Monday, 28 September 2009

Having a laugh

It's commonly held that people with autism lack a sense of humour. Specifically, they struggle to understand jokes other than the most basic ones. No less a person than Hans Asperger declared that people with autism "never achieve that particular wisdom and deep intuitive understanding that underlie genuine humour" (translation courtesy of Uta Frith). Then again, you might say, he was Austrian, so what would he know?
Less flippantly, I have to ask: if autism is a humour-free condition, why does Euan spend so much time laughing? In fact, I'd go so far as to say that visual jokes are one of his strongest means of communication. He'll think of something funny, act it out, and look up for our response. The difficulty is understanding what's going on in his mind. When he shares a joke, is he really sharing, or just performing?
Euan's stock in trade is incongruity. There's a section of my Facebook page called My Children's Idea of Art which is filled with impromptu sculptures. Two plant pots with skippy balls sticking out of them; toy cars arranged among fruit in a bowl (actually, some of these are his brother's, but that's another issue...). On the flight to Germany he decided that the little tog that holds the flip-down table up against the seat in front of him was a tap, and spent most of the flight pretending to pour drinks into a cup, accompanying the action with gurgles of delight. He loves to take an object and put it somewhere it doesn't belong: stick-shaped crisps in a drinking cup being a recent example. When he does combine objects that belong together, it's in an incongruent way, such as the time he lined up four plastic buckets, filled them with sand, then planted a spade squarely in the centre of each bucket as if it were a tree.
Euan's sense of humour is idiosyncratic. Perhaps it's a way of subverting his own love of order and routine - if he can control the disorder, he can laugh at it. It may also be why he laughs like a drain whenever he sees someone stub their toe and wince - not out of cruelty, but at the sheer incongruity of seeing a soft toe combine with a hard skirting board, and the extreme contortion of the victim's face that results. Odd facial expressions are another thing that amuses Euan, which is partly why it's so hard to tell him off. The more the rage registers in your face, the greater his delight.
It still leaves the question of whether he does, or can, interact through jokes. I have a sense that it might be a way to connect with him. Verbal jokes are still beyond him, but the evident joy he takes in inventing, sharing and - more rarely - getting jokes contain some encouraging signs. When he looks to someone's face to see if they're laughing, and laughs even harder in response, it's a kind of communication. The next step is regulating it, which means teaching him, among other things, that stubbed toes aren't always funny. But mostly they are.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

What lies beneath

Euan has started attending a special needs school. The first week was difficult and exhausting, and not just for him. He would come home from school almost suffocating with bewilderment, letting out strangulated screeches at the slightest provocation, kicking, yelling and crying until bedtime. Everything was strange and frightening, from the bus that picks him up at the door each morning to the new teachers, the smaller class sizes, the unfamiliar mode of learning and the absence of his classroom assistant from his mainstream school. Each of these changes on their own might have been bearable: coming all at once, they must have felt like diving into a bed of nettles. Somebody recently introduced me to the "Coke bottle" analogy of autistic children. They can seem placid and contented during the school day, but all the time they are storing up stress on the inside, like a coke bottle being shaken, and once they come home, the lid blows off. That was Euan for his first week at school.
Slowly, though, he is adjusting to his new surroundings. One thing that helped was being allowed to take his teddy, Greeny, with him. At first we tried to dissuade him, believing like good parents that toys should stay at home. Then we went to a meeting with his teacher and she showed us a photograph in the corridor of Euan holding Greeny. Next she took us into the classroom and explained that Greeny had taken on the role of Euan's monitor, acting as a conduit for explaining his tasks and a reward if he behaved well.
Watching special needs education in action has been a fascinating learning process for us. There is endless negotiation, glacial progress at times, but underpinning it is a tremendous sense of purpose and achievement. Developments are small but revealing. Euan is already benefiting from the closer attention of his new school. His language is improving and he has started drawing stick figures, which gives us a new way to tell stories with him. And then there is the question that keeps coming up, the one the teacher put at the heart of our meeting: "How much does he really understand?"
The short answer to this is: a lot more than we imagined even a few months ago. Euan's mind is constantly turning up surprises. I wrote not so long ago that his affinity for numbers seemed to be more to do with remembering sequences than calculation. Then today something happened that knocked that whole presumption out of the water. Euan was listening to a CD on the computer using Windows Media Player. He likes to watch the visualisations and the time bar that fills up across the bottom of the screen as the track progresses. Today he took things a step further. As he listened to the CD tracks, one by one, he clicked on the time bar and slowly dragged it across the screen, constantly checking his position against the figures on the right which show how much of the track has been played out of the total time. So when the figures showed 1:30/3:00, Euan would have the bar exactly in the centre of the screen.
It wasn't an exact science, but he unmistakeably knew what he was doing. And what he was doing, unmistakeably, was calculating what proportion of the track had been played and expressing it visually. When I though of it like that, I was astonished. It reminded me of what someone had once said about Paul Gascoigne: he may not be bright in the academic sense, but he can measure in his head in a split-second exactly how hard to kick a ball so that it lands at the feet of a team-mate who is running towards a spot 60 yards away. Just as footballers possess a remarkable natural sense of physics, so Euan seems to some kind of instinct for division.
Similarly, we have tended to assume that Euan's ability to read was limited to recognising words rather than understanding meaning. That was until he picked up one of his Sesame Street books and read out loud: "Wake up! Wake up always! The sun is all on!" The interesting thing is that these aren't the words on the page. The actual words are in Dutch. What Euan was reading out were his own translations. Imperfect ones, as you might have realised, but translations nonetheless. "The sun is all on" should be "the sun is already up", but the Dutch words for "already" and "up" can mean "all" and "on" in other contexts. So Euan can work out single words and two-word phrases, but struggles with sentences. At least, that's what we'll think until something else happens to make us revise our opinion.
This is not told simply for the sake of parental pride. Euan's intelligence is hard to measure on any meaningful scale and even harder to exploit. His attention span is severely limited, he is hard to motivate and any change in routine or switch of task is met with howls of resistance. But now and again we catch a glimpse of what might be going on behind that glazed expression, and it is a tantalising prospect, like shining a torch into a crystal-lined cave.