At some point in recent history it was agreed that monolithic playcentres should become a part of every suburban neighbourhood. Hidden amongst factories, down dusty streets and within spaces originally designed for the manufacture of light aircraft, these institutions have been built. Playful names like Lollipops, Daydreamers and Jump n Jiggle belie the fact that these centres are actually training grounds for modern warfare.
Croc's Playground in Carnegie is a case in point. We have been invited there to attend the birthday party of another child on the autism spectrum who T-Bone met during social skills classes. I'll call him BeeBoy, because the last time I saw him was at a barbecue where his disdain for bees was without doubt. Being bothered more or less constantly by these pesky insects, he kept saying, "I don't like bees", with the most adorable inflection that it will stay with me forevermore.
Although there is a new adage that if you've met one kid on the autism spectrum, you've met one kid on the autism spectrum, BeeBoy reminds me a lot of my quirky T-Bone. When things annoy them, they really, really annoy them. To the point where their world consists entirely of this annoying thing and nothing else can enter. Their single-mindedness can be both a beauty and a curse, and I'm sure were BeeBoy to be actually stung by a bee one day he would find a way, some way, to eradicate all the bees on the planet, thereby destroying the global food chain.
Sitting atop a neighbourhood shopping centre, Croc's Playground is a sensory overload of sounds, sights and activity. It also has a huge ball shooting range in which kiddies can hone their warmongering skills. Balls are shot and evaded. Snipers are bred, as are bullies.
Padded obstacles, climbing structures and narrow passageways further help train these budding soldiers for future combat. A "no shoes" policy is enforced to toughen them up and/or remind them of visiting a Chinese household. Which is more or less the same thing, as nothing can quite breed resilience like the clattering of mahjong tiles at 1am when you, as a small child, are desperately trying to sleep.
Four year old T-Bone discovers the overpopulated jumping castle which is designed to train these soldierettes to co-exist in close quarters with their comrades. That, and to condition them to the significant head trauma that these bouncy death vessels invariably cause.
T-Bone jumps around jubilantly but then starts pumping his arms back and forth, mimicking the devilish wall of mechanical fists in his latest favourite show, Total Wipeout, which comes on not long after the end of the cartoons on ABC2. While a part if me is proud that he is starting to get this whole "pretend play" thing (generally a deficit in ASD kids), the other part of me is horrified because it just looks like he is randomly trying to beat the crap out of anyone who crosses his path.
Given all of this is a military training exercise – with hand-to-hand combat surely one of the requisite skills – I probably needn't be so concerned. Luckily, however, BeeBoy's party battalion is called in for lunch so T-Bone and his little fists of fury can be removed from the situation.
On the way to the mess hall, with little Willy Santiago lagging woefully behind, T-Bone and I draw upon all our agility to dodge the bespectacled father zooming down the giant slide, three year old daughter on his lap. The dour office worker overcompensating for his limited contribution to child rearing during the week by going completely INSANE on the weekend: every over-exuberant action simultaneously impressing his little girl and threatening to maim another.
Thankfully we make it past him safely to the mess where we find triangles of fairy bread. Despite the military's notoriety for unforgiving toughness, the speckly, multi-coloured dish gives me hope that their culture is beginning to change.
Having had their fill, T-Bone and Sea Bass venture back into the commando course, allowing my wife and I to hoover up the leftover scraps of processed meat and pastry we have been eyeing off for the last half an hour.
Then I hear the voice of an unfamiliar child saying, "stop it! Stop It! STOP IT!", and I know in an instant that one of mine is involved.
We rush over and find T-Bone high up in the play structure wailing away at another child. The flushed, pained, confused expression on his face - one we've seen hundreds of times before - letting us know it's happening again.
Which is not just a tantrum, for anyone lucky enough not to have witnessed one.
These meltdowns often appear at random, without rhyme, reason or warning. Triggered by a threat real or perceived, they cause his world to collapse. And usually, ours too.
Into counter-meltdown mode we go. First step is to keep everyone safe, calling for me to rush up the structure and extricate T-Bone from the situation. Sometimes we can distract and move him along to something else. On this occasion, the only thing on his mind is revenge and that means the end of our nice little outing to the playcentre. We don't even get to collect our ration packs aka party bags on the way out.
At the risk of offending pretty much everyone, these meltdowns are a lot like a terrorist attack. A good deal of irrationality is involved, you never know when they're going to happen, and afterwards you're left thinking, "what did I do to deserve this?".
It must be worse for T-Bone at these times, of course. Losing control over all your senses and faculties as a result of some unseen, unknowable force cannot be pleasant, but self-preservation, rather than empathy, is usually my first port of call in such instances.
Battling all my instincts to yell at him to "SNAP OUT OF IT!", I draw upon my dwindling reserves of patience, yet again, and confront this tornado with as much gentleness as I can muster. Fighting fire with fire is folly during a meltdown. I've learned that the hard way, and will probably learn it again.
With the meltdown having run its natural course, he is all of a sudden sweetness beyond belief, quoting Ben and Holly lines verbatim in perfectly accented Queen's English, as if nothing had ever happened.
I could try and describe how my wife and I feel after such a blowout, but someone else has already captured it perfectly:
Arriving home, still rattled from what felt like the father of all meltdowns, I need a break and allow the kids some telly time. While I am still struggling to regain my composure, a Sesame Street number called "Belly Breathe" suddenly catches my attention. Ostensibly a song to teach children to control their anger, it has as much, if not more, relevance to adults. Because while T-Bone may be unable to tame his "mad monster", I can at least try to tame mine.