Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Age Question

If you get around Ethan these days and he hasn't seen you for a while, be prepared: you're going to have to tell him how old you are.

This is his new thing. It amazes me the way, no matter where on the autism spectrum you reside, every person seems to have these...compulsions. Some would call them obsessions. Most of the time I've observed (not just with Ethan but others as well) they involve finding a bit of information about everyone they know that they can categorize and tabulate in their mind. My sister-in-law's brother, for example, (who I'd say is more profoundly affected by his autism) had a thing for the longest time where he needed to ask everyone what kind of car they drove. Then it was people's homes: every time he saw you, he wanted to know how many rooms in the house; how many bedrooms, how many baths.

So we have Ethan and people's ages. This actually is his first social obsession, meaning he's moved from identifying all of the bells on churches or No Outlet signs to wanting information about people -- and being bold enough to straight out ask them.

It started with family; relatives. No big deal. Then he moved on to school. He started memorizing everyone's birthday and wanted me to write his classmates' birthdays in on the calendar. Since they're all turning six, though, that got boring, because of course Ethan wants to know who is oldest (it gives him great pleasure that he's the oldest in his class, let me tell you). For awhile he was of course tabulating by months who was older than who (whom?) in his class, but then he wanted to move on to years.

First he told me the classroom paraprofessional was 53 (or was it 54?). And the speech therapist is 57. He kept telling me he wanted to "know who the oldest person in the school is."

Then he apparently asked his teacher. "I'm sorry," he sadly informed me the next day, "but Mrs. Butterick is two years older than you."

Secretly, I was pleased at this news. I tried to explain that the older you get, in most cases the less happy you are about being old, but that went completely over his head. I'm not surprised. I'm still trying to convince Anna of this, the girl who has been telling everyone she's 10 months in advance of her birthday because she so desperately wants to get to double-digits.

Then he moved on to the neighbors. Ethan came in the other day, excited after getting to play catch with the boys next door and their dad. Well, turns out he was excited about playing catch -- but also that he went mining for more nuggets of information.

"Alec's dad is 55!" Really? I thought before stopping myself.

"Ethan, you know it's not really good manners to just ask people as soon as you see them how old they are." Again, he ignored me. I'm sure to him this makes no sense. Every six-year-old he knows is perfectly happy to share their age.

The worst incident so far was after school, when he was supposed to be playing on the playground with his friend. Ethan ran down the hill to the baseball field below, where I saw him sit for at least 15 minutes, cross-legged on the grass, and watch a man hit long fly balls to a teenager.

"Wow, they were really good," I commented when he came back up the hill.

"Yeah," Ethan answered. "And the man is 53. The boy is 13."

"Oh Ethe." This was not good. He'd never seen these people before. "You didn't know those people. They were strangers."

"Yeah, but you could see where I was." He had a point there. Still, I thought of all of the conversations we'd had about not talking to people he didn't know. And asking them their age, to boot. It was as if everything we'd ever discussed about stranger danger had been tossed into the trash. His obsession trumps all.

"Ethan, from now on we can only ask people in our family how old they are, okay?" I felt kind of bad doing this. I wondered where the line was between letting him be an innocent kid and teaching him skills he'll need for later on. I thought about Dr. Milanese and her comment that some of the things Ethan does would be cute if a four-year-old did them. At six, they are started to border on being awkward. But just starting. He's still so young.

"Okay," he replied, but I'm not banking on it. This age obsession's going to be around for awhile. Right now, he needs to know. He needs to place people in categories and secure his world, a world where Mrs. Butterick is older than mom but younger than Mrs. Daves and the neighbor's dad is younger than his grandparents but older than his parents.

And another thing: maybe he's onto something, the way he marvels, the older a person turns out to be. Maybe we all should be doing that instead of wishing we were 20 again. Enough of the jokes about turning 40 and nervous laughter and mumbling if someone asks my age. What's there to be ashamed of? If Ethan ever meets a 100-year-old, he'll be in awe. As we all should be.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

We have the same thing here. I'm not sure if it is a China thing, but I have yet to convince our almost 12 yr. old that it is not polite to ask grown-ups their age, martial status or how much money they have!