I’m no Scientist, but My Autistic Son is Reminiscing…

My son has gone retro.  It’s happened before.  It’s a stage where he pulls out old toys from his younger days and begins playing with them again.  He is nearly five years old.  He still has toys from when he was first learning to walk.  And they’ve made a comeback.

Don’t even bother telling me to give those toys away.  Trust me, he knows his inventory.  If I even think about moving one, let alone giving it away, even if I do it in a stealthy manner, he knows.  Inevitably, he will ask for the toy, the moment it is gone.  After the first few times this happened, I quit giving things away.

Why, you ask, am I so weak?  Well, my son is different.  It’s not a matter of pitching a fit.   No, it’s not that simple.  He is an interrogator.  He will question me like a prisoner at Guantanemo about the location of the missing toy.  I can give a thousand answers which are unacceptable.  Even if I give him the truth and say I gave it away, he will ignore that answer and question me again and again and . . . you get the picture.  It’s not like it’s just a few minutes to an hour.  It goes on for weeks.  And just when I think he’s occupied with something else, he will ask yet another question about the missing toy.  It’s just not worth my sanity.

So, we’ve been sick with this virus that’s going around and I’ve been trapped in my house for 48 hours with my son. During this time, we’ve been each other’s only physical human contact, other than brief, special guest appearances by my husband, who pops in and darts out, knowing my mood.  I have been treated to the soulful tunes of Leap Frog’s Fridge DJ, including such greats as Itsy Bitsy Spider and Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  I’ve heard “Sing along as we stroll along” about 250 times and I’ve listened to cars rev’ing engines, and emergency vehicle sirens, between a child screaming, “CLEAN! CLEAN!” while running to me with snot all over his upper lip and hands.

Rockin' out on the Fridge DJ

It’s not just the toys. He’s pulled old books off the shelf and requested to watch “Oswald”, a Nick Jr. cartoon he has not watched in over a year.  He made an offhand comment about an old babysitter, two days in a row, one who abruptly left with no notice and no goodbyes.  “Is Miss Megan a girl or a boy?” he asked.  Even the question relates to a concept we were introducing about a year ago, trying to develop his ability to distinguish gender.  So, while my wild, sick, child has been running around with his snotty nose, breaking the sound barrier, I am wondering why he is bringing up the past, in his own special communicative way with me.  He is, in fact, reminiscing.

I wrote a post, not long ago, about listening to my child.  All this retro toy, book and TV show stuff is telling me something.  I had no idea what so I decided to do a little searching on line.  When I did, I came across an article about how children learn and their thought processes.  There was a discussion in this article about how a child comes to achieve his autobiographical memory.   In other words, it was about how a child remembers stuff about his own past.  And this put my son’s recent actions into perspective for me.

The article discussed the forming of autobiographical memory.  It said:

“It is difficult to imagine everyday social interactions taking place successfully among adults who do not possess a mature understanding of their own and others’ minds. Yet social interactions do take place every day with preschool children who are only beginning to develop an understanding of mental states. How does having a more developed understanding of mind enhance children’s social interactions and their cognitive development? Conversely, what types of social interactions are most beneficial for developing children’s understanding of mind, and what is the social process through which children gain an understanding of mind?”

. . .

The argument is that children must possess some basic understanding that they can only remember events they have personally experienced; thus they must understand the link between personal experience and personal knowledge in order to have autobiographical memory.”  (Mother-child reminiscing and children’s understanding of mind, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (January 1, 2006) Reese, Elaine; Sutcliffe, Emily).

Another portion of the article said:

“Children’s understanding of mind may itself enable true recollection to occur, but parents’ reminiscing style may simultaneously promote children’s autobiographical memory and their understanding of mind. Finally, conversations about past events provide preschoolers with a stage on which to display their developing understanding of mind, with the spotlight entirely on the contents of their own mind and others’ minds in the form of memory.”

These concepts are so innate to us as adults, that it is almost difficult to follow them as drawn out in this type of article.  I have no scientific agenda.  I’m just a mom, trying to communicate with her ASD son.  But, I have a disagreement with the proposition that my son, just because he is on this spectrum, does not necessarily have an inability to have an understanding of mind, if that is the implication.

I think my son’s impairment, and I can only speak for him and no other child, is in the communication of that understanding of mind to others in part.  The other part is in recognizing the emotions and minds of others.  The impairment is partially mine if I do not make every effort to understanding his communication to me.

I am a mother who reminisces about past events.  I remind my child of those events.  We go through picture albums and talk about what we see in the pictures.  I ask him if he knows where we were or what is in the picture.  He does seem to remember and understand he was part of these past events.  I know there are children on the spectrum who can remember what the weather was, given a date in the past.  Or that can recall what was going on during a particular date in the past, again random facts.  Which is amazing in and of itself but it’s not autobiographical – about their own past.

Currently, my best understanding is my son’s retro-filled couple of weeks must have been triggered by something he is having difficulty communicating.  I’m hoping he is not remembering a specific day in the past without associating himself into that memory. Maybe he is remembering singing one of the songs he heard at preschool recently in earlier times on his Fridge DJ and making that association.  Perhaps, he is remembering preschool itself, which he left just before ABA started 7 months ago.  Or maybe it is the virus coming on and now in full attack that reminds him of an earlier time that he was sick, last year.  The best I can tell right now is that he is going through this stage as a method of communication and reminiscing.

He has the understanding of past events involving himself.  So, I wonder about all this scientific theory.  Should I feel (A) I could not possibly understand what they are talking about since I have no PhD, or (B) that I know my son well enough to know his attributes and his shortcomings and that he is, in fact, by using these toys as tools, remembering his past.  I believe it is (B).

So what have I learned?  I learned I have to keep learning.  Now, that I’m listening to the clues he is giving me, and understanding he may be trying to communicate by reminiscing, I need to flesh that out by helping his association to form those past memories of self by eliciting responses from him about past events.  In that way, I may feed his ability to form the autobiographical memory that can help him with social interaction in the future.

But enough of the scientific/philosophical musing.  My priority just now is to wipe his nose again. This kind of memory, I, personally, can do without.

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About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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18 Responses to I’m no Scientist, but My Autistic Son is Reminiscing…

  1. bbsmum says:

    This is very interesting. BB has a very shaky concept of time and treats long-gone events as having just happened, which means that he sometimes has meltdowns screaming about things that happened months before. I found blogs by some autistic adults containing accounts of this kind of ‘flashback’ very helpful in understanding what was happening, even though I have no way of convincing BB that all this is ‘history’!
    Snot?

  2. bbsmum says:

    Whoops, pressed send before I’d finished! But all I wanted to say was that snotty noses are unfortunately beyond anyone else’s help!
    Hope you all feel better soon.

    • solodialogue says:

      Thank you so much for commenting here as it gave me the chance to read your blog which I LOVE! I’m hoping that working with him on the understanding of self will help him understand others and thus help with socialization. Lofty goals yes! But I will work on it just the same. I think my son might be “flashing back” to a past event but to discuss it and ask questions might help us process some stuff and (cross my fingers) make some sense.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I’m glad to hear that I am not the only one dealing with not ever being able to get rid of ANY toy or book.

    My 10 year old son has Asperger’s and he is one that remembers every little detail about a specific day or event, but I do know that he indeed understands that it is his memory and is therefore an autobiographical memory. I think that sometimes the “professionals” try to put each issue in a box. Not in a bad way per say, but in order to make sense of it. As we know as parents of our special kiddos, they definitely cannot be put in a box….unless that is the toy they currently are obsessed with… 🙂

    • solodialogue says:

      Glad to have you come by to read here! It’s funny how our kiddos have that inventory memory. My son was asking for a book that came with a Hot Wheels ice cream truck that we haven’t read for a year and, of course, I can’t find it but he insisted we read it. Luckily, before too much drama, I got him redirected. But I don’t dare to get rid of anything! And yes, those “professionals” don’t always understand…sometimes it is up to us who see these children the most of any person, to provide enlightenment, so to speak. And yes, the only box you will find my son in, is one with the current toy obsession. 😉

  4. Big Daddy says:

    In this instance, I think you know your boy better than the scientists. BTW, we still cannot throw certain baby toys away and my son is 13+!

    • solodialogue says:

      We probably all know our boys better than those scientists! Goodness sakes with those toys! I have nine years of accumulation to get to age 13. That’s it! I’m cutting back on what he gets before I end up having to buy a storage facility!

  5. Kaia is just the opposite — it seems to me that she does not attach to any material things. Toys are either present or not. If they are not present, they are not in her mind.

    As a child, I formed very strong attachments to many of my toys. I still have all of my Cabbage Patch dolls and many other plush toys from childhood. Kaia’s total lack of attachment is very foreign to me.

    Thanks for sharing this great information in a way that is so much easier to read. I think my head might explode right now if I tried to read the research you just translated 🙂

    Oh… and here’s a box of tissues… *passes tissues* 🙂 Hope you’re all feeling better soon!

    • solodialogue says:

      It’s strange to me that she is the opposite in this way. I mean, my son can ignore a toy with the best of them but if you get rid of it, he’s like a bloodhound on the scent! He knows that toy is out of the house and will relentlessly interrogate me as to its whereabouts. Have you actually tried to get rid of stuff she does not use? That may be the difference. That’s how I discovered this. First, I thought, well, he’s not interested anymore…. Thanks for the tissue! We definitely need it here! 🙂

  6. I just discovered your blog and I love this post.

    I’m an adult on the spectrum (age 52), and I’ve found that the scientists are light years behind us in their understanding of autism. They tend to put us in static boxes, as though we never change, and that’s absolute nonsense. And they also tend to ignore that we are as diverse as any other group of people: some of us attach great importance to objects and some don’t; some have a great sense of wordplay, and some don’t; some have a great sense of humor, and some don’t.

    One of my challenges is that I have an extremely vivid emotional and visual memory, so much so that events from the past can come ringing back with incredible clarity. When they’re good memories, it’s wonderful, and when they’re bad memories, it’s tough. It sounds like your child might be the same way.

    There’s also a theory of neurological development that has to do with something called “brain-cell pruning.” The idea is that, as typical kids develop, certain parts of their brains get pruned, so that they give up childhood pursuits in favor of other pursuits. It’s where the “age-appropriate activities” idea comes from. For autists, some believe, it’s very different. That pruning doesn’t happen, even as we mature in other ways. So, for example, I have both a love of children’s picture books and a master’s degree in English. I tend to hold on to the things I’ve loved at various points in my life, which I find to be a very positive thing. It means that I don’t lose my enjoyment of things I’ve loved; I just keep gaining new things to enjoy!

    • solodialogue says:

      So glad you found this blog and enjoyed the post!! Your perspective is so valuable to me. As you can understand, my child cannot communicate fully with me so it is often a bit of a mystery what is going on. All the reading of scientific journals in the world is not going to help me understand my child on the real and personal level that someone like you can provide to me. So, I am grateful for your comment.

      Your description of a vivid emotional and visual memory is fascinating to me and, yes, does sound like something my son may be experiencing. And either I am slightly on the spectrum or the “brain-cell” pruning did not completely happen for me either because I love children’s games and toys as well as holding my doctorate in law!

      I love your description of simply gaining new things to enjoy! It is lovely and so positive! Hope you come back often Rachel!

    • solodialogue says:

      So glad you found this blog and enjoyed the post!! Your perspective is so valuable to me. As you can understand, my child cannot communicate fully with me so it is often a bit of a mystery what is going on. All the reading of scientific journals in the world is not going to help me understand my child on the real and personal level that someone like you can provide to me. So, I am grateful for your comment.

      Your description of a vivid emotional and visual memory is fascinating to me and, yes, does sound like something my son may be experiencing. And either I am slightly on the spectrum or the “brain-cell” pruning did not completely happen for me either because I love children’s games and toys as well as holding my doctorate in law!

      I love your description of simply gaining new things to enjoy! It is lovely and so positive! Hope you come back often Rachel!

    • Stephanie says:

      I loved reading you post, too. I think you sound a lot like my son. 🙂 The brain cell pruning (or lack of) makes a lot of sense, too. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  7. Broot says:

    I enjoyed reading the original post, but the comments are even better. The idea of brain-cell pruning makes a lot of sense. Visiting from SITS!

    • solodialogue says:

      Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is extremely bright and I was fortunate that she came here to comment. Her blog Journeys with Autism is remarkable. Brain-cell pruning was definitely a new one for me too!

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