My new granddaughter is now six months old. She does not do much except eat and sleep. She is just starting to sit up and may soon begin to crawl. We can play a little peek-a-boo and a few other early infant games. What can we do for fun to get to know each other? It seems we have discovered that our most fun comes from tickling. It’s simple. We always get a laugh and a smile and have a great time.
My oldest grandson is a little more than eight years old. He’s active, enthusiastic, and as cute as could be. He has autism. We first learned he had an issue when he was about two years old. It was becoming clear that something was different. He lost some of his words and was not really progressing in certain key social areas. The quest for insight and information began by his parents immediately. There was no denial by any of us and no shortage of effort to start to deal with the matter. He began speech therapy and behavioral therapy shortly thereafter as the search for insight progressed.
Like every doting grandparent, I was concerned. I’ve always had a close relationship with my grandson and we played together often. From infancy we played peek-a-boo and I tickled him and rolled around on the floor with him. He laughed and cooed and we both had a ball. It never mattered to either of us that he might have some developmental issues that were being evaluated. He did not know that something was different for him. I did my best to learn and hope and play with him in the same intense yet caring way. We were buddies. I loved him and an occasional hug or kiss from him was a priceless reward for my interest. Oh, and he loved to be tickled. He loved to be held, to receive attention and be cared about.
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Throughout his childhood, tickling has been one of our favorite activities. Even at age eight he comes over to me and now says, “Grandpa, tickle me.” It is a thrill for me that he still enjoys this form of interaction. It is a joy to hear the unrestrained laughter and to see his sparkling smile. He’s a lot bigger now. When he’s had enough tickling he can easily escape from grandpa’s grasp. He rarely tickles me. I have no idea why. It doesn’t really matter, but it is interesting.
It’s fascinating how much I can tell about his mood by his interest in interacting with me. It’s marvelous that this most early interaction is something we still share to this day. It seems that somewhere along the way the play between us became a bond. This little game became a special activity for us to enjoy together. There are many activities he shows limited interest in. There are other activities that he has taken to with great success. He loves Legos. He loves to draw and is very talented at that. Every day has brought new surprises and many successes. It may be that this basic form of play is part of how we communicate our intense interest in each other. I still can’t completely grasp it’s significance.
One of the things I know for sure is that these simple interactions bring him great joy. Laughter from a child is the sound of joy, progress, energy and love. His laughter gets me laughing. His interest in playing with me is a step forward in his socialization process. This is not scientific. This is not statistically documentable. This is only the observation of someone who in the most non-objective fashion can see that his happiness is also my happiness. I have learned that the sound of his laughter goes beyond him. His laughter transports both of us to a better place. We are both moved to joy and amusement. What is amazing is that he does not have to do much for me to be so pleased by his laughter. All he has to do is to be my grandson and to allow me to share his enjoyment.
After eight years of research and exploration we have all learned a great deal about Autism Spectrum Disorder. My grandson is in school. He receives occupational therapy, art therapy and wonderful educational and life enhancing services. He is surrounded by dedicated family and committed professionals.
Without the benefit of science I have learned is that his laughter is not just an indicator of his happiness. It is the documentable evidence of my happiness. It is me finding joy. It is me being rewarded. It is me finding excitement and pleasure in him and through him. While I once thought I was making him happy it’s really also that he is making me happy. I can be silent and see reflected in him that my spirits have been lifted. That I am smiling. It’s me who is also joyful. It’s me who is excited and thrilled. He is the one making me laugh…and all he is doing is being himself. He is a great teacher. He does all this and he does not even have to tickle back. I have now discovered that is the real joy of tickling.
This article was featured in Issue 44 – Strategies for Daily Life with Autism