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One of the phrases I've heard from time to time is: "That's not normal." It's said in various degrees of anger, confusion or even fear.

I understand the fear, especially when it comes from parents (being one), but it's also a phrase that we took care not to use in our house, because for an ASD child, it has no meaning. 'Normal' covers such a wide range of behaviour, it can't be easily grasped and pointed at, and 'Normal' varies widely because of things like age; what's normal for a toddler is not normal for an older child or an adult. It also varies widely by cultural context.

'Not normal' also carried a strong undertone of the perjorative with it, and as we assumed that my son would probably hear these words--and often--we didn't want to add to the trauma of their effect. What was 'not normal' for other children was, in fact, the norm for my son, and one of our strongest hopes for his future was that he would be comfortable in himself, and he would eventually be able to understand enough about the people around him that he could choose to modify his own behaviour where it was contextually necessary.

At seventeen, he can do that. He often doesn't, but he's in high school. An interesting thing occurred yesterday when my two sons were on the way to their school: as they were attempting to navigate a rush-hour bus to exit at their stop, one of the other passengers started to shout at my youngest.

My oldest, when telling me about this, said, "He was in his twenties, not dressed very well, and in a really bad mood. He could have been drunk, or on drugs, or he could have been angry at us because we're in school uniforms and he might've resented us because he thought we were rich or something.

"If he'd shouted at me, I'd've ignored it, because I don't care. But sometimes (younger son) gets upset when people are screaming at him, and I didn't want him to freeze up and miss the stop. So I intervened."

The first paragraph was what he was thinking at the time. He does evaluate his situation, and he does it pretty constantly, trying to understand what's happened and why; he is, at this point, incisive and insightful--but he didn't start out that way. He didn't think my younger son had pushed the hostile passenger or otherwise gotten in his way, because his reaction would have been different in that case.

In this case, he reacted by mocking the angry person, which drew his attention away from the younger child until they could both leave the bus. And the man did threaten to punch his glasses through his face, etc., etc., but my son felt that this was unlikely to occur on a full bus. And, you know, it is never ever going to upset his mother if he takes a few risks in defence of his younger brother. Ever.

I do think that ASD children, or the Asperger inclined ASD children, can be taught social skills--but I think those skills have to be taught in the same way math or reading is taught. It's not something that they intuitively grasp; in order to grasp it at all, they have to understand some of the causality of social interaction.

I think it's very difficult for the ASD child to absorb this information until they've fully developed theory of mind, on the other hand; attempting to teach a four year old why people interact the way they do is probably going to be met with spotty success, because it's much harder to try to find some part of their four year old experience that is similar in any way to the broader social issues.

At seventeen years of age, he has no difficulty whatsoever distinguishing gender. He has no difficulty distinguishing gender without the deliberate thought and weighing of visible and audible characteristics that he required at age eight and below. At eight, however, it made no sense to him -- in part because our expectations (and therefore his own) weren't different regardless.

He had no sense of 'normal' when it came to other characteristics or social situations. When he was younger, and we went to extended family gatherings (my mother is the youngest of nine children), he would spend a few minutes talking to everyone before he ran off to play with the older children. He would sit with my eighty year old aunts, my Trinidadian uncle, my cousins--basically, anyone who didn't get up and run away.

I'm not sure why he did this, at the time; it's not something that we told him to do. And it's possible that he was comfortable being social in this very methodical way because the entire extended family was very indulgent of young children; it's possible that he didn't want anyone to feel left out, because sometimes he felt left out, and he knew that it stung. It might not have occurred to him that he could be offensive or difficult in their eyes. He mostly talked about things that interested him, of course, but no one ever attempted to shut him down.

He doesn't clearly remember this, now, although he feels that any of the explanations I've just attempted would work. But by that point he knew that he couldn't interact physically with my ancient aunts and uncles.

He had no clear understanding of weight and weight issues. Fat was not a concept that was foreign: he could see it. What was foreign was the sense that it was somehow bad. To him, it was like hair or eye color; part of the person. This caused awkwardness (and sometimes amusement) because he would often ask the three small child categorization questions: How old are you? How tall are you? How much do you weigh?

He found everyone's desire to avoid answering only the last question completely confounding; he did this once to his poor grandfather, and his father and I were desperately trying to distract him, but he wasn't having it because he wanted to know why his grandfather wouldn't answer that question.

So…we had to attempt to explain that some people were sensitive about their weight--and you can imagine that explaining why that was the case was…tricky. It made no sense to him. And it doesn't make sense; it can't. We didn't want to assign a moral value to weight--ever--but absent some sort of moral value, no answer we were able to offer made sense to him.

Social stigma of a particular kind always made no sense to him. I think he understands it now, in the strictly observational sense, but not in a visceral way. Which is to say: it still makes no sense to him, but he understands that it exists, that people are sensitive about it. He can tease me about my inability to consume the sheer number of calories that he can without gaining an ounce; he also knows that this type of teasing is to be contained to the household unit, where there's no doubt of its affection.

At four or six, this wasn't the case. It just made no sense. So his own interactions with his peers were never subject to many of the more typical hierarchical scrutinies. Just as he was who he was, he accepted that his peers were who they were.

He did come home one day, though, to ask me a question: What if a person only ever has bad days? He was in a pretty discouraged mood. In his vernacular a bad day was equivalent to an angry or unreasonable day. He knew that both he and I had 'bad days', and he often explained mean behaviour on the part of other children to himself as the children were 'having a bad day'.

I knew the child that had caused him to ask this question, and I told him that if a person appears to only ever have have "bad days", we should probably avoid them. But even in this case, he was attempting not to take the child's unfortunate behaviour personally.

And I think this was and is important for my son. I think that, absent some rigid concept of 'normal', and absent a need to conform, my son was able to evaluate things in a way that made them much less personal. He was always looking for the explanation that made things less, rather than more, personal.

I will also add that I think in some ways being ASD was an advantage in this one case. He didn't understand peer pressure; he didn't understand the idea that if he could change his behaviour or make it more pleasing, he could belong. He never felt that he had any control over the thoughts or actions of any of the other children. So any peer pressure applied to him failed to reach him at all. He could see the pressure, but not what caving in would actually give him.

Sometimes, however, he would see other people doing totally inexplicable things in his ASD universe; they were, in fact, caving into pressure from above--but it was not a pressure that my son could see or clearly understand at the time.

Let me close with an example. In an effort to help my son interact with other children during recess, we shamelessly sent him to school with bribes. By this I mean junk food he could share. He did, because he had no problem sharing, and one day he came home to me looking concerned.

He had given his candy to two of the girls he sometimes played with, and just after he had done this, some of the grade six students came sauntering over. One of the girls was in daycare with some of these grade six students, and recognized them; they certainly recognized her. These older kids told my son and his two friends that if they didn't hand over the candy, they wouldn't be allowed to play where they were.

So, the girls handed over the candy. My son, however, did not.

He could tell that the girls were upset by this. But he didn't understand what had happened. Had the big kids just taken the candy, he would have understood that, and he would have intervened. But they didn't. They said something that was clearly nonsense in the eyes of my son, because he knew they didn't own the playground, and they couldn't therefore choose who played in it.

He told me what had happened, which was unusual--and then said, "I guess she wanted to give them the candy, because they didn't take it away."

I tried to explain what had happened: that she knew them, that she was afraid of them, that she gave them the candy because she was afraid of what they might do to her later.

My son, however, shook his head. "They didn't take it away, Mom. She gave it to them. I didn't want to give them mine," he said, "So I didn't."

Because the big kids had made no actual threats of physical violence, because it was all implied, and further, because the social hierarchy was subtle, he could not understand what had happened.

But he did understand that the girls were upset. He just couldn't figure out by what. He didn't like it when his friends were upset; he conversely couldn't understand why they were upset. He understands it now, and more -- but to have the tools to understand, he had to gain a handful of years, theory of mind (which was still a year and a bit away), and the ability to parse what he was observing.

Had we attempted to impress 'normal' behaviour on my son, I think he would have been vastly more uncertain of any of his interactions; none of them would have made more sense to him in grade one (this incident occurred in grade one), but the persistent sense that they should and somehow he was failing to do the 'right' thing in any given situation would have paralyzed him; the uncertainty would have put him in a state of constant fear. Because he didn't have this, he was very difficult to actually bully in any subtle fashion.

He could accept the snarky and unkind words of the other children (there was one girl in particular) because, well, that was just the way they were. He had no sense that any action on his part would change their unkindness, so he didn't try because, among other things, he didn't want to try to please someone who was always unkind to him.

ETA the paragraph I clipped by accident.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 8th, 2010 12:47 pm (UTC)
Thank you and him for these posts.
Nov. 8th, 2010 01:04 pm (UTC)
Michelle, an odd thought popped up in my head. Have your interactions with your ASD son --and the entire discussion of what is normal-- helped you in any way when you sat down to create non-human cultures?
Nov. 8th, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
I'd say it's the reverse. Long years of attempting to understand how changes in culture are reflected in people whose base emotions are otherwise similar to ours--especially in the West novels--made it possible to posit what my son might be thinking or feeling in any given situation.

Which probably seems backwards, but, ummm.
Nov. 8th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
Even today at 23 my daughter, who has autism among other things, will ask total strangers (in a store, at the dr's, etc.) how old they are, how many children they have, the stranger's and their children's birthdays, what schools they go to, etc. I keep telling her that is considered intrusive and impolite by some people, who don't wish to share personal info with someone they don't know; but that explanation seems to alternately mystify and irritate Marissa, who says, "How will I know them then if I don't ask questions?" Ha. Part of it is her love for making lists; she keeps a running list in her head of people she's met and asked those questions and will recite it to herself ("The lady with the blue coat in Target was born on August 17; she has 3 children and 4 grandchildren..." etc). I teach prek, have been at the same place for 10 years, and my daughter can still tell me the birthdays and ages of children I had a decade ago and I can barely even recall their first names; she still remembers what exact year the child was in my room and when their birthdays are, ha. The other day she said, "Oh, Mom, today is Madelynn's birthday, she's 9 today." And I had that child in my class when she was 4. I went to work and looked up my old records and sure enough, it was Maddy's birthday.
Nov. 8th, 2010 07:54 pm (UTC)
He's really rather wonderful: thank you for all this.
Nov. 8th, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
I love his calm analysis of the angry guy on the bus and that he came to his brother's rescue. And I love that he was hard to bully. Your insights are so clear; it's like putting on a good pair of reading glasses and having that 'Ahhh' sensation of clear vision suddenly...
Nov. 9th, 2010 01:43 am (UTC)
Thank you for writing this. It's fascinating and wonderful.
Jan. 25th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
Thank you. This was beautiful and insightful.
Jun. 25th, 2012 05:11 pm (UTC)
I'm just reading this now during lunch before I get back to studying (This would be the oldest, of course).

Just thought I'd make a note of the reason I always went to talk with everyone: it was more that all the people in the extended family who I didn't see all that much (primarily the old aunts and uncles) were... extremely obviously happy that I'd show up and talk to them.

Because it's such a simple delight, it's always been one that I've seen. I didn't always get why, but I knew that when I talked to them they were quite happy, so I did.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )