Friday, February 11, 2011

Thinking Like an Autist

I have been the Mom-NOS blog almost obsessively lately. It is so insightful and amazing. I am especially in awe of the way she is able to explain her sons echolalic speech and figure out what he actually means when he is "scripting." She is really able to climb inside her son's mind and see things from his perspective. I am focused on learning how to do this for Boo. Boo's impairments are vastly different from Mom-NOS's son Bud, but I am often struck by the similarities in the way they seem to think.

I have been pondering some things that seem to challenge Boo. Sometimes it is SO HARD to figure out what behaviors are based in simple defiance and what behaviors are born from a genuine inability to understand what is expected of him, or a genuine inability to comply. For example, whenever we go out the door to get in the car and go somewhere, Boo seems completely unable to walk directly to the car. He must take a long, meandering, circuitous route that frustrates the daylights out of me. He has always reviled the idea of holding hands while walking and trying to get him to do so only ends up in a battle of wills with a screaming, pulling, crying child. He also hates for me to put my hand on his shoulders to direct him. I try to remember to always talk to him about it immediately before opening the door to go out. "Boo, we are going to go out the door and walk straight to the car. We are not going to walk through the grass (or snow, or parking lot, or whatever the case may be). "Stay with Mommy" is completely ineffective, as is "stay on the path." This plays out at home, at Mammo's house, and at school on a regular basis. In the past I have treated this like a simple behavioral issue, using discipline and positive reinforcement to try to achieve the desired behavior. But more recently, I starting to think that this is not where the problem lies.

At school, when it is time for dismissal the teacher leads the children outside and has them line up and stand up against the wall of the building. There is a large section of concrete in front of the building and then a gravel parking lot. The parents park directly in front of the concrete and the children are dismissed one at a time by the teacher as she sees that their parents have arrived. Usually I am among the first to arrive and park directly in front of where the children stand. When Boo is dismissed, he walked straight through the gravel to meet me beside the car. Now, it is important to interject here that one of Boo's most persistent issues is his strict adherence to routine and especially to routes. Once you go someplace one time, the route you took the first time is the route you must take for all of eternity or the earth will fall from its axis. Or so you would think judging by his reaction if you take what he deems to be a "wrong turn." When you enter a building you must leave through the same door you entered. Places where this is not allowed are especially difficult for us. Keeping this in mind, envision a recent day when I arrived at the school to find the parking lot full and had to park all the way on the south end of the gravel lot. On the south side of the large concrete area is a sidewalk leading over to the new addition to the building and incidentally, to my car that day. When Boo was dismissed he was told to walk on the sidewalk. He showed no sense of registering this instruction and took off at a quick pace toward me with an ear to ear grin, as he does each day. But instead of being allowed to run into my arms for a big happy hug, he was called back by the teacher. He completely ignored her and kept running for me. She followed after him and took him by the shoulders and returned him back to the starting point to make him do it as he was directed. She repeated the instructions that he must stay on the sidewalk. Looking confused, he said ok and walked straight across the concrete into the gravel lot. She came and took hold of him again, turned him around and marched him to the start of the sidewalk and announced "we're going to get this right" in a rather gruff tone. When she turned him back toward me, I saw huge tears welling in his eyes and his chin quivering. As soon as she let go of him he walked slowly toward me, wailing the most heartbroken cry, tears streaming down his cheeks. I picked him up and he cried out "I don't LIKE school!" I tried to comfort him and he continued to cry in the car as we drove toward Mammo's house. Now I know my son. He is very capable of turning the tears on and off when it suits his purpose, as most children are. But these were not crocodile tears. I really think he genuinely did not understand what was going on and why.

Similarly, when we leave my mom's house to go home, he insists on walking across the driveway to visit the Christmas tree decoration and Santa, then walk on the concrete blocks, then meander around the circle drive and make his way back toward the vehicle. I know this doesn't sound like much of a big deal, but often I pick him up quite late after work and the temperatures are frigid and the wind is howling, and the driveway is snowy or muddy, and well....I just need him to go straight to the car! But the maddening thing is that when I get onto him and tell him to walk straight to the car now, he insists with great intensity that "I AM." What's a mom to do with this? Does he really just not understand the directions? Does he not know what the concept of "straight to" means?

So I am thinking up ways to work with him on the concept of going "straight to" something. I will disguise it as a game, and I am thinking I will be using his love of making footprints to make it fun for him. It's still in the works in my head, but I hope it will end up being helpful. I can't stand broken hearted tears!

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