We’re trying to get Alex to eat only at the table. Not in front of the TV, not beside the TV, not on top of the TV. At the table. At the table where family dinners will be eaten and family holidays held. At the table, Alex.

This doesn’t, well, sit okay with him. Our dining room table is maybe 20 feet from the TV, and he can easily see Elmo from his booster seat and by peering over his chicken nuggets. Alex can also sit at the Ikea kiddie table over by the windows, about 10 feet away from the screen. At least we think we can see Elmo from 10 to 20 feet; there may be some problem with his long-range vision.

I choose to believe poor vision is part of his motivation as he straightens in his booster seat, looks around, and submerges between the table and the chair. Then the little eyes and hand appear over the tabletop, groping for the plastic bowl of Cheese Nips.

I snatch them away. “No, Alex. At the table.” He makes a sound like an old hinge.

Though his diet remains primitive, his manners are improving. One of Jill’s earlier bright ideas resulted in our keeping the plastic bowls in a lower kitchen drawer, where Alex and Ned can get them themselves. Alex has learned to ask for “bo-ell, bo-ell!”, sometimes even with a “Pleeze!” tacked on. He will then gesture toward the cabinet containing the pretzels, the Cheese Nips, or the Goldfish, and ask for the snack by name (Cheese Nips, for some reason, come out “Want those!”). He’ll stand patiently until I fill the bowl, then he’ll bolt for the living room and we’ve pretty much hit the end of his family eating manners.

“Alex! Table!” Sometimes he veers there by himself; sometimes he needs dad’s loving, darting hand on his shoulder to remind him that food of all kinds is eaten at the table in this house unless you’re at least 30 years old and there’s a good movie on.

Last night was a battle. After chicken and in the middle of Elmo, Alex got his bo-ell of Want Those and was all set up at the dining room table. Then, somewhere in Alex’s conning tower, the captain gave the order to dive, dive, dive! Under the table he slid, out the side of the chair, hand up for the Want Those.

“Table, Alex. Sit.”

“Nooo. Okay. All right.” (To Alex, by the way, “okay” and “all right” mean “Why don’t you find something else to do, dad?”) Then began the elaborate performance of hand, slide, “Table!”, “okay,” hand, slide, “Table!”, “okay,” hand, slide, extremely loud hinge. First we did this show at the dining room table, then we took it on the road to the kiddie table. This show lasted 15 minutes; Alex never touched the Cheese Nips the whole time.

On the same night that we’d received written progress reports from his school that Alex is not progressing in many areas, I was witnessing typical toddler maneuvers. The communication wasn’t there (hinge!), and his attention span sometimes seems like a series of short circuits, but I was looking at a kid who just wanted to do something his way. “Alex, sit. Table.” I tapped the table for emphasis. Ned scampered over and also began tapping the table.

Then the whole operation seemed to slow. Alex sidled up rather than sprang; he took the bowl from the kiddle table and held it in front of him, turned his back to me, and started to crab walk slowly toward the TV. Probably thinking, “Dad’ll never think of looking in front of me for the bo-ell of Want Those…”

“Okay, all right.”

“Table.” Tap, tap, tap. He sat. Then his butt came off the chair, but not as high as before. When I took the bowl from his hands to replace it on the kiddie table, his hold was looser. Then he then sat quicker, and stayed a few seconds longer. Ned came over to stand in front of his big brother, eat a chicken nugget, and think either How can I help, dad? or Do you guys do matinees?

As with much in Alex’s life, we will do this whenever we need to, however long it takes. “Sit, Alex. Table.”

Jeff Stimpson, 49, is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism (both available on Amazon). He maintains a blog about his family at http://jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites and publications on special-needs parenting, such as Autism-Asperger’s Digest, Autism Spectrum News, and The Autism Society news blog.