Wednesday 25 August 2010

The sense of self

As Euan gets older his behaviour becomes more evidently autistic. The lag between him and other children of his own age is unavoidable. Three-year-old children who don’t speak to strangers are quietly endearing; five-year-olds are shy and withdrawn; seven-year-olds are strange and uncommunicative. No doubt as a teenager he’ll be labeled sullen and anti-social. Last year, when he was in mainstream school, Magteld took him to a birthday party. When I asked how it went, she told me he’d spent most of the afternoon licking the goalposts. He didn’t go back this year. I tell myself it’s because he’s at a new school, and in any case it’s probably a mercy.
Often he struggles visibly to make sense of the world around him. It can provoke sudden, violent outbursts of rage or tears if things aren’t going his way, and not just in the normal sense of getting what he wants. He can be reduced to floods of tears if someone else mentions something that’s on the tip of his tongue – almost as if he fears the uttered words have been stolen from his mind and he can’t retrieve them.
Language, in a wider sense, seems to function differently for Euan. We’ve observed the familiar autistic traits such as echolalia and pronoun reversal. In Euan’s case, though, it seems to be something more profound. It’s not just the way he sees other people and objects: I get the sense it reflects the way he sees himself.
As I said, the early examples followed a familiar pattern. Euan would refer to himself in the third person and mix up ‘I’ and ‘you’. This is a stage all children go through, but it’s more pronounced and lasts longer in those with autism. I remember being at my parents’ house once and hearing his voice from the open cloakroom door: ‘Where’s Euan? He’s in the toilet.’ What’s interesting is that even now, when he’s sorted out ‘I’ and ‘you’, he still re-enacts snippets of dialogue in this way. Often it’s accompanied by an action: if he has an impulse to do something he shouldn’t, like tip back his chair or shout at table, he’ll often do it and immediately tell himself off for it. In extreme cases he’ll grab his own arm and drag himself into the hallway to stand in the corner.
Pronoun switching is more complex too. For a long time he’d say things like ‘she’s a boy’ and persistently switch ‘he’ and ‘she’. Once he told us about a boy in his class who had gone to hospital. He had written the story in his school book with his teacher and rehearsed it, but even in writing he insisted in saying ‘She was OK’ as the last line. Even now he has trouble applying Mum and Dad to the right parent.
The question naturally arises: is there something fundamentally different about Euan’s self-perception? The few studies I’ve found about this tend to argue against this – such as Dawson and McKissick, who write: ‘It was concluded that the autistic child's social deficits are not due to a basic lack of differentiation between self and other.’ It may be that this is a phase that Euan grows out of as he becomes more socially and linguistically competent. He has no problem differentiating between himself and other people: he uses ‘I’ to talk about himself, such as ‘Look, I made it’ when he builds a Lego model. But it still seems as if there’s a distortion in the way he perceives events that involve him. It’s almost as if he tries to view them from outside himself and replay them in his mind later, like a chess player going over the moves from a previous game to hone his strategy. The more I think about it, the more I get the impression it’s to do with control: if things happen that he doesn’t have command over, he has to go back over them, again and again, until he’s mastered the situation. It’s an untested theory, but it would explain much of the frustration, the anxiety and the constant restless activity. Social interaction is a skill which Euan has to learn painstakingly, through trial and error. That he’s prepared to put so much effort in is actually quite remarkable.