Thursday 10 March 2011

Why can't they just act normal?

It’s a phrase you come to live with when you have autistic children, like a creaking floorboard or a dog in the street that won’t stop barking: ‘why can’t he just ...’ You hear it from teachers (though not, to be fair, at my children’s schools), from people in the street or the shop, from casual acquaintances or other parents. But above all, you hear it going round in your head like a refrain. Why can’t Euan just get dressed without being distracted by his Lego every two minutes? Why can’t he just watch a film without laughing loudly at every dramatic scene or kicking his legs in time with the characters on screen? Why can’t he just accept the fact that there’s no cheese in the house and he’ll have to have tuna on his sandwiches? Why can’t Adam just go downstairs and put his shoes on without lining up all his cars first?

At heart it’s a question about anxiety, but it’s also about anticipation. Autistic children seek comfort in routine because the world is a big confusing place. They look for cues and find them in the objects they know best. A report from a psychologist who observed Euan in school recently put this in perspective. Whenever the class moved from one place to another or started a new activity, he looked to another child or the teacher to prompt him. At playtime he waited for the other children to move before following them out of the room. Once he’s engaged in an activity he’s quite happy, but the transition between stages is difficult for him, especially if it’s interrupted before the end. Anything out of the ordinary raises his anxiety and make him agitate for the familiar. During a dance lesson he concentrated on the steps and managed to keep time with a partner, but as soon as he sat down he pestered his teacher to go back to class. On holiday or days out, he insists on going back to the car as soon as he’s seen what he came for. This might also explain why he’s suddenly much better at dressing himself now that he has a chart on his wall telling him what order to put his clothes on in.

And it’s this heightened anxiety that feeds back into my initial question. If I can’t have a cup of coffee before leaving the house in the morning, I feel mildly annoyed and probably a bit tired, but I quickly forget about it and start to anticipate on the next thing I have to do. But my autistic children don’t do this: they can’t shift between stages like this unprompted or anticipate what’s coming next. They need either a prompt from outside or a clue within the task that tells them that it’s finished and they can progress to the next thing. Deviating from the plan is literally unthinkable because they have nothing else to work with. The answer to the question ‘why can’t they just do it differently?’ is simply: ‘they just can’t.’