Autism: It Ain’t All Bad

I don’t often blog about autism (mostly because it’s so darn hard to explain and understand!), but it’s been on my mind lately. Theo’s reassessment is coming up in a little over a week, and even though I take these things with a very large grain of salt, I do find myself wondering what the assessment team will say. Not that it matters, really…but then, in some ways it does matter. It matters because I need to understand how best to help him…but it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t change who he is—the boy who I have loved for almost seven years now.

A good friend and I were texting this week about clingy kids. She has a toddler who is going through the typical clingy toddler “mama can’t leave my sight for two seconds” phase. I remarked that Sam is a mama’s boy and somewhat clingy when he’s tired or sick—not terribly, but much more so than Theo was. And then I said that in retrospect, I’ve often wondered whether Theo’s lack of clinginess as a baby and toddler was due to autism—a sort of detachment, you know? Because as a baby and toddler, Theo was decidedly not clingy. As a baby, he really didn’t much care for being held. He’d let you hold him sometimes, but more often he wanted to be down on the floor on his own. He wanted to know you were in the room, near him, but he didn’t particularly want to be held. He wasn’t huggy, he wasn’t cuddly. Which is not to say that he never cuddled—he did on occasion. But I certainly wouldn’t ever describe him as a cuddly child. He’s actually much more cuddly now, at almost seven, than he was as a baby. As a baby, he spent much more time either fussing and fidgeting, or wanting to be off and exploring. We used to jokingly call him the “lone wolf” because he was so darn independent and just wanted to be doing his own thing.

But as I remarked to my friend, if that was due to autism, it was one of the things about autism that I liked. Don’t get me wrong—I love a cuddly baby as much as the next person. I’m delighted that Sam is cuddly! But I also appreciated Theo’s independence, and it was kind of nice to never have to go through the usual separation-anxiety phases that typically come with kids. You know, the ones where you can’t even go pee because the baby/toddler screams like a banshee if you leave the room for thirty seconds. 😉

And that got me thinking about autism. In truth, I don’t know which parts of Theo’s personality are due to autism and which are just Theo, but there are some that I have a sneaking suspicion may be due to autism (like that lack of cuddliness, for example). And the truth is, of the things I perceive as somehow related to autism, they’re not all bad. Not at all, in fact. Some of them I downright like.

Now, there are plenty of things about autism that I do not particularly enjoy. Verbal stimming, for example, is exhausting for my brain. The constant barrage of sound is not easy to listen to when you’re a person who likes silence. And the ferocity of tantrums is not my favorite, either. Theo doesn’t have a ton of tantrums, but when he does, they can be real doozies. Ninety straight minutes of screaming and throwing things and kicking things is not fun. Not even a little bit. And I’m not overly crazy about instances where a simple change in plans triggers a complete meltdown. But we roll with it, because what can ya do?

But if I set aside those things, there are actually some pieces of autism that I truly appreciate. Like interests, for example. Typical for a kid with something like high-functioning autism or Asperger’s (which has also been mentioned by more than one person as related to Theo), Theo has some downright unusual interests—and obsessive interest in them. For a very long time, it was elevators. He loved everything about them, he had an exhaustive knowledge of them, and he hungered for more and more information about them. Which actually was pretty fun. I learned a lot about elevators and escalators, and I could easily entertain him for zero dollars by simply taking him to a store that had an elevator. 🙂

Before that, it was musical instruments. Theo was fascinated by them and had a huge knowledge of all different types—some very obscure. And he was pretty good at playing them, too.

Now it’s coins and maps. Coins aren’t so unusual—a lot of kids collect them. But maps is a bit more unusual. My uncle has been sending him packages of old maps that he’s collected over the years, and Theo loves them. He likes to study them and look at the names and plot out routes and such.

It’s really pretty cool to have a kid who’s interested in unusual things. Legos and dinosaurs and Star Wars are all good and fun, but to me as an adult, they’re not nearly as much fun as some of the unusual interests that Theo comes up with. So I like that about him.

And eye contact. Theo’s not great with it—and this, too, is typical of a child with autism. And sometimes people harp on him about it, which chaps my hide. I know eye contact is important in a social sense when you’re an adult, but he’s a kid, and I feel like he’ll make progress on it as he gets older. (I know I did.) And here’s the thing about Theo’s lack of eye contact: It’s kind of a beautiful way to get to see him. Because when a child looks you in the eye and talks to you, a lot of what you see in their eyes is a reflection of you—they’re reacting to you, and it shows on their face. Which isn’t a bad thing—it’s kind of cool in its own way. But with Theo, he gazes off into space, somewhere to the side of my face, and I can watch what’s really going on in those amazingly blue eyes of his. I watch them sparkle and shine when he talks about something that interests him, even if it’s something I find incredibly tedious. Really, I love his unusual interests, but he has a habit of repeating some of the same things about a bazillion times, so I can’t say I’m necessarily as interested in hearing them the thousandth time. But he is, and I can watch that in his faraway gaze. He’s not looking at me and reflecting me—he’s utterly locked in his own world, and I can tell by the sparkle in his eyes that it’s a beautiful world. And that is very, very cool.

And kindess. Yes, kindness. Sometimes there are perceptions about people with autism lacking empathy, but that’s not always the case. Theo is actually one of the kindest kids I’ve ever met. He has a heart of gold. He doesn’t always show it (what kid does?!), but it’s in there. And it comes out when you least expect it, because he doesn’t really hide anything. His lack of awareness of others around him sometimes results in his sweet tenderness popping out when you least expect it. It also results in some embarrassing moments in front of others when he says something that might be best kept to himself (shall we talk about the time when he mused about whether one could come to school naked in front of his kindergarten teacher?!), but it is very cool when it results in pure, untainted kindness and love being shown.

Theo lives in Theo’s world a lot of the time, and yes, some things about that can be difficult. But it can also be really, really cool. 🙂

Autism can be pretty darn cool sometimes. :-)
Autism can be pretty darn cool sometimes. :-)

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