When my son was diagnosed with autism a decade ago, one of the more solemn phrases to fall out of the Developmental Pediatrician’s mouth was that my boy would grow up with a serious lack of social skills and specialized interest in unusual things. My response was, “So, I’m basically destined for a life of Star Wars conventions?” The observation glass flexed and bowed as the student interns of the UCLA Autism Program nearly burst a collective spleen. From the get-go I saw autism not necessarily as a disability, just… different. Because honestly -- the pot knows the kettle well. Different is as different does.
Autism comes with a strange set of sensory issues and when I first began to read about them, I thought, “Well, it’s a case of apple not falling far from the tree.” When my son was younger he could only wear socks without seams in the toes because a thick line of stitching would drive him to distraction. I understood, because I have always had my own sensory issues. My mother loved to tell the story of how she once bought me a beautiful, terribly expensive wool sweater and instead of loving it the way she thought I would, I turned into a wriggling, squirming maniac trying to get out of it. Whole episodes of school went missing for me because somehow an annoying tag in a shirt or skirt was all I could concentrate on. Sounds without discernible tones (blenders, vacuums, etc.) used to make my son cry in pain before he became desensitized to them and soda machine compressors in a restaurant will ruin a perfectly good luncheon with friends for me, as the ginormous “Squinch!” at irregular intervals hurts my head. Over the last ten years, I have interviewed scores of people who admit that they, too, have stories of sensory defensiveness that define their likes and dislikes to this day. It is one of the things that makes them… different.
Scientists tell us that we are products of matched sets of chromosomes from both parents, split right down the middle. There are days I view my son’s autism as simply the strangest batch of nuclear DNA formula to come together in the Cuisinart of creation. It’s as though my boy just received the most concentrated forms of my husband’s and my more colorful traits. For example, here are a few of the characteristics of autism as defined by the Autism Society of America (for a complete list visit www.autism-society.org) and where I think the apple tree theory fit into it all:
Those with autism thrive on structure and are resistant to change
My husband once ate tabouli every day, twice-a-day, for six months. He still eats this way, often sticking with a particular food for months at a time and is cranky when household supplies run low of his current fancy (I’ll spare you the details of the great avocado/tuna phase – but my daughter has sworn me to never speak of it).
My “paper memory” (weekly appointment book) keeps me on task. I absolutely have to plan or plot out my time and am at my snarkiest when someone throws a monkey wrench into my schedule. Spontaneous might look good in the movies, but it has no place in my world.
Apparent over-sensitive or under-sensitivity to pain
When I received my smallpox inoculation as a child, it took three nurses and a doctor to restrain me. As a result, where most baby boomers/gen x have a scar on their arm – mine is in the middle of my back.
My husband has been known to cauterize his own wounds in a pinch. And not complain, as where I whimper in discomfort just thinking about it.
Autism often brings with it an obsessive attachment to objects
My husband has six 64 gallon tubs filled with t-shirts and refuses to part with them. There are plenty of other examples, but I do think that pointing out the collection of over 300 t-shirts is evidence enough of obsessive attachment.
We won’t discuss my book collection. It doesn’t count.
People with autism have a preference to being alone and have difficulty being with others
My husband, ‘nuff said.
I have my moments.
While I can chuckle now about some of the spot-on comparisons between our family members and my son’s autism, the first few years of dealing with the difficult and often aggressive traits of autism left me nearly comatose with pain (I have often said it was a period in my life where the simple act of brushing my teeth was painful). A decade later, after hours-upon-hours/year-after-year of multiple forms of therapies and intervention my son’s autism is currently called “high-functioning.” His speech is no longer echolalic (only repeating language, with no self-expression), his stimming (repetitive stereotypic behavior of wiggling fingers in mid-air) is only occasional and the once constant tantrums are now once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences. Meaning, many of the more apparent characteristics of autism have faded – but they are still there. But that’s okay, because that’s what makes him… different. And as such, he fits in with the rest of us.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” – Henry David Thoreau