I live in a world in which my only real life experience with autism is with my son. My son has high-functioning, autism. “High functioning” autism is an informal term, used in the autistic community as sort of a measure of where on the autism spectrum one resides. We often talk about a spectrum but we make assumptions that everyone knows of what we speak. This is not necessarily so.
There is no diagnosis called “high functioning” autism. I’ve seen definitions of classic autism as a child who is non-verbal, has trouble communicating attention in the standard way, and who cannot provide answers on a standardized test form. But from those I have read about and seen, children who are profoundly affected by autism can still be very smart and oriented to the world around them. Other autistic people have additional disabilities that may impair intellectual function. This combination of disabilities may be misunderstanding as to what the autism actually is.
My posts all pertain to my personal experiences with my son. I have no experience with children who are profoundly affected or with multiple disabilities that include autism. When I post a story here, it comes from my heart but I am speaking about one person – my son. I am not an expert in autism – I’m a fairly decent expert on my son.
My son’s place on the spectrum is difficulty in use of language, socialization, and sensory processing. Intellectually, he is above average compared to children his own age regardless of disability. For example, he can already perform basic math equations and he reads at the level of a child 3-4 years older. He will be 5 years old at the end of May. He can answer questions like 6+3 but he does not know why the answer is 9. He can read. An example? I just called him over and he read this:
The only word he had trouble with? No, not trampoline. The word “her”. He can read it – but he cannot form the sentences as easily as he can read them.
Sometimes, I’m pushy with my son. If I think he can do more – I will force him to try. Very often, when I want him to make progress, I force him to struggle his way through it without my help. I feel an overwhelming desire to intervene every time, but I don’t. If he is on the brink of mastering some skill, I will ignore his pleas for help after telling him he can do it. I test his boundaries every day.
It’s not like I’m taking training wheels off his bike. It’s simple things like brushing his teeth. A couple months ago, it was really hell to get his teeth brushed at all because of the sensory overload to his mouth. He would pull on my arm and push me away, yell, close his mouth and cry. He would fake brush his own teeth. You would think I was performing dental surgery from his reaction when I was using a baby toothbrush!
After the ABA therapists worked with him, he lets me brush his teeth, gently. There is a whole magic spell to get through it without bad behavior. First, I must tell him what I’m planning to do. I have to use the exact correct title. In this case, “It’s time to brush our teeth!” There’s a whole confident, positive, yet stern tone of voice that must accompany this “command”. It works. He will follow me into the bathroom, stand on his little Diego stool and look in the mirror.
It’s still me doing the brushing. In order to get him to open his mouth, I have to say the magic words. “Say ahhh”. Then, I have to count the brush strokes in any given area I am brushing. If I go beyond eight strokes he will shut down.
But like I said, I’m pushy. So every day, I try and get in there more and more and up the number of strokes. Almost every day he protests and ends up pushing me away. There are a few days that I get further without a push or shove. This just encourages me to expand that, oh- so-tiny boundary. Next, I will be giving him back the brush (he had it before ABA intervened but just did a terribly lame job of it then).
If I am reading him a story, and he chimes in, I push him to read more. If he asks about a food that he’s never eaten, I push him to try it. (Mostly, I get nowhere with the food). And when I say push, there is always resistance. Like any child with anything new, there is a certain amount of persuasion involved.
For my little ASD boy, there is a lot more persuasion involved. Usually, there is crying, yelling and pushing away involved. Yet, I persist. This does not always work in my favor. A lot of times, it results in a meltdown. And my will to force him concedes to his will to resist or comprehend.
Is this good or not? Here’s the thing. I know my son has a disability. I know there are boundaries. Where those boundaries are is not clear to me. What if I don’t push and if I did, I could give him ever so slightly a little bit of independence each time? I want him to achieve as much independence as is possible for his future. This is the best thing any parent can try to achieve for a child.
So I when I venture into foreign territory, sometimes I push him us right into a dead end. He cries and screams and generally is upset for a couple minutes to 2 hours at a time. Then, I give in and help him. Sometimes, it’s something like putting on his own seatbelt or shoes. Sometimes, it’s putting together a puzzle or answering a question in a video game. Sometimes, it’s learning a new word or concept or writing his name.
Little things lead to bigger things. My push muscles get stronger. His resistance has been less. We’re getting somewhere, albeit slowly. I see no reason to stop pushing. Do you?