Desperation has driven me, once again, to an indoor play area. Regular readers will know this is where I spend half my life just lately. Going there often feels like a slight admission of failure as a parent: I couldn’t quite cut it looking after them myself, so let’s bring in the big guns (or rather the big ball pools, slides and crash mats). Still, the boys are always more than happy to go when I suggest it (perhaps they too have concluded that I just can’t cut it on my own).
Despite paying a three pound entrance fee, all B wants to do is slurp his way through a Slush Puppy ice drink. This costs £1.50, so I have effectively paid £4.50 for a cup of coloured ice. I hope it’s tasty. As I’m sat there watching him tuck into it, I am struck by the thought that you can learn a great deal about my son from these brief few moments. Here then, is my Slush Puppy Guide to Recognising Autism in Your Child.
The first obvious feature is the sheer rigidity of the situation. B has asked for the Slush because that’s what B always does, without fail. The point at which he asks varies, but without fail he will want one. It will need to be a blue one (I’ve no idea what flavour that is) and a spoon as well as a straw will be required. It is his clearly defined routine and is synonymous with going to a play centre. Where it goes from being a preference, and crosses over into concrete, unalterable need is most evident when something happens to rock the boat. Recently, the Slush machine was broken. Another time, there was no blue (seriously, what flavour is blue?). This is the point at which B can become distressed and demonstrate his difficulty with either understanding or coping with change. Like many on the spectrum, B likes routine and predictability. Luckily, on this occasion, blue is working.
(Edit: my wife has just informed me that blue is raspberry. That well known blue fruit. Silly me for not knowing that)
Another telling aspect of the Slush situation is the way it feeds my son’s sensory needs. For a long time, B’s hyposensitivity have resulted in a craving for all things icy. At one point, Freeze Pops were about the only ‘food’ he would accept without argument. In an act of unprecedented acquiescence, his school even requested we send boxes of them in for him. Unfortunately, buying boxes of them is uneconomical, because he will only eat the red ones. I guess they don’t make blue. It is not uncommon to find B licking the inside of the freezer door, as his icy cravings get the better of him. Being able to bite into something icy, and feel that cold pressure on his teeth (I’m cringing as I write this) really settles him. During the recent snowfall we took B out on his sledge. He spent the entire time eating snow, and nothing we could do would stop him.
So alongside his sensory needs are issues of diet. With such a limited range of food he will tolerate, I often question how my son continues to grow, let alone where he gets his boundless energy from. B could choose from a range of snacks in the play centre but it is obvious what he will choose.
In an effort to encourage my son’s communication skills and his self sufficiency, I had sent him up to the counter to ask for the Slush puppy himself. This was ambitious, but I had a clear view of him and was ready to pay once he’d asked for it (I hadn’t given him the money- I’m ambitious, not stupid).”Just go up to the counter and say ‘Can I have a Slush Puppy?’” I instructed him. Off he toddled to the counter, where he did indeed say, “Can I have a Slush Puppy?” Unfortunately, he said this to the counter, rather than to the assistant. In fact, the counter was unattended; there was no assistant.
It did not occur to my son that he might need to interact with another person when he made his request. Maybe he is used to life with a pair of servile parents ready to attend his every whim. Maybe he took my instruction at a very literal level- he had, after all, done exactly as I had told him. Maybe he thinks there’s a Slush fairy and his drink would magically appear. When it didn’t, he toddled back to me and said, “No Slush.”
“No son”, I explained, “You have to ask the lady, not the counter.” He digested this information and after a pause, toddled off once again to the counter, this time in search of another human being. At this point I cut my losses and went with him. I hadn’t expected it to work, but I had expected him to understand the rules of social engagement. What I was forgetting was both the way in which he takes things in quite a literal way, and the way in which his theory of mind does not really extend beyond himself and his place in the world around him.
This reminds me of an analogy I read in Christopher Stevens’ ‘A Real Boy’ that I absolutely love. As an explanation of his autistic son David’s view of the world and his place in it, Stevens makes this comparison:
I was watching my son play a video game and I realized that, although the cartoon hero seemed to be leaping and ducking and running, he really remained dead centre of the screen all the time. His movement was an illusion: we expected to see the man move, not the world, because that’s how life is. Not David’s life, though. He is always dead centre of the screen. The world flows round him. He is stationary, and everything is relative to his position.
Like David, B has little concept of the world outside him. Let the slush come to him.
While all this is going on, my eldest is desperate for his little brother to come and play with him. But despite being in a huge industrial unit packed with fun and games, B is fixated on his Slush Puppy, so his brother will have to wait. Luckily, it does not take long for him to make friends and enjoy some social play. It is unlikely that B will participate in this.
As we sit together at a table, B does his usual routine of moving from straw to plastic spoon to eat his Slush. This is where I have to watch him carefully. B’s recent sensory needs have seen an increase in pica- the habit of biting and eating non-food items (which could easily include Slush Puppies if you ask me). Chewy tags normally keep this impulse at bay, but today, even with his drink, he feels the need to chew on something. Despite keeping a close eye on him, I am unable to stop B biting and cracking the plastic spoon so that a shard of plastic goes in his mouth. “Spit it out!” I cry in a panic, followed by a warning not to do it again as I give him a replacement spoon.
I have to be very careful how I express my admonishment. B responds very badly to being told off, usually over-reacting to the slightest sign of being told he can’t do something or a warning of consequences. He fixes me with a defiant, try-and-stop-me stare. Who says autistic children don’t do eye-contact? His big blue eyes lock with mine for several moments. As they do, I am struck by how completely and utterly beautiful this child is, even when he’s being defiant. Then, he very carefully positions his body so he is facing away from me. If I can’t see him, he reasons, I will not know what he is about to do…
“Are you biting the spoon?” I ask. “Stop it!” he screams, and lashes out, almost knocking the drink over completely and sending several icy-blue splashes over the table, himself and me. Like a boy scout, I’m ready with baby wipes and napkins. I’ve been caught out this way before. B once sent a Slush flying onto a new pair of shoes I was wearing. Let me tell you now that whatever they put in that stuff, it is impossible to remove it from white laces.
When he has calmed down B returns to eating and chewing his way, literally, through the cup. Luckily the plastic cup responds more kindly to chewing than the plastic spoon, so the remainder of the time passes without incident. B even decides to go and play eventually, although typically he heads straight to the video games rather than trying to find his brother or engaging in other types of play.
So there you have it- everything you ever needed to know about my son’s autism in a cup of slush. The rigidity, the sensory-seeking, the diet, the social-communication difficulties, the lack of conventional play, the self-absorption, the behavioural issues, the clumsiness and most importantly, the utter beauty of my boy. They are all there to see in this tiniest of incidents because, of course, autism defines so much of what happens in his life. Perhaps I should suggest the Slush Puppy as a new diagnostic method to our paediatrician. Imagine the money the NHS would save. Dental problems would reach epidemic proportions of course, but I think that’s a small price to pay.
Another way of looking at it is that I could stop being so flippant, stop looking for the bad in everything and stop using autism as an excuse all the time. I’ll let the reader decide. What I will say, is that despite my complaints, my son is and always will be, the centre of my world. Like the video game character in Christopher Stevens’ book, the world revolves round my boy and that includes my world too. I wouldn’t have it any other way.