The Rules

I like being Jonah’s mom. But there can be a lot of rules.

He’s kind of obsessed with them actually. Except, it’s hard to know what the rules are. For him and for us. Most often breaking the rules involves one of us doing something that J doesn’t like. A simple foundering of communication. Like the other morning—John said J could do play dough in his room, which usually isn’t allowed (there’s the dogs and Gabriel roaming about, and the piles of dried-up-dough-specks to deal with). I told Jonah “no” after John had said “yes.” Much screaming in my general direction until John and I conversed (I learned that a drop cloth was part of the deal), and Jonah firmly concluded, “Mom, you didn’t know the Rules!”

Being right or wrong is also a big deal. In every situation, it must be pointed out. If any sort of disagreement arises, it must be decided. My favorite debate ended with J announcing, as I posted previously, “Mom, you’re not even wrong.” It could be about what’s in the package on the front step. It could be whether or not he had macaroni in his lunchbox or a cheese sandwich. It could be the location of where he made his treasure map at school. Say “Mrs. Jennifer’s room” when it was Miss Bridget’s and a high pitched shout erupts—“You are wrong! It was Mrs. Bridget’s!” Okay, okay, just trying to make conversation little man.

The concept of cheating also comes into play. Yesterday Gabriel woke up a little earlier than usual, breaking into Jonah’s morning routine with his dad, which involves (relatively) complete control of what happens with the iPad. Gabriel was incessantly repeating, “Bob, Bob, Bob” (the Builder) and commandeered J’s chair and the Device while J was busy putting on his shoes, which caused J to yell, “Nuh-uh! That’s cheating!” His understanding revolves around whether or not he gets what he wants, when he wants it. Every body struggles with this—kids especially. But it does feel like J’s world is particularly driven by it. I’m guessing it has to do with his innate sense of anxiety about things. (Hattie, a character on Parenthood, gives an honest response to the same sort of behavior in her autistic brother Max. Here’s the excerpt.)

Temple Grandin writes, in an article for Autism Asperger’s Digest, “Rigidity in both behavior and thinking is a major characteristic of people with autism/AS [Asperger’s]…How can common sense be taught? I think it starts with teaching flexibility at a young age.” She goes on to say:

A way to teach flexibility of thinking is to use visual metaphors, such as mixing paint. To understand complex situations, such as when occasionally a good friend does something nasty, I imagine mixing white and black paint. If the friend’s behavior is mostly nice, the mixture is a very light gray; if the person is really not a friend then the mixture is a very dark gray.

Watching J parse out the good and bad in people is instructive, and I think that one day, Temple’s example of mixing paint will come in handy. In movies, especially, Jonah is always trying to discern and label the characters as good or bad. Before he had seen the Star Wars movies, he was totally into Darth Vader. But in his mind, Darth Vader was a good guy. This came out at school when another child in his class wanted to play Star Wars. Jonah naturally chose to be Darth Vader, but when the other boy started chasing him and calling him a bad guy, J completely lost it. He began to cry and yell at the boy. When the teacher asked what was the matter, Jonah said, “But I am the Good Darth Vader!” I’m pretty sure the main reason Jonah sat through all six Star Wars movies was to see the exact moment when Anakin Skywalker made the final move from good to bad. I saw in him a palpable sense of relief when that shiny black mask descended and locked into place. The ambiguity had been resolved. Vader’s position was clear.

I find it interesting, Jonah’s bent toward rules and categories, especially when you consider that one of the primary issues for autistic individuals involves difficulty reading social cues. Intuitive rules of social interaction come hard and can be confusing for him. There’s something in Jonah, something fundamental, that is exploring, even now, how to sort this out. Undoubtedly, the world looks different to him than it does to me. I often wonder how accurate my perception of him actually is. But he’s not peculiar in wanting things to be black and white; very few people are at ease navigating the grey realms of this world.

I wish my thoughts were better organized on this front. I suppose gathering them helps, though I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis wrote: “I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.” I’ll keep working on it.

In the meantime, Jonah’s drawing of a pirate drowning seems an appropriate way to close. There are good pirates and bad pirates, you know. I’m sure this is one of the baddies.

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