There is a steady slowdown of cars in front of us on our way to a swim meet. My son, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at an early age, starts to show his agitation. Anxiety violently announces itself in the form of rapid-fire questions.
“Why are we stopping?”
“How long is this going to take?”
“Are we going to be late for warm-ups?”
I patiently reply as I always do, knowing full well he is not looking for an answer. I say, “There could be an accident,” or maybe, “Someone’s car could be stuck.” It doesn’t really matter. The answers that I give him do not serve to explain anything; they are simply a device to calm him. If we are successful, he will be able to tell me an alternative route—not by using a smartphone or GPS but because he has memorized our entire trip. With ease, he can tell you every detail, the names of the roads, the numbers of the highways, the exit numbers, what lane to get into once you’ve exited off the interstate, construction sites that we will encounter, and where the restaurants and shopping centers are.
This instance could be described as a heightened ability to learn all about a road trip being temporarily disabled by a sensory disorder involving the need to be on time.
I suppose we could explain away all of his behaviors as some type of disorder caused by an ability. His extraordinary sense of the geography of our route leads to inflexible notions about the trip and how it will progress, and when reality does not comport to his expectations, it is unbearable. That’s autism. Or is that too easy an explanation?
Once a diagnosis like autism has been applied to your child, it becomes almost instinctive to attribute every behavior to the child’s disorder. But what if he is bothered by traffic, not because of his autism, but because traffic is bothersome? After all, does anyone love to be stuck in traffic? By automatically using your child’s disorder as an explanation, you unnecessarily distance the child from yourself and from others.
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This instance could be described as an alienation disorder caused by a heightened need to describe something that is different from oneself.
I have heard a few descriptions of the person with autism as to why it may take longer to do certain things. They are static thinkers living in a dynamic world. They have comorbidities like processing, sensory, and learning disorders. I won’t deny that people with autism are often more sensitive, or that they can take a little longer to process. But using these diagnostic labels to explain away every behavior rather than taking the time to figure out what could be causing the reaction only disables the person even further.
Have you ever watched people going into a pool or the ocean? Some jump in right away while others need more time to get used to the water. Both go in. Just because it takes one person longer to get in the water than someone else does not mean they have a sensory disorder. The same concept holds true for those on the autism spectrum. Just because I learned to tie my shoes faster than you doesn’t mean that you have a learning disability.
My son had gone with his 8th-grade class on a trip to Charleston, SC. My husband and I became anxious when we realized that they would be getting back a couple of hours later than planned. As he stepped off the bus, our son looked very tired but relatively happy.
“How was your trip?” we asked as he got in the car to go home.
“Stuck in traffic.”
“Oh,” his dad replied, “how did you do with that?”
“I was upset in my head, but I didn’t show it. Anyway, we found a different way to go, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
A few days later, we received an email from one of the teachers letting us know how kind and helpful our son had been on the bus. It turns out, he had told the bus driver about an alternate route he could take, which got the class out of traffic and back to the school much more quickly than they had anticipated. The teachers were so grateful that they gave him a special service award.
This instance could be described as a sensory ability caused by a developmental disorder. Or it could be a kid who really dislikes traffic. Or maybe, just maybe, this is a kid who is extra nice and gets rewarded for it.
This article was featured in Issue 77 – Achieving Better Health with ASD