Friday, April 3, 2009
On Autism Awareness day - What is Autism
On my way to Chicago this morning ( for I am typing on my laptop in the plane)
I am entranced by these two bright little eyes on top of the seat in front of me. I smile at the child who has turned around to interact with me
My smile encourages him and he goes down on his seat and then peers out from the side . When I tilt my head and smile at him, he retreats again and then emerges from the other side.
Again seeing my smiling face he is emboldened and reaches out a pudgy hand to be touched.
I reach out my hand too
Such is the dance of social interaction
His mother turns around embarrassed " I am so sorry he is bothering you "
I want to say – don't be sorry .. your little boy just gave me a live demo of neuro-typical child psychology
I tell her " Please don't apologize .. he is adorable "
The mom gives the little boy THE look ( all you parents know the look J )
And tells him to sit down and fastens his seatbelt
The little child is unfazed
Even with his back turned to me, he reaches his hand out to me– a person he has never met before but must woo.
As the flight takes off- he turns his attention to mom and is now tryng to woo her – without being able to see
my face – these interactions are no longer satisfying.
Look mommy cloud , look mommy mountain
This dance of social interaction really is the key to neurotypical development
The urge to pay attention to social creatures, to imitate them, to woo them are the fundamentals upon which language and social development is based
As a baby and infant – you spend your time listening to the adults around you and talking to you – this lays the basis for receptive language
You keep wanting to interact with them – this lays the basis for you practicing the words
You want to impress them with all you know – so when mommy claps her hands as you say your first word – you want to say more and more words to get that gratification
The first interactions, the first back and forth communications start perhaps as early as 7 days
Practicing( and the key word is practice ) these back and forth interactions gives you the skills that you need to navigate the social world .
Now think for a moment , if the sensory system were disrupted so that the child could not see all of mommy/daddy's face – only parts
What if hearing worked differently and mommy's cooing sounded like yelling and felt scary( hypersensitive ) , or was not heard at all( hyposensitive ) -
Or every sound in the room ( the sound of a plane flying in the skiy , birds twittering,) felt like an assault so you wanted to tune it out ( or did not register at all )
What If the child( like R ) sought out a lot of visual sensation – wouldn't TV with its bright flashing lights be much more attractive than people . And If a small toddler / infant spend a lot of time in a passive communication format ( watching TV ) –instead of practicing the back and forth dance of socialization- what impact would that have on their development (Most of my fellow moms and das say that their Autistic children seek out TV – it gives them the visual input as well is something predictable – unlike human interaction which is so unpredictable and therefore scary – one dear friend infact calls the "Baby Einstein" series " Baby Autism")
If this happened, this dance would not even start
Or be MUCH slower
Or take MUCH longer
And would have MANY steps and mis- steps
And would be VERY dependant on the dance partner to not give up
With an unresponsive or overresponsive infant what would mommy and daddy do in return ?
They may think this child does not like to be cooed at. And stop cooing.
Or think that the baby doesn't's love them. And stop trying.
Or is too quiet or too good- and they are so lucky they should not mess with it.
Or the child is so happy watching educational videos- he knows his shapes numbers and colors – surely this must be a good thing . ( A 3-5 year old child who does not like stories- red riding hood , but is attracted to facts – like the solar system – should be a key red flag I think )
So while the infant is shutting out the very stimulation the brain needs to feed upon, the parent may be modifying their interaction too and reducing the number and quality of interactions.
Autism as defined by a fundamental inability to relate is very rare, I think
I have not met even one unaffectionate or unloving Autistic child
( this is one of the worst and stupidest myths of Autism I think-.If anything one of the joys of parenting R is that the spotlight of his love is shines in a tight circle and I am right in the middle of it.)
But Autism as a result of a different Sensory System( caused by toxins , or different wiring ) is what I see all around
Certainly it's the kind that R has -
Autism is a behavioral diagnosis - that is someone makes this diagnosis based on how your child is behaving
If they have the following three things.
1. Problems with Language( examplecannot talk )
2. Lack of interest in peers( other small children )
3. Stereotyped interest ( like a deep interest in numbers etc )
They can get the diagnosis of Autism
Now I am not saying Autism is all bad ,
Many geniuses seem to come with a touch a hint of Autism – certainly not being distracted by social urges will allow you to focus on academics – the third criteria of DSM IV – which is stereotyped interests is where the savant skills must stem from. So its also important to nurture their gifts and passions ( some of which will be a gift of Autism )
Still - early Intervention is critical - the ground work must be laid down for the social interaction
The idea is not to turn them into something different – but give them the skills that they will need to function in society
To help their sensory system to mature
To lay the path for our children's future happiness
As we get off the plane – my collegue- father of two gorgeous well behaved boys - who is traveling with me but two rows ahead of me says
" did you notice that annoying kid on the plane.. he was kicking my seat.. constantly chattering .. pooped TWICE "
"No" I say "I did not "