Underestimating Focus.

I was thinking that life can be blurry sometimes.  When we focus on one thing, we don’t see everything else that passes us by.  I wonder how much of my son’s life is a blur to him as he is rushed from one place to the next.  From one therapy to the next.  All designed to enhance his life – to even the playing field.

As I help my son cross the parking lot of the small elementary school, he spies a school bus full of children twice his age pull up nearby.  No sooner does the bus come to a stop than the children pour out of the doors to waiting cars.  My son’s little sensory system flashes signs of overload.  The large bus, crowds of children, bus noise, loud voices, car engines starting in anticipation of rides home.  “Wanna get a happy meal!” he yells.  This is an attempt to soothe his anxiety.

“We’re going to see Miss Gayle,” I replied to reassure him.  Miss Gayle is his occupational therapist from the school district.  It is time for his beloved weekly, 45-minute visit.  He doesn’t answer.  “Hold my hand,” I say, grabbing his.  He hold it for ten seconds before he pulls it away and darts ahead of me.  He trips over his new shoes, and catches himself before falling.

Does he think about the other kids?  Where did they come from?  Where are they going? What were they doing on the bus?  When will he go to school?  He never asks these questions.  Is that part of life a blur?

He stops, takes my hand again and we walk.  I point out the blooming yellow daffodils.  “Look at the pretty, yellow flowers!  They are called daffodils.”  I say and point to them.  He does not look to where I’m pointing.  It’s as if I never spoke.  Nothing more is said until he breaks the silence a few more feet ahead with, “I love you, mommy”.  I smile and holding his hand I tell him I love him too.

We pass four school buildings arranged in a square to reach the trailer where occupational therapy takes place.  They all have pictures in the window doors – of letters, numbers, animals, and names.  Does he notice?  He doesn’t say or point.

As we come through the corridor there is a large play structure on the campus.  A little girl, no more than two years old, plays with a bucket in the gravel at its base.  Her father lies next to her on a bench on his back in the first warm afternoon of spring.  I glance their way with envy at how relaxed they appear.  My son does not look their way and seemingly does not notice them.  He heads toward the trailer breaking away from my hand.

We head up the ramp to the trailer and inside.  Overjoyed to reach his destination, my son kicks off his shoes and runs for a square swing that hangs from the ceiling by cables, excitedly exclaiming “Dodge Charger!! Gonna drive the Charger!” as he leaps into the swing.

Who says my child cannot pretend play?  To him, the swing is a race car.  First, it is a Dodge Charger.  Then a monster truck.  Next, a hot rod.  Chattering of the things non-stop to Miss Gayle, he has a huge grin on his face.  His enjoyment and his chatter build to a crescendo which culminates in his attempt to stand on the swing.  Miss Gayle stops the swing and gives him the “red light”.  After his admonition, he sits back down.  Miss Gayle asks if his seatbelt is on tight.  He pretends to buckle an invisible seat belt and looks to her for approval.  And, they’re off!   Now, he has full focus.

He’s talking to her in the closest thing I’ve seen to a conversation.  There’s echolalia, the “Dodge Charger”, but he’s integrating it into pretend play, coupled with actual, appropriate answers of yes and no to her questions.  He sings songs.  He smiles.

The swinging is for his vestibular system, his balance.  To help him get an idea of where his body is in space and the size of his body compared to the size of other objects.  Somehow, this is supposed to help his brain process that.  How remains a mystery to me.  It just simply looks like fun.  I wonder how he sees us when he swings.  I wonder if he wonders why he comes here to swing.  He doesn’t ask.  He simply does.

Once the swinging is over, Miss Gayle asks him to help her set up a group of low to high stacking benches which he will climb, and from which he will jump.  He sets up uneven, plastic colored stepping stones and a ramp to a trampoline on which he will jump, followed by diving into a soft pillow and being “squashed” with a bean bag chair.  This is his obstacle course for the day.  He simply cannot focus on carrying a light bench.  He goes to grasp it and wanders away.  Repeatedly.

He makes his way through the actual obstacle course with lots of echolalia, while, simultaneously listening to and following instructions.  This activity is supposed to help promote his strength, muscle tone and coordinate both sides of his body.  Again, he just thinks it’s fun, never asking why he is doing it.

Meeting "the pen"

Next, Miss Gayle sits him at a table.  On it, is a slanted, vertical clipboard somewhat resembling a mini easel.  She takes out a thick purple pen.  The pen vibrates when pressure is applied.  For some reason, she believes this pen will help him learn to write.  Instead, he wants to examine how it works.  He wants to take it apart, change the ink colors and feel the vibration.  A struggle ensues.

She puts a piece of paper on the mini-easel with a drawing of a house and lines for a roadway.  She tells him the pen is his “Dodge Charger” and he needs to drive it from home to McDonald’s.  He calms a bit and grasping the pen like a pole by wrapping his entire fist around it, he draws the line on the “road.”  She tries a second “road map” but now he’s grabbing for the pen and on his way to meltdown.  Too many color options for the insert on the pen.  His sole interest is in making it vibrate and changing out the ink colors.

Miss Gayle takes it back from him as she observes him using it for purposes other than she intended.  This, of course, only further inflames him.  He wants it back.  “Want it!  Want it!”  he yells as he physically tries to grab it from her.  “May I please have the pen please?” he asks while trying to wrestle it from her.  She concedes.  (Oh so wrong!)

Miss Gayle put the pen away but the rest of the session was shot.  He repeatedly tried to go for the pen again. She repeatedly told him he could play with it “next time”. To him that meant escalate his volume because then she will give in.  Nope.

After we got home, I asked him if he knew what the pen was for and he responded that it was to make writing fun.  He knew.  Like following instructions while reciting scripts, he knew what the intent of the pen was but it was not what he wanted to do with it.

Most of the time, I feel like I know the little guy so well.  Yet, sometimes he surprises and surpasses my beliefs.  Time after time, he shows me he has been focused on the subject or topic of the moment, even though I did not know it!  I’ve been caught underestimating his abilities.

I best watch my p’s and q’s around him.  He knows more than he lets on.  Sneaky that is.  After all this talk about focus, it appears it’s not him missing things – it’s me. I’m missing the depth of his cognitive ability and understanding.  All because of my preconceived notions.  Focus is not always derived based on where he looks and what he says in the moment.  He’s smarter than I knew.

And, those daffodils?  When I pulled up the image for the post last night, he told me what they were.  “The yellow flowers at Miss Gayle’s”.


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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12 Responses to Underestimating Focus.

  1. Lizbeth says:

    Oh my Karen, he sounds so much like my Alex at that age. Smart as a whip! I think he’s taking in EVERYTHING and just not letting on that he is…he’s absorbing it yet has expressive difficulty articulating back to you. Alex would do the same thing. I’d tell him something and he’d act like he was ignoring it. About a month later it could come up exactly as I had said it. I always tell people that if you say something to him you have to mean it. You cannot go back on promises. He remembers and holds you accountable….

    We had one of those pens too–the vibrations are for sensory input as well as to increase fine motor strengh. They have to grip harder to hold it thru the vibrations. At least that’s what my OT told me….

    Thinking of your mom–hugs

    • solodialogue says:

      That pen was just too exciting for him!! It’s funny how they soak it up like a sponge and then let you know they know much later. And yes, I’ve always believed that if you make a promise you keep it regardless!

  2. Lisa says:

    I love reading your blogs Karen, such insight and depth.

    But its true, Racer remembers stuff that I might have said months ago. And I agree with Lizbeth I really have to remember not to promise things that I can’t keep just for the sake of saying them. He won’t let up till I’ve done what I’ve said. He still to this day bugs my mom about going back to Sea World because she “we’ll go back another day” When she calls him on the phone he always asks her “is it another day yet?”

    • solodialogue says:

      Thank you Lisa! Our little guys have that memory that I wish I did! (This morning I left the house without my purse- duh!) I tend to think he doesn’t see things and then he shows me he’s been following it all along. 🙂

  3. Brian says:

    Knucklehead also picks up things and they come out at weird times. Like saying “Bless you” after a sneeze, or “Oh, shoot!” when he falls, or “drive me nuts.” You get the point. You write a lot of good stuff, my blog is way less intelligent than this one. I’ll try to use bigger words.

    • solodialogue says:

      Your little one sounds super smart from everything I’ve read. I’m impressed. Lol – “bigger words”! You are a very funny blogger and I love reading your stuff! Yay for daddy bloggers! 🙂

  4. jnettlee says:

    I’ve thought a lot about the focus thing, too, Karen. As I watch Gavin, it amazes me that he seem so oblivious to what’s going on around him. He has very keen focus on the things that interest him, but ignores his surroundings. I do believe they are AWARE, but are they just not interested? The example of pointing out the daffodils was perfect, for I see that in Gavin. It’s not what HE chooses to be interested in at that particular moment. So puzzling. Are their surroundings so overstimulating that they choose to focus on one item/activity at a time to preserve their comfort level?

    It saddens me that they don’t ask questions… you refer to that a lot, and it hits home every time. I hope someday they will. One day at a time. So much to learn.

    Wonderful post. As always. Thank you !

  5. LBDDiaries says:

    Thank you for visiting my blog today – I popped over here to see who visited and am so glad I did. I LOVE this story – your honesty with yourself and the smile it brought to my face that he heard you about the daffodils! Children truly are like sponges and I can’t express enough how much I liked this story!

  6. Lynn says:

    I agree that they are probably taking in so much more than we know. We are still in the bad habit of talking about Audrey when she is in earshot…it’s such a hard habit to break. But she will repeat things later that we said while we thought she wasn’t listening.

    I like the way that all OT’s have the same bag of tricks 🙂

  7. eof737 says:

    “I’m missing the depth of his cognitive ability and understanding. All because of my preconceived notions.” You made an important observation in that quote. Yes, he is smarter than you think Karen and will continue to develop cognitively… 🙂

  8. Wow. This passage sounds SO MUCH like Kaia at OT. The swing, the obstacle course… right down to how she would respond if given a vibrating pen. She’s never had one of these types of pens, but I know in my heart that if the OT let her use one, Kaia would never write a line. She too would be absolutely fixated on how it works and changing the inks!

    Like you, I’m not in the position to really know how much Kaia is taking in. Her communication disability makes it almost impossible for her to tell me. But like your son, she is always full of surprises 🙂

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