A Mind of My Own
Posted by Gail | Filed under Autism
Chapter Six: The Right Stimulation (Part 1)
I have always been very involved with my children at school. When Alexandra went to junior kindergarten, I began volunteering a day a week at school in her classroom. It was great. I got to see her in a peer environment and learned just how different kids are at school than at home. And I met Daniel, a little boy who was often described as “difficult.”
Daniel didn’t seem to understand the concept of personal space. He had a really hard time separating from his dad in the morning, and he could be totally deaf when he wanted to be. But Daniel would do anything I asked him to. I spoke to him like a person (not a delinquent child), and when I needed him to do something I’d sit him on my lap with his back to me, wrap my arms around him in a tight hug and speak quietly. Daniel always heard me.
Somewhere in my reading I had come across something about children who were easily over-stimulated. It seems they can’t process out the stimulation that others routinely filter. So they look at a face and they see eyes moving, nose flaring, lips wet, teeth, tongue, frowns and smiles and squints, and who knows what-all else all rolled into one set of inputs.
When I met Daniel, the information I’d read about how to deal with these children just popped back into my consciousness and I applied it. By not looking Daniel in the eye while I spoke to him, by lowering my voice, or by reassuring him with a tight squeeze (Asperger’s children often respond well to deep-pressured touch-it makes them feel safe) I made him comfortable enough that he could receive my message.
This approach to dealing with over-stimulated kids is completely counter to our cultural upbringing. When we want kids to pay attention to what we’re saying, we insist that they look us in the eye. Or we tap them on the shoulder or lightly touch their arm to get their attention. But the stimulation of the Asperger’s child receives from our attempts to gain their attention is often so overwhelming that they can’t “hear” the message. It’s just too much input.
Daniel was also extremely bright. He taught himself to read so he could read the instructions on his computer games. And he was a whiz at math. So he found most of the work at school beneath him, and he wouldn’t do it. He spent great gobs of time sitting by his cubby because he wouldn’t cooperate with his teacher.
Whenever I volunteered in class, the teacher would ask if I could work with Daniel and I’d readily agree. He was a loving boy, affectionate, funny and full of ideas. When I needed him to finish something he wasn’t good at and didn’t want to do (like writing, which many Asperger’s children find torturous) I’d turn it into a game, asking if he could finish before I did or counting to ten or thirty or however long I thought he needed. Daniel always won.
Daniel prepared me for Malcolm. He was sent into my life so I wouldn’t be emotionally invested when I was practicing the skills I would later need for my own child. The same year Malcolm was diagnosed (at about four), Daniel was diagnosed at about six and a half. While I was researching Asperger’s in a panic because of Malcolm, Daniel’s mom was also feeling somewhat overwhelmed. But I had a head start on Michelle, thanks to her son. Daniel had already given me an advance course in patience, tolerance, and reading the signals that are so important with an Asperger’s child. Since they don’t understand what’s happening to them, they can’t possibly explain it to you. And while Daniel was extremely verbal, he still didn’t understand why he shouldn’t wear long sleeved turtlenecks in the summer or why other children lied.