Whilst reading Kathy Lette’s ’The Boy who Fell to Earth’ (see Reading List) I was struck by an observation made by the autistic boy’s mother. She said, “By nine and a half… my son was Wikipedia with a pulse. And yet this same boy couldn’t remember how to toast a piece of bread or brush his teeth ” Though it’s fiction, the author draws on her own personal experience of autism and much of what she writes rings true. This particular example really struck a chord with me. As my son’s speech and general development continue to advance, I’m struck by the polar opposites between things he does well, and the things that are beyond him.
Until recently, I would have said my son was unlike the child in the book. My son had not begun to demonstrate skills that are outstanding. That’s not to say I hadn’t looked for them or even convinced myself that he had some sort of incredible gift. We all got very excited over his sense of rhythm and musicality. A musician in the family! The boy who found his voice through the gift of melody! I have also marvelled at his speed in learning to read, even going so far as to post about Hyperlexia on this blog. Gradually the ‘gift’ for music starts to seem more like a child’s natural joy in making sounds, and the reading, the one area where he truly is advanced for his age, starts to look less outstanding when you realise that though he can read pretty much anything, his comprehension and understanding of the words he has just said is limited. Nonetheless, I, like all my family, continued to hold onto the hope that he is ‘the next Bill Gates’ or such-like.
I can understand the emotional need for this to be true. A diagnosis of autism, whether high functioning or not, means a number of doors have been closed to your child. There will be things he will always struggle to do, things he cannot be. That’s a hard truth to accept. So, naturally, we look to the positives of the situation. This is where the Autistic-Savant, the aspergers genius, comes in. We’ve all seen Rainman, right? Then there’s that guy who can memorise and recreate, in stunning detail, panoramic views and maps of cities. Recently, my parents got very excited by the hitherto mute young man who emerged as an incredible singer. These are all very inspiring stories of how people with autism have an almost compensatory talent or gift. But how true is it of autism in general? Is it misleading to believe that our children have some latent talent that will emerge because of their autism? Or are we setting ourselves up for a fall? I suspect that such amazing gifts and talents are no more typical of autism than they are in the society in general.
This is possibly a rather bleak way to look at things, but as always I’m trying to be honest and realistic. I’m not sure my boy has special gifts or talents. Maybe he will one day but thus far, I think outstanding abilities are wishful thinking. What does stand out is the huge gulf between what he can do and what he can’t. Because he is, in so many ways, delayed in his development, then the things he can do well stand out so prominently. They seem so extraordinary not because they go beyond what you’d expect of a child his age, but because they go beyond what you’d expect of a child who is not yet able to use the toilet on his own. I don’t think there are necessarily things he can do that you wouldn’t expect of a child his age. They’re just things you wouldn’t expect him to be able to do.
And as negative as all of the above sounds, it’s when I look at the things he can do that I find hope. This is the child that really struggles to recount his day at school, and yet can tell you the number of the cottage we stayed in on holiday twelve months ago, …and what track eight is on ‘Abbey Road’ by The Beatles (‘Because’). His memory recall in the short-term is limited and highly selective, but boy can this child retain details in the long-term. This is the child who may not be able to answer questions, but has an insatiable need to ask questions and know stuff. He cannot dress himself, hold a pen properly or demonstrate much digital dexterity, but give him a games console, hand-held device or the laptop, and he’s away. There are no shortages in his understanding of how to re-programme his mum’s phone or surf YouTube. He may not be able to explain why something/anything has happened in a story with monosyllabic, four word sentences (“The cat was asleep”) but he’s just read the opening credit-crawl of Star Wars Episode III (where did he learn to read the phrase ‘separatist droid alliance’?).
How can a boy who trips over the floor and walks into most inanimate objects demonstrate such dexterity and control when dancing to a song? Why can’t he sit for more than 30 seconds at the table but will show intense levels of concentration and patience if it involves pressing a keyboard? So don’t tell me my son is gifted and talented just to make me feel better. But don’t try and tell me he is limited in what he can do either. There is so much this boy can do, and when you consider what he can’t do, it only seems a more amazing and impressive achievement. His skills may only be the skills other children have, but these are skills despite his limitations.
So yes, I’m dubious about the supposed genius capabilities of high-functioning autists. Not because it doesn’t exist, but because it is perhaps a misleading thing to expect as a parent. Why put pressure on yourself and your child with unrealistic expectations?
But you know, I think I might be about to change my mind. Recently, B has developed an obsession with the world map, continents, countries, capitals and all things geographical. He has always had an obsessive nature but in the past it has been directed at things like dvds and cds. Once B develops a fixation, it consumes him night and day. With cds, it’s a problem that can have quite a negative impact on our day to day lives, not to mention being pointless (he doesn’t listen to them, just collects them). This obsession with geography though, is quite a different matter. It’s still all-consuming (I was awoken this morning by the words, “Is Republic of Ireland in Europe?”) but at least it’s a pretty useful thing to develop a fascination over. It keeps me on my toes too. “I don’t know” is not a phrase that B will accept (without a near-meltdown) so you’d better make sure you know what the capital of Togo is (it’s Lome). My knowledge of African countries has improved ten-fold, although I wouldn’t fancy my chances against B in a quiz. If we’re talking about polar opposites, then he’s the boy to ask about the Arctic and Antartica.
I do not think his knowledge of such things is a sign of a gift or outstanding natural ability. I stand by my assertion that signs of genius or no more or less likely than in non-asd children. However, what I’m coming to realise is that the obsessive mind of the autistic child is the very thing that can lead him to develop an encyclopedic knowledge of something. Kathy Lette was onto something here. It’s not that he has a superior mind for the retention of these facts, just a superior ability to focus entirely on one thing. If you spend long enough engrossed in a narrow line of thinking, then no wonder you develop such an immersive understanding. I think this is where the aspergers-genius comes from, but more importantly I can see how B might carve a path for himself in this world, and find his place.
He may forever struggle with the simplest of social exchanges, friendships and interactions, but perhaps he will find satisfaction at school (and in life) from having the ability to develop an expertise or skill that, thanks to autism, marks him out as unique and special.