Like most people, I really didn’t know a lot about Autism before learning about it first hand through Stone. But I’ve learned a ton – and continue to learn – through books, websites and of course personal experience. Although Autism awareness is gradually growing among the general population, I think that many perceptions are still shaped by the 1988 movie “Rain man” starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. For most of us, this was our first glimpse into the world of Autism. In the movie, Raymond (a grown man with Autism) is extremely ritualistic, socially challenged and intellectually brilliant.
It’s important to know and realize that there is no such thing as simple “Autism.” This is simply a label that is used to describe a social/communication development issue faced by an increasingly higher number of American children. A much more accurate description used is “the spectrum” – as in being on the Autism Spectrum. The range is quite wide and varied. Within the Autism community you hear about low-functioning and high-functioning children with Autism. Some children have developmental issues so severe they can’t even dress themselves while some have seizures and others are extremely isolated – and so on.
Stone is on the “high-functioning” end of the spectrum. His biggest hurdle continues to be in communication as well as in some social areas. But unlike some kids, Stone doesn’t actively avoid other children or people – whether in school or on a playground or wherever. He just won’t actively seek out and engage with others. Renee and I both believe that this has as much to do with Stone’s awareness of his inability to speak like other children. He knows that this is a deficiency and I have to believe it creates social shyness. I know that I would not be very likely to seek out very much social interaction if I was unable to speak or communicate very easily. It would just seem like too much work and frustration.
One of Stone’s traits that does surprise many people though is how he seeks out affection and physical contact. I think that many people have heard of children with developmental issues who actually avoid hugs and similar physical contact. Stone is on the other end of the spectrum here. He loves to be held – and always has. He is such a huge cuddle bug – I can’t tell you how many dozens of hours he and I have spent together on the couch or beanbag chair cuddling while he watches his beloved Little Einsteins TV shows.
And while Stone is capable of playing by himself and/or watching Little Einsteins alone – he definitely prefers to have company with him if possible, as long as its someone he knows and trusts (such as Renee, Hany or I). Stone and I have built a very, very close relationship over the years and it is something I truly treasure. Even though I struggle as much as others at times to try to figure out exactly what he wants (or is asking for), I think that I “get” him pretty well and he knows and understands that. Also, we have a lot of fun together. He has a very mischievous sense of humor – one that I can relate to well – so we spend a lot of time laughing together.
I mention this because I don’t want people to think or assume that just because a child has a developmental delay issue such as autism, it doesn’t mean that he/she doesn’t want social and emotional connections. I think it’s an easy mistake and assumption for some to make because they may see a child such as Stone mostly doing his own thing and not seeing out interaction. But I know from experience that once Stone learns a bit about a person and they show that they can try to relate to or understand him, he warms up to them and begins interacting before long.
Today I had another experience that reminded me of how close Stone and I are and how much he really treasures the time we have together on weekends (and especially long holiday weekends). I took he and Ty to the local YMCA – they have a great supervised kids play area that is free for members (for up to 90 minutes). It allows parents and care-takers to get a workout in without having to worry about the kids. Over the past 2 years we’ve used this service off and on – Hany actually uses it with the boys more during the week so they are used to the drill. But I have had a few experiences where I have tried to take Stone with or without Ty and he has not handled the separation very well. He has cried and gotten upset – so much so that they have had to find me to tell me Stone was having a melt down. I was hoping that now that he is used to going nearly daily with Hany, this would not be a problem today. Alas, Stone didn’t want to go to the play area when I dropped them off and quickly went to the glass door where he stood and watched me as I went to the work out area. I tried not to look because I know that sometimes makes it worse. I rode the exercise bike outside of his range of vision but when I moved to the treadmill, I was again within eyesight of the play area entrance and I could see his little face pressed against the glass staring out at me. I wanted to instantly run over to tell him everything was OK but I also thought it was importent for him to learn to deal with the separation so I persisted with my work out. But after about 10 minutes or so one of the of play area workers came out and told me that Stone was really upset. So I ended the work out, grabbed my gym bag and went to the play area to release Stone and Ty. He looked like he had been crying some but his face was pure joy and relief when he saw me. We collected their shoes and jackets and proceeded to go shopping at Fred Meyer – where both he and Ty were extremely well behaved.
Tonight Stone fell asleep on my lap as we cuddled on the couch watching Sunday Night Football. And tomorrow it’s back to school for he and Ty – a new routine that will have to start after having a full week off due to last week’s snowstorms and Thanksgiving holiday. I’m hoping the transition won’t be too tough on Stone.