Posted in autism acceptance month

seven awesome things about being autistic

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Because autism is still seen in a largely negative light, I thought I’d cover some of the positive aspects of being autistic before addressing the challenges associated with it (you can come back tomorrow for that side of the coin). And since today is also the {sqt} linkup with Kelly, I have seven positive autistic traits listed here!

  1. Systems-oriented thinking and pattern recognition
    • “Autistic systems-oriented thinking, developed to its fullest potentials, means insight into the rich depths of underlying patterns and structures, the beauty of the deeper levels of natural order beneath surface realities, the beauty of the Tao.” – Nick Walker, “Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Thinking”
    • This is probably the defining characteristic of my method of approaching the world. I strive to organize the data I observe into systems and structures and patterns, always editing them to encompass more complete datasets, always delighting in each new connection and relationship I can find. As a kid, it meant I was quite good at games like Set (which is all about patterns), and loved exploring the grammatical structures of language and the mathematical patterns of numbers. In school, it meant I was able to assimilate information from different classes into a cohesive whole, giving myself a strong network of data to pull from for tests and projects. At work, it means I’ve spent a lot of my time learning database science on the side to help my team process and record information more efficiently, to pull out the patterns and connections between the datapoints we need to store. And personally, it means I never settle into one philosophy of life – new information can always shift my internal understanding of the structures of reality, hopefully into a more accurate conformation 🙂
  2. Sensitivity to beauty
    • Increased sensory sensitivities, while definitely a challenge at times, can be accompanied by increased awareness of and sensitivity to beauty in the world. This could be natural beauty: the still blue of a cloudless sky, or the undulating mist off a waterfall; it could be artistic beauty: the throbbing pulse or soaring heights of instruments that express emotion we could never put into words; it could be the small and unnoticed details of life: the scent of rising bread or the sweep of curtains blowing in the wind. Just as we can be inordinately bothered by sensory inputs most people don’t notice, so too we can see and be awed by the beauty of things most people don’t notice – like the texture of a piece of fabric, or the feathers on the back of a moth.
  3. Powers of observation
    • This is connected to the first two traits, obviously: good observational skills are needed to create useful systems for understanding the patterns of reality, or to find beauty in the details that often escape attention. It makes a lot of sense in light of the definition of autism I shared here earlier also – if the autistic mind is taking in more information more intensely than the neurotypical mind, it’s going to be able to observe more details. Rondel notices all the bugs around him wherever he goes, and pays attention to the shape of their bodies and the patterns of their color; when he wasn’t even two, he was able to figure out the make (and often model) of a car by paying attention to the details of its shape and design. A friend at church notices the relationships between the people around him, putting together the connections of family and friendship in his mind even though he struggles to articulate them verbally. I was apparently able to see instantly if something had been changed in a room when I was a very young child. The details we observe may not always be particularly useful, but our minds are thirsty for them, hungrily seeking out the information around us to store away inside.
  4. Honesty and Loyalty
    • Many autistic people are highly uncomfortable with untruths. As the author of the blog An Intense World says, “It’s not that someone with autism cannot lie. I can lie… [but] when I lie, it really, really, really, really, really bothers me. It’s like a deep brain itch I can’t scratch. So I don’t lie. It just bothers me too deeply, and I’d rather not be that uncomfortable all the time.” I’ve found that I can tell incomplete truths if absolutely necessary, but even that is difficult to do – part of me wants to provide all the information involved so the communicated picture is accurate.
    • Many autistic people are also highly loyal. While autistic individuals may not form many attachments, the ones we do form are deep and lasting. I can see this already in my son: while he has normal conflicts with his siblings, he has equally as many conflicts with me because he identifies himself so strongly with his siblings that he is ready to fight for them if I reprimand or correct them. As Cynthia Kim writes on her blog Musings of an Aspie, “My attachments to people are few, but when I do form a bond with someone it’s a strong one. I will stand up for the people I care about in the face of a great deal of opposition.”
  5. Creativity and Unique Problem-Solving Skills
    • Autistic people see the world differently – so the things they create and the solutions they envision are also often a bit different! In my personal life, I see the unique style and form of my sister’s poetry and other creative writing; the way a child with severe speech delays at my church is able to communicate his thoughts through actions and echoed scripts; and the endless repertoire of “games” my son designs to explore his interest in the animal world and include his siblings at the same time (not to mention his eye for three-dimensional representation of said animals). When I was in high school volunteering in the children’s ministry at my church, a young boy who was later diagnosed with Asperger’s (part of the autism spectrum) noticed the folding table wiggling one week, crawled under the table, and proceeded to analyze the joints until he’d discovered multiple potential causes and tried to fix them. And he was only five!
  6. Deep or abstract thinking
    • Rondel asked me the other day why Jesus needed the disciples if He is God and can do anything. He asks me if God can know what we are going to do before we do it, and how that works, and seems to understand the answers I give him. He wants to know how high you can go before the air ends, and why the earth holds the air to it, and what exactly gravity is. He asks me if I will always love him, and why, and how I know that I will, and the answers give him peace when he’s recovering from a struggle with his more negative impulses. Autistic people usually don’t have much “common sense”, but our minds like to explore the deeper questions of life, and we are often able to separate facts and ideas from their social context to examine and compare them on a level field or in a new context.
  7. Expertise (and special interests!)
    • When the autistic brain gets excited about something, that thing becomes rather all-encompassing. We can spend hours a day for months or even years absorbed in the thing that is so fascinating to us – and as a result, we can accumulate some serious expertise in those areas! Rondel is a good example of how this can look in young children. His first special interest was vehicles, and as I noted above he was a master of vehicle identification at a ridiculously young age (I once asked him if a particular car that he’d told me was a Mazda was a Mazda 5 or a Mazda 3 hatchback and he knew the right answer without hesitation…). Next came dinosaurs, when he learned so many different species of dinosaurs that his grandparents were amazed (and often emphatically corrected!). Now that animals are his primary focus, he can talk for hours about the characteristics of different animals, the interactions between them, the environments they live in, and so on. By the time an autistic person reaches adulthood, they’ve cycled through quite a few of these interests, providing themselves with a solid network of information to build upon for the next one (or for more mundane things like work). And even in areas that are not special interests, autistic skills in observation and pattern recognition can lead to the development of expertise, as I’ve found in my own work environment.
    • Beyond the usefulness of expertise, of course, special interests are a source of pure joy. Rondel is so happy when his mind is full of animal facts and stories and experiences, and he’ll engage with anyone available about the topic. I am so happy when I’m reading Harry Potter fan fiction (my current most embarrassing interest) that I struggle to stop reading and do anything else, and if someone is willing to listen I can share all my favorite theories and plot lines and alternate universes until they manage to escape. It is satisfying in a profound way to plunge into the depths of something and discover the hidden treasure within, to block out the overload of information from everywhere else and really seek to know one specific category of things. And experiencing that joy is one of the most awesome things I can think of about being autistic.

If you are autistic, what is one of your favorite things about it? If you have a friend or family member who is autistic, what is one of your favorite things about them that stems from the fact that they are autistic?

Posted in family life

fine motor delays and pre-reading skills

At Rondel’s evaluation for services with the school district, he scored low enough on his fine motor skills to be classified as having a moderate delay (which is significant enough to qualify for special services). When he draws or paints, he can’t seem to figure out how to hold his writing tool, switching up his grasp every few minutes, and even changing hands periodically. To put in simply, he looks like a much younger child – and his drawings reflect that: although he attempts to add depth and detail to his drawings (at a level up to or above the standard for his age), what he puts down on the paper is not recognizable as the object he is trying to create.

However, when he sits down with Duplos or Brain Flakes, he can build creations that are complex and true to form. His Duplo animals really look like the different animals he’s trying to make – he’s constructed dinosaurs, lions, spiders, owls, bats, and more, and a lot of them are very realistic and innovatively detailed (Duplos are a challenging medium for fine detail, after all). With the flakes, he’s currently working on making all the letters of the alphabet; in the process, of course, he is intimately familiarizing himself with the shape and orientation of each letter just as another child might through writing the letters over and over again on paper. Additionally, he is beginning to wonder about letters in general, and asked me tonight what letters were for. So he is still gaining valuable pre-reading skills, despite the fine-motor struggles – and he is doing so through a self-motivated, self-developed method, without any external pressure or stigma.

My desire as Rondel’s parent isn’t to mold him into some predetermined form but to help him find his own voice and his own path. If his life so far is any indication, it seems that all he needs to do that is access to means of expression that work with his strengths instead of taxing his weaknesses, and room to grow in a space of acceptance and accommodation.

Posted in fiction

Rondel’s imagination

Here in Arizona, an intrepid zoologist has discovered a new species of bear: the Gong bear.

The Gong bear lives in rocky places, preferably on granite, and is purely vegetarian – in fact, this bear will stand up on two feet to eat the leaves off of trees! Its digestive system isn’t equipped to handle meat, so it is limited to plants.

In contrast to the Wood bear, which prefers to live in cold wooded places (and thus is only found in small numbers in Arizona, mostly in the northern parts of the state), the Gong bear can only be found in Arizona as it is a dedicated desert dweller. Interestingly, while one might expect this bear to be light brown to blend in with its environment, it is white. One can only surmise that this coloring is the most heat-resistant – and that the Gong bear, as a large animal with no natural predators and as an herbivore with no need to stalk prey, is not evolutionarily pressured towards camouflage.

The Gong bear is an elusive creature, which is probably why no one had previously discovered it, but it is a noble and friendly animal and I hope we continue to learn more about it!

Posted in family life

blossoming creativity: Rondel at almost-four

I have decided that Rondel’s current age (almost four) must be one of my favorites.

His energy levels are becoming more consistent even if he doesn’t nap; his clingy, angry, defiant moods are decreasing; his silliness is developing some sophistication; his conversation and presence are more often than not interesting and enjoyable; and, most of all, his imagination has exploded like a firework. This, I keep thinking, is how I imagined parenting a young child to be.

Pretty much anything can be a source of inspiration to him, but the books he reads have a large influence on his play. After reading The Magic School Bus In the Time of The Dinosaurs, he built a mother and baby Maiasaura (and deviated from the biological reality by having the baby nurse… what can I say, he’s used to mammalian norms 🙂 ). After reading The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body, he invented a game (the Body Game) where we move through the house between spaces that represent different parts of the human body – a blood vessel underneath a red blanket on the bunk bed, for instance, or the stomach under another blanket on the floor so we can have it mush us up like food. Then, of course, because he’s a three-year-old, we always have to end up getting pooped out into a potty with all the pillows and stuffies that are the “actual” poop.

Play that began as constructing a slide down the stairs with all the pillows from the beds turns into slides that bury people and then become mountains to climb back up. What started as the realization that Aubade’s crocheted blanket could be hooked onto the handle of the armoire door becomes a blanket bridge stretching from the armoire door (behind which is Grandma’s house) to the bedroom door, across which a monster truck carries our family from our house to Grandma’s house and back again, and into which is randomly stuck a bright orange toothbrush. Cups stacked up in the sink are rearranged to spray the water out in jets at various angles and the whole thing is proclaimed a volcano. Rondel bursting forth from beneath a blanket (after much preliminary rolling around) is also deemed the eruption of a volcano.

And every time we read Where the Wild Things Are, he has to have a monster at hand ready to read the story with us. Not wanting to shut down his imagination despite the onset of bedtime a few nights ago, I allowed him to build his monster to his complete satisfaction, helping him scour the house for the parts he needed.

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The folded front of the box is its mouth, and the links are legs connecting the feet (my shoes) to the head (the box). You can’t see, but inside the box more links are holding up a Slinky which is the digestive system of said monster 🙂 He was so proud of himself for designing and building it all by himself!

I absolutely love this creativity.

Posted in family life

problem solving as a preschooler

Rondel’s always been a bit more of an abstract thinker than Limerick. You can explain something to him in terms of concepts and principles and he’ll get it, whereas Limerick will simply stare at you blankly until you end up just telling him what you do and do not want him to do in this situation right now. (This has been a huge help in dealing with his sensitivities, since he has the capacity to discuss them rationally and reason out ways to cope with them.) As he gets older, he’s been able to use this framework of concepts in his mind to network facts and ideas together and come up with some pretty creative solutions to problems.

Lately, one of the problems that’s been on his mind is Limerick’s chair. Limerick has a booster seat buckled to a kitchen chair, and has a tendency to push it away from the table with his feet while sitting in it, as well as to stand up in it if he’s not strapped in. Both of these things make me really nervous that he’s going to tip over, and so we’ve been talking about some different options for our kitchen dining area. Rondel’s been listening to these discussions and adding his own thoughts to the mix.

First, he noted that his own chair won’t tip over because there is a wall right behind it. So, he said, if Limerick sat in his chair and he sat in Limerick’s chair, Limerick wouldn’t be able to fall over and hit his head. But then he, Rondel, might fall over and hit his head! (Gesturing with his hands on his head and a sad face to accompany this statement). So that wouldn’t be a good solution.

A day or so later, he brought up the subject and suggested that we simply build a wall behind Limerick’s chair so that he would be protected from falling over in the same way that Rondel is. He showed me where the wall should be, and presented the idea as a fully logical solution to the problem – which I suppose it is, to someone who has no concept of the time or expense that goes into building a wall, not to mention the spatial ridiculousness of a wall in that location! But I was impressed that he had made the connection and come up with an idea.

I was even more impressed a few days later, when, I suppose unable to understand why his parents hadn’t yet build said wall, he told me that he was going to build a wall, using blocks, because “Blocks are especially good for building!” And a few minutes later, there behind Limerick’s chair was a little wall, and a very proud big brother wanting to show me what he had made:

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I asked him if I could take a picture of it and he got so excited! I love his initiative in doing something to solve this problem instead of waiting for the grown-ups to fix it, as well as his ingenuity in coming up with a solution and figuring out how he could implement it with the resources he had on hand.

Posted in family life

Making room for creativity 

Rondel sits in the bathtub, bubbles fading, playing with his bath animals.

“Want to get bubbles off of Crabby!” He says it with more than a hint of whine and worry, as though these bubbles were a potential catastrophe.

Rinse it off in the bubble-free part of the tub, I think, Or pour some water over it with your bucket.

We’ve been through this before, in previous baths, and those are the ideas I’ve given him in the past. For some reason I don’t say them this time.

“What do you think you could do to clean off the bubbles?” I ask.

“Maybe I could wash them off with the washcloth!”

“Maybe you could! That is a good idea to try” I say. I don’t really expect it to work since bubbles tend to cling to the washcloth.

A few minutes later, triumphant sounds come from the bathtub. “It worked!”

My experience and criticisms would have completely shut down his opportunity to think and experiment – sometimes it really is better parenting for me to just keep my mouth shut and my ideas to myself!

Posted in family life

Rondel and role play

Rondel decided a few days ago that we are all different characters from Pixar’s Cars movie, and assigned us specific roles.

He, of course, is Lightning McQueen. Sometimes he will run through the house revving his engine, screeching his brakes, or crashing into things…

Limerick is Red the fire truck, at least in Rondel’s head – he doesn’t really get it.

My husband is Sally, I am Doc Hudson, and Rondel’s grandma, grandpa, and uncle are the Sheriff, The King, and Mater respectively.

It’s kind of funny because he won’t refer to us by any other names, and he’ll correct us rather emphatically if we refer to someone in the family by another name.

I was beginning to worry about this kind of imaginative play, wondering if the influence of the movie made his pretend play more rigid and less his own, when I remembered that I did exactly the same thing with the Cinderella movie when I was his age. My pretend play probably had even less complexity than his, since I didn’t have quite so many roles to assign and since I didn’t really ever deviate from the movie’s plot like Rondel will – and it didn’t hurt my creativity in the least. I was still wildly creating my own stories all through childhood (and indeed into adulthood).

So for now I will just enjoy being Doc Hudson and race with my Lightning all through the house!