On Facebook, I discovered a really cool community called thAucast, a group for a blogzine of the same name that is written by and for those on the spectrum. Created in 2009, its mission is to make autism a little less scary, lonely, and confusing; to celebrate the accomplishments of people on the spectrum; and to provide people with the information needed to function as autistic citizens. I follow the group because I want to learn more about autism from the perspective of those are autistic, not just what the endless articles and books and doctors are telling me. Some of the postings are media clippings that are extremely depressing: bullying in schools, actual abuse of kids on the spectrum. But some are awesome and really give voice to an experience that Nate can’t vocalize.
As you all know, we’re pretty open about Nate’s diagnosis. And, when we talk about it, the first question everyone asks is, “How do you know?” One of the parents of Nate’s classmates the other day couldn’t believe it — and her husband was a special ed teacher! I explained that, if you hung around Nate enough, you’d know and, in fact, all of Nate’s classmates, at age 2, have figured it out for themselves and, blissfully, rise to the occasion to give my boy some much needed help. Someone on thAucast posted the above cartoon that describes the characteristics of autism, which I think articulates it quite nicely, even with some humor. I thought it might be helpful for Nate’s fans to explain how he exhibits these characteristics.
Inappropriate laughing or giggling: Nate has got this one down pat. Out of nowhere, Nate can just start giggling and he can’t stop. When he’s in big boy underwear, I’m sure he’ll pee his pants when he does this. It is unprompted and completely unrelated to what is happening around him. Sometimes, the laughter has a pattern, which leads me to wonder if he’s replaying a Curious George episode in his head. Other times, it doesn’t. He also uses laughter to rev himself up when he’s getting tired. He’s been known to skip a nap at school because, as soon as he becomes drowsy, he giggles uncontrollably, which wakes him up and starts the whole settling down process again.
No real fear of danger: Because Nate has low motor planning skills, jumping off the couch or the balcony holds no meaning for him. He has no concept of what the ramification could be and it’s not because he hasn’t experienced a fall. (He has.) ”Hot stove” is just a phrase and Nate running into danger (read: traffic) sounds like a great time to him. The biggest problem with this lack of fear is that Nate rarely responds to his name. So hollering out, “NATE!” as he’s running toward cars does nothing. To counteract this, through a lot of work with his therapy team, Nate has learned the meaning of STOP. When he is in a dangerous situation, there is a specific tone of voice and hand gesture we use and he responds to it. He has even been known to vocally and physically tell us to STOP, too!
May not want cuddling: For the most part, Nate’s a snuggler. But when he has a sensory overload, he needs no one and nothing to touch him. Clothes off. People, stay away.
Sustained unusual or repetitive play: This was one of the key symptoms when Nate was diagnosed. He couldn’t play with things appropriately. If it had a wheel (toy cars), he would instantly flip it over and spin the wheels until someone stopped him. Light switches went on/off/on/off/on/off for a prolonged period of time. Through therapy, Nate’s learning how to play appropriately (cars roll on the floor and go zoom!, trains ride on tracks, playdoh can be rolled and not just poked) but we’ve still got some work to do here, which leads me to….
Insistence on sameness: As we taught Nate how to play, he decided that it was the only way to play. Nate learned to stack blocks but, when we turned the blocks over and made them into a train for Hobbes, Nate freaked out. Why? You stack blocks; you don’t push blocks. We are finding this across the board with activities. So we’re now working on imaginative play, helping Tater learn that there are many ways of playing with one item. Nate also has specific routes in our car memorized. We cannot pass our house in our car; we have to turn into the driveway and go home. If we don’t, a gigantic meltdown ensues.
May avoid eye contact: Another #1 indicator when Nate was diagnosed. He couldn’t do it. I’ve read articles by and listened to interviews with autistic individuals who say that it physically hurts them to look someone in the eye. It’s suspected that there’s so much sensory input – visual, sound, sense (temperature, breeze etc.) – that it becomes overwhelming and causes the brain to go into overload. Nate’s improvement in this category is beyond words but, again, we’ve still got miles to go.
Difficulty interacting with others: This is especially true when Nate is with peers. If left to his own devices, Nate will withdraw from the group. At school with teachers and therapists, he has learned to tolerate, and sometimes enjoy, group activities like circle time, art, and meals. He does not yet initiate interaction with classmates but will also tolerate it if someone tries to interact with him, like if a classmate wants Nate to join in on a group activity.
Difficulty in expressing needs; may use gestures: You all know about this one. Nate’s nonverbal, talks through PECS, and, within the past month, has started signing and pointing to things he needs with consistency. God Bless Sign Language and PECS.
Plays Minecraft: Who says autistic people don’t have a sense of humor?
Other things I’ve heard (which, clearly, have yet to be confirmed in our world) is that Nate will lack the ability to lie. Because things are so black and white, true or untrue, he will have difficulty finding the grey and, therefore, won’t talk in those terms, either. But that remains to be seen. I bet that my boy will whip out a whopper or two in his days….
But this awesome boy (seen here after having a meltdown, which is why he’s nearly naked, and wearing a hat, which is giving his head some sensory input) can do things that astonish me every day. He’s an artist extraordinaire, gives the most wonderful hugs, and surprises and stuns me, Chad, and his therapists with skills we never knew he had. And he has a way about him that causes everyone of every age to become wrapped around his wee little pinky. I wouldn’t have him any other way.