The Wanderer.

My son’s mind wanders every single night when we do his homework.  I lose him.  He will give me the infamous tilt of the head.

The famous tilt of the head.

His lips will move and he’s whispering about cars or Rock Band or an iPad game.  As his lips move, I can see him enunciating.  Sometimes, he is replaying some scene from earlier in the day, week, month or three years ago.  His eyes are never on me – they are somewhere else.  I don’t even think his eyes are looking at anything nearby.  He’s so caught up with what is in his mind, that only his body is present.

It’s important that I know he understands the work in front of him.  Because if he does not (as in the case of the pronouns) steps must be taken to get him there.  But I can’t get him “there” if I don’t recognize the problem.  Often, I’m guessing whether he understands and is bored or if he’s wandering because he does not understand.  That is a trick unto itself.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes raise my voice.  But when I talk to him at regular volume, he’s very adept at blocking me from his input.  When my voice is raised, he pays attention.

Sometimes, when he’s comes back from a ‘mind stroll’, it’s like I’ve woken him from a dream.  The question is whether I can hold  him with me to discover what he “gets” before he slips away to his other place.

I’d say that I lose him more often than I “keep” him on the first call back.  Sometimes, he will read a spelling word.  Then he just sits there, looking off in the distance – oblivious to time passing, instead of writing the word down.  Perhaps he see futility in handwriting out something he already knows.  But I can’t know he knows until he does it.

When he is gone, the question is always going to be why.  I have repeatedly told teachers and therapists that it may look like my son is paying no attention, when, in fact, he is absorbing everything like a sponge, even while he looks like he is 1000 miles away.  And I forget those very words, when he does it to me.

There was an interesting study here from Science Daily about wandering minds.  We all do it.  We can read something, watch a tv show, get lost during a conversation because our minds wander.  In studying the mental processes underlying a wandering mind, there is something called “working memory” which is “a sort of a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously.”  The study found that people with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during simple tasks, though their performance on the main task was not compromised.  The study suggests that when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing.  Sometimes, I think this is what Toots is doing.

Conversely though, when faced with a task filled with sensory distractors – like similarly shaped letters to a task of pushing a button when seeing a particular letter – the link between working memory and mind wandering disappears.  So, what is it?  He’s having too much trouble or not enough of a challenge?  Sometimes, I know for sure.  Other times, not so much.

Maybe the work is not challenging.  Maybe the way I ask the questions nonsensically to him, and he tunes it out.  I know he absorbs and comprehends a lot more than I often give him credit for knowing.  I will have to watch what I do and how I react more closely to see if I can tell.

When he tunes out in therapy, ABA has a few tricks they use on him with this behavior.  They will use “compliance” instructions.  “Touch nose.  Touch head.  Jump.  Turn around.  Touch doorknob.”  Those are a few.  This is to get him listening and responding.  He will be praised for each instruction he follows either with or without a tangible reinforcement such as m&ms or fruit snacks.  He gets a “No” if he does not comply usually followed by a negative reinforcer such as losing a toy or having a time out.

When I try those instructions?  He will do the first couple, then he adds in his own and complies with them himself.  He wants me to know he is still in control.  Despite the twist on compliance instructions, they do tend to reel him in for a bit, sometimes all the way through the rest of his homework.

Either the homework is not challenging enough, or I have lost him altogether in a foreign country, like the strange country of pronouns.  The sorting it all out is the hard part.  Because getting the answer from the source is not reliable.  So, even though homework is a challenge for all parents, again, the communication issue raises its ugly head.  He cannot tell me what is going on with his behavior.  I have to guess, find a way around the obstacle, get the information absorbed and understood and send him to school with homework “complete.”

Hope my mind doesn’t wander…


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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9 Responses to The Wanderer.

  1. We just discussed the same thing with Little Miss’s teachers yesterday. I believe the words that were used were “extremely short attention span.” And yet, like T — LM will come back and blow me away later by demonstrating something I could have sworn she was not paying attention to.

    I wish I had the answer for this — or maybe a magic attention-paying wand. Sigh.

  2. That all would explain why I can’t stay on task while helping them do their homework. Actually we had a pretty good homework day yesterday, and I pretty much stayed out of it. Read the instructions and checked the work when they were done. I didn’t hover. I did have to hover over Random when he was Toots age though. The homework thing gets better as they get older. It is so hard to tease out the too hard from the too easy with kids like ours.

    • solodialogue says:

      Ha! Sometimes, I can’t stay on task for homework either – then it’s harder for him because I’ve told him something “wrong” and we have to erase that part and start over! It’s good to know it gets easier as they get older. I did try leaving the room and letting him write out the spelling words but when I came back he was staring at his reflection in the computer monitor (it was off) and tapping his pencil… How many years did you say? 😉

  3. Want to jump on yet another bandwagon, Miss Karen?? How about the no homework in the early grades bandwagon? Check out these links – you might find it very interesting:


    Oh, and can I tell you how great it makes me feel to know you raise your voice on occasion? 🙂

    • solodialogue says:

      Haha! Yes, I do raise my voice sometimes, mostly at work but put “home” with “work” and there you have it! 😉

      I’m not a big naysayer against homework even though it’s like pulling teeth. He and I both learn things (like the whole pronoun issue and how to address it) by this kind of exchange. It’s just my opinion and I know our kids have it tough, but doing homework can be quite rewarding when it is finished.

  4. Lisa says:

    Sometimes I believe that T and Tate could be the same child. Tate does the head-tilt. He will either mouth words or speak so softly that I can’t hear him..and it appears that he is disengaged, but really? I think he’s processing information in his own way.

    Tate has the same “compliance” checklist with his therapists. He does the SAME EXACT THING TO ME when I try to use them to get him to pay attention. And, like Karla’s daughter, at times when I think we’ve completely lost Tate’s attention, he’ll astound us with recalling word-for-word what was said and done. Talk about an enigma wrapped in a riddle, twisted in a conundrum….

  5. My mind wanders a lot too. Sometimes it is just more interesting in there than the outside world. I think the thing I’m most looking forward to is the time when our kids can tell us about their inner life…what they were thinking about during times they appear to be ‘not there.’ It has to be something fascinating!

  6. eof737 says:

    My mind has always wandered and that quote above says it all for all of us. 😉

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