Monday, April 08, 2013

Autism Understanding: Day 7

Taking a walk, "Mommy!
Daffodils! Hyacinths! See
the birds flying home!"

When you have a bumper sticker on the back of your car saying, "Yes! You can ask me about autism!", people tend to ask you about their kid. Especially their little, little kid who is not quite in preschool, but Momma is worried that something may be up, and could I please watch him a minute and say what I think?

I remember needing that reassurance, that connection, that validation when Joey was little, and we were first told he might have autism. That scary edge of "OMYGODIHAVENOIDEAWHATTODOIFSOMETHINGISWRONGHELPHELPHELPHELP!!!!!" It is even harder to be on that edge when ignorant people are all around you saying, "There's nothing wrong with that kid! All these diagnoses are a crock! Just wait a little longer/quit spoiling him/smack him." You realize a huge gulf just opened at your feet, dividing you and your special needs child from most of society, which is intensely ignorant of special needs- even when their sibling/cousin/neighbor/extended family member has special needs.

The first thing I do when presented with this panicked situation is to calmly say sure, I'll be happy to meet your child. After all, who doesn't want to meet an awesome kid? Second, I remind the parent that I am NOT a medical professional, and if they are concerned, they should absolutely have their kid screened. Screening is almost painless, usually quick, and can be really helpful when done by a good professional.

Then I watch, and ask some questions. These parents want to be asked questions. They want to talk about their kid. They want something, some information or support or guidance. Some of them even have ready answers to some of the regular questions, about common milestones (does she talk? does she wave? does he line up his toys?) or general info questions (why are you concerned? did you notice something different? Do they seem different when around other kids?) But my big, star screening questions is, "Do they point?"

One of the common threads I find with the autistic kids I know is trouble with (not complete absence of) joint attention. There may be a variety of reasons for this issue, but generally, it is shown when they are very young by kids not pointing to things- things they want, things they notice, things they want other people to see. Joey still is limited in his ability to actually point at something. He has found other ways to draw your attention to something, but pointing is not his best. His finger flicks, instead of creating that line-of-sight between the fingertip and the object. He also does not follow other people's pointing very well. He cannot make that connection in space between the finger and the item.

This issue gives rise to a lot of the "in their own little world" myths about autistic children. Not knowing how to show you something, or how to see something you want to show them, is not necessarily a disinterest in showing; it is a problem of communicating. The disjoint can be so severe and frustrating that the person learns to avoid joint attention, or even shun it. After all, if you were told every day, day in and day out, that you were bad at something- not necessarily in a straightforward manner, but in a myriad of hints and signals- you might give up on doing it, too. Go with something you are better at, something less frustrating and more constructive for you. Try to find other ways to survive.

This is, once again, an instance of measuring a fish by how well it climbs a tree. Sometimes you have to take the time to get in the water and swim, if you want to get to know a fish. You may never grow gills and have to come up for air, but you'll see the real beauty of the strength to slip through water with teh flick of a fin.

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