“O, C’mon!” he growls, running into the front room. “My new creation!” He holds a length of broken down box with a plastic juice jug mailing-taped to the front. Some kind of full body gun.
“Boom!” I think he is shooting us. (Gabriel and I are cuddling in the grey chair in front of our fireless mantle.) He collapses like a rag doll, but with force, onto the wood floor. He pops up again. “O, C’mon!” Grunting. Running. Some kind of scripting ensues in the playroom, accompanied by what I can only compare to wild-sounding primate noises.
This scene replays itself at least five times. My nerves fray. If I sit still, I can observe and absorb it, but if I try to follow any agenda of my own, I easily lose my temper and end up yelling. I am also curious. What do you call this kind of behavior? How do you even google it? Autistic freak out? (I realize that phrase is probably offensive, but I don’t know what else to call it.) Autistic mania? I encounter a blog with similar stories, but the tone of the discourse is the caregiver’s: exhausted, resigned, martyr-like.
Everything goes quiet for a spell. I hear the distant sound of tape again, being pulled and cut. He is in the basement assembling old motherboards and various other broken down electronics he has collected along with the aforementioned cardboard box. “What are you doing?” I ask when he runs upstairs to ask for a black Sharpie (Sharpie use in this house is strictly controlled, due to past incidents involving toddler climbers and walls.) “Making Han Solo in carvonite!” Which of course, he is.
In Sunday School earlier today, I could hear him through the door; he was making all kinds of vocalizations. Goofy commentary is the only way I know to describe it. Short, manic bursts of cough-like laughter. I always imagine this behavior as disruptive, but maybe I’m wrong. I see the other kids (there are just two, who seem very sweet and kind) watching him. The words “freak show” come to mind. I reprimand myself. During church, I often need to remind him that mimicking the priest is not respectful. I know that he thinks it’s funny. Although not exactly “appropriate,” it’s a way he participates in what’s going on around him.
Rewind a few days.
In the car on the way home from school Friday, Jonah informs me that none of the boys at school want to be best friends because he is too crazy. I gently probe him for the source of this information. His friend “A” (a girl one year ahead of him in school) has provided him with this information. Maybe she was just repeating something she heard. Maybe she had some sort of other intent (to keep him to herself?). Who knows. It’s second grade. Best friends are a big deal.
I ask J how this makes him feel. I am impressed with his response. “I’m just crazy. I like being crazy. I don’t want to be different. I just want to be funny.” I probe a little further, asking what he was doing that made them think he was “crazy.”
“O, I was just going ‘bow-wow, bow-wow’ while I took off my snow clothes after recess.”
How do I counsel a seven-year-old on the complexities of human interaction? A boy whose sense of humor has little in common with the typical things kids his age find funny. Do I even try? He’s not asking for counsel, after all. His sense of self seems pretty strong, and shouldn’t that be what we try to reinforce? His making mania is wonderfully productive, even while his inability to remember a simple instruction in the course of walking up the stairs can be maddening. Doesn’t bother him of course, unless he picks up on it bothering me. Like I said, the complexity of human interaction.
“Presume competence.” I hear the phrase again and again in mom blogs and autism blogs and disability blogs. As one mother of an autistic child puts it, “it is a way of interacting with another human being who is seen as a true equal and as having the same basic human rights as I have.” While this idea is usually applied to non-speaking autistic individuals or those more autistically “severe”, I want to find a way to understand J in these terms (understand being relative, of course).
Presume competence means – assume your child is aware and able to understand even though they may not show this to you in a way that you are able to recognize or understand…
Presume competence means talk to your child or the other person as you would a same age non-Autistic child or person…
Presumptions of competence means treating the other person with respect and as an equal without pity or infantilization.
It does not mean that we will carry expectations that if not met will cause us to admonish, scold or assume the person is being manipulative or just needs to “try harder”.
To presume competence does not mean we assume there is a “neurotypical” person “trapped” or “imprisoned” under an Autistic “shell”.
Presuming competence is not an act of kindness.
I certainly fail on the “it does not mean that we will carry expectations that if not met will cause us to admonish, scold or assume the person…just needs to ‘try harder.'” That’s so difficult for me not to do, because Jonah can be incredibly competent at lots of things, so when he’s not, I just assume he doesn’t care. Not necessarily so. Some times, he just can’t process no more.
The thing about J is, he desperately wants to please. Especially me. And I’ll admit, I can sometimes be a tough one to please. My standards are high. Maybe I need to focus a little more on what he sees in me. Because he is always watching—to see how I will react, for good (with patient acceptance for who he is and not who I think I might wish him to be) and bad (unintentional criticism that seems to feed on itself).
So, now I must learn how to adjust the mirror in my eyes to reflect who he really is and who he can be. Because he is watching. He is listening. He is learning.
And when he looks at himself through me, I want him to like and be inspired by what he sees. For, if what he sees in my eyes is not faith in him, how will learn faith in himself?