Monday, March 9, 2015

Thoughts About Thinking

One of the coolest things about Ethan's version of autism is that he is able to articulate, to some extent, what he's thinking. And while no two people on the spectrum are alike, I still feel as if he helps give me a peek into not only his own mind, but how other people with autism think.

I often chat with Ethan in the car on the way to school, although this is also the time we are most likely to argue about him not wanting to chat. Maybe argue isn't the right word. Let's just say we heatedly discuss the fact that I may be asking him questions while he acts as if I'm not there.

"Mama, I can't listen to you right now!" he exclaimed from the back seat recently. "I'm thinking about something."

"What are you thinking about?"

"I can't tell you. It's embarrassing."

"Hey, I promise I won't make fun of what you're thinking. Please tell me."

"Okaaaaay. I'm trying to figure out if 'M' really IS the middle letter in the alphabet!"

A-ha. So that's why he had been murmuring numbers.

I sometimes try to gently force conversation with Ethan because I figure it's part of real life. As much as he wants to, he can't always stay in his head. I think I have a glimpse of what he's feeling. It's like when I'm in a car full of people and I just want to stare out the window and think...only I keep getting pulled into conversation. Sometimes I'm happy to chat. But there are times I just want to be kind of melancholy and introspective and reflective and watch things. And it actually feels tiring to converse. And I do wonder -- is this how he feels most of the time?

The other day I really wanted to know about something going on at school. Now I forget, but the point is that I was grilling Ethan, and I was rambling on about something as well, and at one point he announced, "I'm not barely listening to you at all!"


"Why not?" I asked.

"Because I don't want to think about that. I want to think about computer stuff."

"What computer stuff?"

"Lexia (a phonics-type computer game from school). I'm thinking about the levels."

And so, yes. I'd talked for five minutes and he'd been thinking about the Serengeti level, and the South Pole level, and the Australia level, and so on. He's intensely focused on this game right now because he's trying to catch up to another girl in the class who seems to be the super reader of all readers and is always ahead in everything.

So Ethan spends a lot of time in his head, understandably, and we in his family get that. What concerns me at times is other kids. Maybe not now, but down the road.

I was in school with Ethan one morning and when we walked down the hallway to his classroom, where all the kids were sprawled out on the floor, taking stuff out of their backpacks to put into their lockers, I was amazed. Kids were calling out to him left and right. At least four kids tried to get his attention and they were all talking to him at once. He appeared, at least in that moment, to be more popular and more outgoing than I ever was in first grade.

Here's the thing: the hallway was so loud, so overwhelming, such an assault on the senses (I felt a little stressed myself), that he barely could respond to anyone. Not only that, but I'm pretty sure his mind was still back at the pancake breakfast we'd just had in the cafeteria and the raffle prize he'd won. It was only when most of the kids left, and he only needed to respond to one person at a time, that he was able to do so.

I've seen this happen multiple times -- he's walking and kids call out to him, and he completely ignores them. Sometimes it's because he feels shy. Often, though, it's because he's not there, in the moment. He's somewhere else. And since his mind has the ability to completely engage on one thing alone, he doesn't even hear.

Right now, the other kids shrug it off. But I can see how this will be perceived as rude in the not too distant future.

And so recently I attempted chatting with Ethan about this. We were, of course, in the car again.

"So Ethe. Do you think maybe when you walk into school today, you could remind yourself to stop thinking so much and focus on your friends saying hi? Because I think they might start to get their feelings hurt if you never answer them." I felt kind of guilty saying this. Was I asking him to be something he's not? But then again, someday if he wants a job or to make a way for himself in the world he has to be able to do this. But he is just seven.

There was no reply from the back.

"What do you think? You think maybe you could try that? I know it's hard. But I think it would be good to try to focus on what people are saying if you can."

Nothing. Cue the crickets chirping ("Bueller? Bueller?").

Finally, an exasperated voice: "Mama, I'm not listening right now! I don't want to talk because I'm thinking about something."


I'll end this with a gentle reminder to not just everyone out there, but to myself as well -- the people you come across with autism are most likely not ignoring you. They are just intensely focused on something else. This may at times be a drawback -- but I think it also has the potential to be one of their truest gifts.


Beth said...

You explained that beautifully. I think that the inside of a school can so frequently be a place of sensory over load...for many children. The classrooms may be calm but every other area can be challenging. One thing I think that can help socially is early inclusion and education of all students about the varying aspects of autism, sensory processing disorders and disabilities and of course focus on social skills. Thanks for sharing your insight!

Deb said...

Thanks for the feedback, Beth. I agree with you. I think in particular if the other students understood better about how my son perceives the world around him, they might be more patient if he doesn't give them the immediate response they're expecting.