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

little autistic moments

Sitting together at the library, in two separate armchairs, Rondel and I examine the book in my hands. It is hardcover, with no plastic library jacket – smooth and pleasing to touch. The colors are soft and cool. It is thick; Rondel is full of anticipation and I am a bit apprehensive about how long it might be. When I open it, he looks up at me excitedly and says, “I can smell the pages!” More and more often he is noticing the smells of his environment, drawing out for himself an extra level of enjoyment (or disgust, sometimes, unfortunately) by way of his extra-sensitive senses.


Making toast for my three kids and a visiting friend, I fill up our small toaster oven with four slices. Rondel has asked for two pieces of toast at once, since he is hungry and we normally make two at once for him. I explain that the toaster is full so he will have to start with one and have a second piece later, and he seems unable to accept the change: wailing, threatening, screaming, sobbing. He even says that he wishes our friend (a toddler Aubade’s age who I occasionally babysit, and who Rondel loves) were not present if it means that he cannot have two pieces of toast at once. Limerick, 16 months younger, turns to him and says, “Dude, Rondel, the toaster is full! You can have another one later!” But it is always two pieces, and it is not alright that now this time it is only one.


After swimming at my parents’ house, I tell the kids that we will need to go home soon because Grandma isn’t feeling great and we don’t want to wear her out by staying too long. Rondel instantly begins telling me how he doesn’t want to leave, how he wants to stay at Grandma’s house forever, and so on. But when I ask him what he wants to do at Grandma’s house, he doesn’t know. He ends up suggesting, halfheartedly, that he could watch a movie, his go-to answer when faced with a transition he isn’t sure how to handle (it comes up in angry meltdown-inducing transitions as well as the more frequent “stuck” moments in between activities).


Getting up in the morning, sleepy-eyed and hungry, trying to figure out the day’s schedule, I am immediately bombarded with requests from Rondel to play board games. They continue for the whole day: after Aubade nurses, while she naps, as soon as one board game is finished, as a response when I ask if he is hungry for breakfast or lunch, and so on. If I say no, he keeps asking; he doesn’t usually get angry or demand that I play, but he tries to persuade me by making it more convenient and breaking the process down into smaller steps, persistently wearing me down. For example, he’ll bring the board into the kitchen if I’m making dinner, or he’ll offer to roll the die for me if my hands are occupied. It is his passion, his obsession right now, and he cannot let it go.


It is easy to see the ways that being autistic affects how he perceives and behaves in the world, in all these little moments. Some ways are positive; some are neutral; some are challenging for him and potentially also for the people around him. But they are undeniably there, pervasively present in his being in the world, making him distinctly different from most of his peers. And so we work together to make the world he lives in more supportive, so he can develop and mature and learn without the pressure of trying to continually mask. We establish routines and give him advance notice of upcoming changes; we give him extra space to process the unexpected; we coach him through transitions by helping him visualize what is coming next; we help him find creative ways to pursue his current passion when other people aren’t available to engage in it with him at the moment. With each day, he learns and grows and finds ways to be himself and cope with the expectations and realities of the world around him; with each day, we learn and grow and find ways to love, accept, and encourage him in his journey. The larger world adheres to a neurotypical standard, and we’re not going to be able to change that – but in our home we can give him a haven to be himself, to recharge and calm down, to be unconditionally loved.

Posted in family life

going to the zoo!

The boys – especially Rondel – have been deeply interested in dinosaurs for quite a long time now, and are beginning to branch out into animals of all types. It really began with the Planet Earth documentaries that I would put on for them during Aubade’s nap times, and has continued with a short series called Africa’s Deadliest that is just as overly dramatic as the name suggests but which contains some great footage of wild animals as well as a lot of scientific facts. When we found and caught a lizard (well, rescued it from a bowl it had fallen into, to be more accurate) not too long ago, he was entranced: he understood intuitively how to hold it gently and carefully, and let it climb all over him with no fear, and ended up playing with it for 45 minutes before releasing it so it could return to its natural habitat.

So I was not surprised when he asked to go to the zoo this week, nor when he actually showed in interest in seeing the animals instead of just the dinosaur exhibit and the splash pad! And it was a good day to go!

We did of course have to visit the dinosaurs:

Obviously we couldn’t observe any live, wild, natural animal life here – but we had some discussions about the different types of nests made by different dinosaurs (we compared the twig nest of the Citipati – a feathered broody dinosaur – to that of the Diabloceratops, which was too large to brood its eggs and most likely made a mud nest like a crocodile), as well as about how the different types of dinosaurs might react if they saw us!

From the dinosaur trail the bighorn sheep exhibit is also visible, and Aubade got very excited when I pointed them out and told the kids what they were. She leaned forward in the stroller as far as she could, waving and yelling, “Hi!” – and then she turned to me, smiled, and matter-of-factly said, “Baa!” It was neat seeing her make the connection between the distant animal on the mountainside and the fuzzy white blob in her Moo, Baa, La La La board book by Sandra Boynton.

When we left the dinosaur trail, it seemed like a lot of the animals were active and awake – we got to see baboon, mandrills, oryx, cheetah (unfortunately they were difficult to see, but we did manage to spot them), otters, flamingos, zebras, and more! The flamingos were standing right by the fence, so we stood on one leg like they did, and noticed how they could turn their heads all the way around backwards to use their back like a pillow, and wondered why their large beaks only ever opened a very small amount.

Per Rondel’s request, after a cool-down break at the splash pad we visited the Tropical Birds trail, which includes a small aviary. Apparently, it is mating season at the zoo – so all the birds were awake and showing off their finery! The male peacock had his full tail fan extended, and kept shaking it at the peahen, making a surprisingly loud rattling noise when he did so. In the aviary, the male argus pheasant was strutting around on the path, making a call that the zoo keeper told us he only made during this season, instead of hiding in the back corners as he tends to do the rest of the year.

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Rondel was absolutely captivated. He approached the bird slowly and quietly, and held his hands tightly back so he wouldn’t accidentally touch it (he would jump out of the way if the bird turned around so that he wouldn’t end up touching his long tail feather!), and just squatted down gazing at him for a long time, as other groups of people came and went.

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Limerick was a little less certain, but he eventually went over as well. I was super proud of both of them – they are often very impulsive and active kids, and they had no trouble at all adjusting their behavior to what was needed by the animals. We talked a bit here about how a lot of viruses can jump between birds and people, so if we touched the birds we could get them sick or they could get us sick… my molecular biology background always ends up showing itself somehow 🙂

We finished up with the tiger and the Komodo dragon. I had never actually seen the Komodo dragon exhibit at our zoo, but Rondel instantly remembered them from the new Planet Earth series and was incredibly excited about them. They weren’t moving much – just soaking in the sun – but they are impressive creatures. We noticed how it was basking in the sun to soak up the energy it needs as a cold-blooded animal, and counted its claws (five on each foot, just like us, in case you wondered).

And of course we played on the Komodo dragon statue for a while!

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This is what I get when I tell the kids to smile at me… I guess Rondel is somewhat close?
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Playing together – I think they are subduing the Komodo dragon so it can’t fight them.

The most wonderful thing about homeschooling is the ability we have to follow our interests – obviously in going to the zoo for a whole morning instead of adhering to a lesson plan or a class schedule, but also in deciding when to linger at an exhibit and when to move on, when to talk about the details of how an animal lives and when to stick to the basic overview, when to focus on the live animal exhibits and when to simply just have fun. The experience we had today was so real and so rich that I wouldn’t trade it for any classroom I’ve ever known.