Saturday, January 4, 2014

Smoke vs. Steam

Those of you with children, have you ever noticed how kids have a way of making you think about questions you'd never pondered before?

Add to that a child on the autism spectrum, and you may really find yourself delving into unfamiliar territory. Before Ethan, I'd never considered why Massachusetts seems to favor "Dead End" signs while Connecticut prefers the "No Outlet" route; why "Mr. John" next door has a fan built into the wall of his garage; or whether a church had bells hiding somewhere (all former Ethan obsessions).

And then I made the mistake of cooking turkey burgers and setting our smoke alarm off.

We cook with ground turkey a lot in our house, probably because I live by this mostly misguided idea that turkey is oh-so-much healthier for us. It's the little things, you know, like ordering that Diet Coke with your McDonalds value meal. So we tend to have turkey burgers, and while I've perfected the recipe (meaning they actually taste like something now), what I can't change is the fact that frying turkey meat make the house really smokey. And our lovely 1940-Cape with no vent for the kitchen stove that wouldn't involve cutting through the ceiling of the next room means our house tends to get smokey whenever I make them. In fact, the smoke alarm almost inevitably goes off when it's winter and no windows are opened.

When I took out the pan, Ethan remembered the last time I'd made them. He stared at the burgers in a panic.

"No, you can't cook burgers," he protested.

"It'll be okay, buddy," I said matter-of-factly, firing up the stove. He continued to stare with laser-like focus. "I don't want the alarm to go off," he whimpered.

The pan started sizzling and the burgers went in. I walked over to the smoke alarm in the dining room, dish towel in hand, preventively whipping at the air to keep smoke away. This sometimes works. Thing is, while cooking dinner, life happens. Someone needs help with homework; the phone rings; I run down to the basement to throw in another load of laundry. As usual, I left the pan for a little too long and forgot about my smoke elimination measures. The piercing beeps started. Ethan threw his hands over his ears, eyes on the alarm, close to tears.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I kept muttering, whipping at the smoke to make it stop, turning down the pan. The whole incident lasted less than a minute. Of course, as with many things with Ethan's mind, it left an indelible imprint of sorts.

I knew it the next morning, when he went to cook his oatmeal. He likes to do everything himself, and takes great pleasure in taking a steaming bowl of instant maple & brown sugar out of the microwave.

This time, he eyed the oatmeal warily. "I don't like that smoke. Is that going to make the alarm go off?"

"Don't worry, that's just steam, not smoke. It's fine."

Ethan liked this answer. It was another rule to add to his repertoire. Smoke sets off fire alarms. Steam does not. And so, for the past few weeks, every puff of white emanating from something hot has gotten the question. "Is that smoke or steam?" he demands.

Of course all of this made me realize once again that, along with math, science is not one of my strong points. What is the difference between smoke and steam? I started to wonder. Am I even giving him the right information? (One more reason right there, folks, why I wouldn't make the world's best homeschooling mom.)

And so, Google was my friend. In case you are wondering:

- Steam is pure water vapor, produced by boiling water.
- Smoke includes water vapor, but also soot and gases like carbon monoxide and sulfur oxide.

The more I kept reassuring Ethan that the pot of boiling pasta water was not going to set off the smoke alarm, the more I wondered: Is that even true? And so I delved and learned that that depends on the type of smoke alarm, and that the cheaper ionization detectors are made to recognize primarily smoke but can sometimes be fooled by steam. Doh. I guess all that steam could technically set the thing off, and then Ethan would feel betrayed. But I'm not saying a word.

That's the tricky thing about talking with someone who has an autism-wired mind: those gray areas. Saying something like, "Well, the steam probably won't set it off, but it might" will cause Ethan undue anxiety. He wants to know yes or no, all or nothing, if this/then that.

Another gray area: how much smoke will actually set off a fire alarm. This kind of all-or-nothing thinking has gotten Ethan into a ball of stress because he thinks anything that is smoking is going to set off the alarm. That includes the smallest of wisps, such as from birthday candles. When we went to church with Dan's parents on Christmas Eve and he saw everyone lighting candles, he was not amused. (Of course, he had already noted where the smoke alarm was the moment we entered the sanctuary). I had to repeat in his ear several times that the candles we were lighting during "Silent Night" were not going to set the smoke alarm into a frenzy.

So here we are, and I'm sure in time the smoke vs. steam obsession will fade into the background, like so many other Ethan fixations. For now, though, I've had my little science lesson, and Ethan remains on the defensive. Just the other day I caught him in the dining room, glaring up at the smoke alarm. With a fierce look he sneered, "I'm watching you."

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