that grabbed him for more than a second or two. The first was a chimey xylophone. The second was a mini-gazebo which tightly suspended together all these noodles – maybe 100 of those swimming-pool fixtures we all know and float with. Dar enjoyed walking through that, although after a couple of kids pushed him a little while he was “inside,” he seemed to enjoy more standing on the outside and watching. Third: of all the things in the Curious George exhibit, Dar was most attracted to a bike wheel that wasn’t really set up as a toy but instead as a little narrative device (so to speak) explaining the (Curious George authors) Rays’ bicycle-bound escape from the Nazis (yes, really). Dar just liked spinning it and holding his hand on it as it spun.

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Fourth: as part of a so-called Port of San Francisco, there’s a fake trawler boat which is pretty much the size of a real boat, but of course the museum has tricked it out so that it’s utterly safe while still rocking just a bit, for your kid’s enjoyment. Now, both my kids avoid bouncy castles like the plague, and I couldn’t get R to try this particular boat despite my best bribes, but thanks to a great assist from wifey, Dar managed to rock the boat! (I’m always doubly impressed when Dar does something that R doesn’t. Swimming is another rare example of this.) So that was something.

Fifth: now we come to the Wave Workshop. The minute I stepped into this room, I knew that if I felt like it, I could walk away, read War and Peace, come back and Dar would be right where I’d left him. We’re talking about a large, large table with a constant flow of undulating waves of water. That suits Dar better than carrots suit Bugs Bunny. Back at home, we once taught him to wash his hands. Then we un-taught him, or to be more exact, we have to turn off the water as he scrubs, not only because we’re in a record-setting drought, but because he prefers the water to endlessly roll over his hands, soap being irrelevant. The rest of the Wave Workshop – the shells, the stuffed animals of marine life, the sand games – swept away from Dar’s awareness like a sandcastle the moment Dar saw that table.

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As a parent of a child with severe autism, what’s my best play in such a situation? How much time should I give him? After ten minutes, his shirt was getting rather wet, but 1) we had a back-up shirt in the car and 2) it was at least 80 degrees outside. After fifteen minutes I began to notice the other kids looking at Dar as though he was a little strange, considering all the “tee-tee-teeing” with no other kind of vocals. At some point, after maybe 30 minutes of waves, I took him away and we had lunch with wifey and R. On our way out of the complex, we passed the Wave Workshop room – which sits in an utterly nondescript building – and Dar screamed because we didn’t let him back in there. I can’t remember being happier to see him have a meltdown. He remembered where he’d been! It almost made me want to let him back in there. Almost.

In the gift shop, wifey bought them a robot, and in the car, the brothers proceeded to fight over it. Aw, two kids fighting over a toy! What some parents consider odious, I consider a glorious sign of normalcy.

So no big whoop. I post these sorts of accounts because I want to provide people a sense of what we’re up to…perhaps to help parents of kids on the spectrum, or to help parents of kids not on the spectrum, or to help just people, get some perspectrumive. (Can’t believe that’s not already the title of an autism blog.) Next week I expectrum to be back with more spectrumacle.

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