Thursday, October 14, 2010
Ten Minutes to Wapner
You’ve all probably seen Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman’s character was inspired by real-life autistic Kim Peek who could read eight books a day, taking ten seconds to read each page, devouring two pages simultaneously, his left eye reading the left page and his right eye reading the right one. He had an unbelievable memory and knowledge of rote facts. But, here’s the interesting conundrum: throughout his life he still needed 24-hour care. Despite his amazing mental agility, his motor skills were limited and he needed help with things like dressing himself and combing his hair.
The movie wasn’t necessarily a bad depiction of someone with autism, although neither of my kids can count toothpicks if they’re dropped on the floor, or perform other entertaining party tricks. And I’m here to tell you if they could count cards, I’d be the first one to hop on a plane to Vegas and figure out a way to exploit the situation to my financial advantage. But my kids aren’t savants. Most autistic people aren’t - only about 10% of people on the autism spectrum have savant skills.
So for that reason, the Hollywood portrait painted wasn’t entirely realistic with regard to most people on the autism spectrum. But it told an engaging story and illustrated some things rather well:
The Ten Minutes to Wapner thing was very realistic. I can hear Jake saying that, only it wouldn’t be about The People’s Court, it would probably involve Pokemon or Mario or some cartoon character on one of his shows. “Mom, it’s coming on in five minutes. Mom…only three more minutes, HURRY!”
Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
The movie also hit the nail on the head about things like having to eat specific foods a certain way, or requiring a certain brand of underwear, lest the wearer might, say, lose their shit (pun intended). Jake is a boxer kind of kid and he’ll go commando before putting on tightie-whities. If it’s a school day and I haven’t gotten to the laundry fast enough, obviously commando wouldn’t be an appropriate option. So, yeah - that would be a bad start to what presumably would be a bad day. Needless to say, I try and stay on top of the laundry situation in my house.
People on the autism spectrum are often restricted, rigid, and even obsessive in their behaviors, activities, and interests. When this rigidity is challenged, in the form of making changes to their rituals and structure, challenging behaviors (AKA: tantrums) may arise.
The thing to remember with autistic children is that the behavior is not on a vindictive or malicious level. They are not trying to blackmail you emotionally because what’s happening - from their perspective - has to do with them, not you. Autistic children are completely without guile. They have no understanding of concepts such as passive-aggression or manipulation. Autistic persons’ reactions are simply their reactions to whatever stimuli they’re being confronted with. Unlike some neuro-typical children, their actions are not a conscious way of getting something they want. In fact, they’re probably not even aware how their actions are affecting you. That’s something they often need to be taught along the way, rather than simply ‘getting it’ from your behavior, facial expression or body language.
For this reason alone, I wish everyone had a touch of autism.
Jake can’t lie. Seriously, he can’t tell a lie. It’s like a tic for him. He’ll get right in the car after school and give me a laundry list of every bad thing that he might have said, done, or encountered that day. He’s unable to move forward until he’s sure I’m completely aware of anything that might have been considered inappropriate. Then he feels better. If I ask him a direct question, even though he MIGHT try to keep something from me, he’s got absolutely no poker face, and the moment of silence is quickly followed by him coughing up the truth, however uncomfortable it makes him. This might very well be the coolest thing about him, from a parenting perspective. Well, that, and the fact that he can’t abide cursing, which he regularly calls me on, as well as fellow students. Yeah, I imagine that goes over really well with the ‘normal’ kids. (Actually I know it doesn’t because he was recently bullied for it.)
Just interacting socially can be draining for someone who can’t read facial expressions, isn’t verbal and doesn’t understand many things involved in social interaction, like reading body language. It’s like trying to get something from someone who is speaking another language. So pile that on top of any changes in the structure of their life and you should expect the guano to hit the oscillator, my friends.
Although their routines might seem strange to us, they serve a purpose to the autistic person. After all, routine itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I go grocery shopping on the same day of the week each week, simply because it’s convenient. If I wait longer I will run out of something. If I go earlier, I may have too much of certain items and then they go bad before I can use them. Ritual and routine help us feel secure and safe within our environment and makes the world around us more predictable. Too much unpredictability and uncertainty can lead to stress, more so with autistic people.
When these rituals and routines are interrupted or changed, the reaction you might get could well seem to be disproportionate, but you must remember that the autistic person who you are interacting with may have communication problems and doesn’t understand the reason for the disruption of their routine. Even Jake, who is a teenager and very verbal, is extremely literal. Try using things like sarcasm, irony, metaphor or pun on him and what you’ll get in return is a blank stare.
Jaxson and Jake both have issues with change. Jaxson, for instance, is unable to come into school and unpack his backpack and put his items into his locker like the other six children in his class, until his teacher comes out of the classroom and greets him in the hallway. He won’t let me leave until this happens. As soon as his teacher comes out and Jax sees her, I can leave. But if I try to leave him with his fellow students to unpack his backpack, he whines and pulls at me. It is how things went on the first day of kindergarten, so now if I try to change it up, he freaks out. This doesn’t bode well for the day - which is swiftly approaching - when he has a substitute teacher.
The ASD teachers want children to become more independent, thus tending to certain chores at school by themselves, without the aid of a paraprofessional or teacher. They need to be able to do things, like walk down the hall without holding the para-pro’s hand or change from their snow boots into sneakers in the winter, all by themselves.
This is all grand, but when something ‘new’ comes up - something out of their normal routine - this can throw an autistic child off, terribly. The way to try and change this is to regularly change-up their routine, at home and school. To toss them something unexpected and get them used to navigating change. Needless to say this isn’t always fun and so far I haven’t seen it actually work. You’re bucking their internal sense of order and it doesn’t go well. But as a parent, I still need to try, because life is messy and full of changes. The need for a detour often arises.
But, try relating that concept to an autistic child and see how far you get.