A Mind of My Own
Posted by Gail | Filed under Autism
Chapter Four: A Matter of Routine (Part 1)
Malcolm, like many other children with Asperger’s Syndrome, often displays an intense, even obsessive, focus on the things he’s interested in, while virtually ignoring everything else. Malcolm’s interests have moved from trains, including Thomas the Tank Engine (for which he knew by heart the dialogue from every video he owned), to the subway lines, to Monopoly and the Game of Life, to chess, to internet games, to the music he has fallen in and out of love with.
While the interests he has might be seen as normal interests in other children, Malcolm’s interest is so intense and so exclusive it is unusual. While he was in his Game of Life stage, he went through three sets of the game. They just kept wearing out. While he was in his train stage, he would list the names of all the trains from the Thomas videos, and all the stations on the subway lines, over and over and we would ride the subway four or five times a week. Miss Sharon, our caregiver, would get on with him at the station east of our home, and get off again at the station west of our house and then walk home from there. It was enough for him sometimes. Other times, he rode the whole line north and south, east and west, because he HAD to see the names of the stations on the walls. Later, he would reproduce those names in order, writing the words in the colours they appeared in on the subway walls. He was three years old.
Writing is a passion, much like drawing for an artist. Malcolm started writing when he was about two years old, and his printing has always been perfect. Perfectionism is a characteristic many Asperger’s children share. Depending on what he was writing, he’d use traditional printing, or “typewriter” letters. He was particularly fond of the “typewriter g.” He still refers to his printing by font name and classification. So he’ll write in “Times Roman” or he might add “italic” to his description.
While his classmates were learning to print in grade one, Malcolm was writing in cursive because Alex was writing in cursive and he had a model. And when he wrote something and it didn’t turn out right, he’d crumble up the paper, toss the page away and start again, sometimes growling his frustration. He couldn’t abide mistakes and would not tolerate imperfection. It was tough to watch.
The perfectionism spilled over into just about everything in his life. Alex was a perfectionist too (I had also been at an early age, but broke myself of it) so I’d had some experience with the frustration it brings. But while I could reason with Alex, pointing out the downsides and redirecting, Malcolm’s language barrier proved to be an additional challenge. I had to be much more hands-off and let him blow off steam. Then I would empathize: “Malcolm, I’m sorry you’re so frustrated with what you’re doing,” all the time hugging him, providing the pressure he needed to feel safe. That empathy alone, the acknowledgment of his feelings, was a major balm. It seems that his inability to express himself and his feelings meant I had even greater responsibility to recognize and acknowledge them. Sometimes I would create a mantra, which when used over several occasions, helped to defuse the anger, frustration, sadness, whatever he was feeling.
Malcolm hated to lose. He hated to lose in a game. He hated to make a mistake in his schoolwork. He hated being bested. It was a huge problem at home, but an even bigger problem at school. Eventually I came up with the mantra, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” said in a very sing-songy manner (which, of course, is the way of mantras). When he’d express his anger at losing something, I’d haul out the mantra. After a couple or ten employments, I’d start it and he’d finish it off for me. The routine and predictability of the mantra had done the job. His frustration was abated and we could get back to normal more quickly.