Peeling the Onion, Part 4: For Autistic Kids, It’s all in the Details

– Posted in: Autism -- The Handbook, Autism Recovery, Newt, Newt's Story, Personal Insanity

This is an ongoing series about my 8-year-old son, Newt, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when he was three. Since that time, he’s tested off the spectrum. We think some of this is why. . .

So yesterday I was at my friend’s house — the friend who basically got our family in the course of two weeks when they adopted a newborn and one-and-a-half-year-old. The baby girl is now one and the boy is two-plus. I’d say it’s like deja vu except that my kids were completely freaking out at that time and nowhere near as well adjusted.

Anyway, while I was there, the little boy kicked his sister off the couch, so he got himself a quick trip to time-out land. After we got her calmed down, my friend went and got him, brought him over to his sister, told him to apologize, and said he had to “give her loves” because he hurt her. And THAT’S when things got familiar. Because everybody just disintegrated into crying.

The unfamiliar part was that it stopped quickly. Let’s just say that there was a lot of extended screaming and crying at my house for quite a few years. Like, five.

But I digress. I don’t know if my friend uses this technique because she learned it from us or because she’s just brilliant (sarcasm — hoping everyone hears the sarcasm). I forgot to ask. There are, I know, different schools of thought when it comes to making kids apologize versus having them actually mean it. And fine — argue away. What I do know is that this was sort of the precursor to what I like to think of as our “Method of Over-explanation.”

We Come In Peace

All parents, to some extent, have to approach their kids as aliens. They’re beings who are new to the planet. They don’t know our ways. They need an introduction to everything. With an autistic kid, it’s even more complicated because it’s like dealing with an alien who’s way more Mr. Spock than E.T.

E.T. could tease out the relevant information that would help him understand why life was warm and fuzzy. Mr. Spock, not so much.

So from a very early age with our son, we became over-explainers. Incidentally, this may have been due more to our own annoying, tedious, semi-obsessive personalities than his autistic traits.

• If he hurt his sister, he got a rather detailed description of what just happened, why she was crying, how she was feeling, how he probably should be feeling, what he could say to her, and how he could make her feel better.

• If Grandma and Grandpa were leaving, he was told — okay, usually forced — to say goodbye to them. And reminded to look them in the eye and give them a hug. And this usually led to a long discussion about why we say goodbye to people, what everyone’s doing as they’re leaving your house, and why it’s not polite to hide in your room or stand on the stairs and wave.

• And when he started saying funny stuff that he realized was funny and therefore wanted to milk and say over and over, we had long discussions about “what is funny.” And timing. And how you can maybe get a laugh out of something twice, but by the third time, it’s just annoying. And what irritates people. And how to move on quickly when a joke just falls flat. And how to tell if people think you’re amusing or if they’re just humoring you. And excessive use of the word “and.”

Do Sweat the Small Stuff
It’s possible that Newt would’ve been this kind of thinker anyway, but I think that all of our over-analyzing has gotten him in the habit of studying people. And it’s not meaningless. He came home one day, upset because a friend had said some things that hurt his feelings. First we dissected what was said to make sense of why the words were hurtful (because sometimes that’s confusing). Then we talked about why the friend might have said those things, and basically we came to the conclusion that he was jealous of Newt. This led to yet another long discussion of why people act a certain way when they’re jealous. Anyway, the end result was that Newt didn’t feel bullied or upset about it anymore. When he went back to school, he felt. . . powerful.

So, yes, we are the detail-oriented, over-analyzing, talk-you-to-death family. But I think it’s how we helped Newt learn to navigate the world. How to look people in the eye. How to read the sarcasm under a frown and the frustration under a smile. How to make someone laugh.

The funny thing is that a lot of this stuff is information that I wish someone had sat down and told me when I was a kid. Maybe they did and I was too dense to take it all in. But I think when it comes down to it, talking in detail with all our little aliens is valuable.

I’m sure it’d help everyone live long and prosper.

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2 Comments… add one

charlotte October 7, 2011, 9:39 pm

So true, I wish someone had sat me down to explain those things too as a child. I am still learning social graces and I am 40 years old. It's been my New Year's resolution for 5 years to work on empathy. But I have more and more opportunities to work on this since my youngest also has Autism and my oldest has ADHD and SPD. And since my daughter is "normal" it makes for bazillion combinations of feelings, social norms, and whole bunch of other things that other parents take for granted.

PartlySunny October 8, 2011, 7:11 am

I was going to say that one nice thing about having a "normal" kid in the mix is that you have a sort of baseline or signpost for certain things. But the more I get to know "normal" kids, the more I realize that all kids are completely wacko. Which is honestly why I think we all need to just step back and take a deep breath sometimes when it comes to some of the behaviors we worry about. A lot of it is just plain kid craziness.

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