Saturday, October 24, 2015

Why I'm Not Worried About My Autistic Kid's Latest Passion

“If a child with autism has voluminous knowledge about a single subject, why is that an ‘obsessive interest’ rather than ‘expertise’?”  -Ellen Notbohm 
Today our family attended a rare coin show for the first time ever.  It was a chance encounter.  We decided to take Ben to a coin store and the dealer mentioned that we should check the event out.  It was only a few miles down the road, and so we did.  Ben has been collecting coins religiously for the past few months.  Not just any coins- state quarters.  The passion started this summer while we were in Indiana visiting family.  We took a road trip to Ohio, and the moment we crossed over the state line and Ben saw the huge “Welcome to Ohio” sign, his new passion was born.  It suddenly clicked in his mind that our country is made up of states, and these states are connected through their borders.  He was hungry to learn more.  And so, he has joyfully delved into learning everything there is to know about the states.  This love has extended to out of state license plates, US landmarks (think Mount Rushmore and the St. Louis arch), with his pride and joy being his state quarter collection.
Some might say that Ben is obsessed with the United States.  Autism experts often point to “rigid obsessions” as one of the hallmarks of the spectrum.  Some believe that an autistic obsession is harmful and should be stopped so that the person can move on to other, more “socially-appropriate” or “age-appropriate” subjects.  I tend to disagree. 

And here are some reasons why I think that becoming an expert on a subject is a cause for celebration rather than concern.

1)   It opens doors to learning

I’m a teacher, and over the years I’ve read lots of school mission statements.  Usually a school’s mission talks about inspiring kids to have a “passion for learning.”  It’s no secret that when kids are motivated to learn, their engagement increases, as does their achievement.  In Ben’s case, his love of learning about the United States has launched us into a joyful study of US geography.  I would wager that he now knows more about US geography than most adults.  He can build a US puzzle in under a minute.  He spends hours on Google Earth navigating and studying landmarks.  One day he discovered Washington DC on Google Earth, which led to conversations about our United States presidents.  He is convinced that we need to take a trip to DC when he becomes a second grader (and how can I argue with that logic?).  His explorations of Google Earth has led to discussions about other countries in the world, oceans, deserts, islands, cardinal directions, travel time between states, and so much more.  His love of state quarters has spurred many talks about money, currency, and the value of common versus rare coins.  We have watched videos on how currency is made and he has contemplated future careers for himself.  We have talked about vocabulary terms such as mint condition, borders, and currency.  All terms I would not normally discuss with a six year old, but they naturally progress in our everyday conversations through his questions and his zeal to learn more.

2)   It connects him with the community

It’s not every day that you see a six year old with a passion for coin collecting.  It’s fun to watch the reactions of grown-ups in public.  On one particularly memorable trip to Subway, Ben received the change from the teenage girl and he jumped into the air with glee.  “A MISSOURI quarter.  Thank you SO much!!”  The girl could not stop smiling.

The deal we’ve struck with Ben is that when we use cash in a store or a restaurant, he gets to keep our state quarters.  Of course, now he wants us to pay with cash everywhere we go.    He handles all of the money transactions for the family.  He’s getting good at asking politely if the cashier has any state quarters in their tills.  They are always happy to look for him, and he’s learning to handle the disappointment when they don’t have it.  He takes it in stride.

Finding a state quarter on a trip to the store is fun, but it was nothing compared to the joy he felt today when he entered the coin convention and spotted rows and rows of rare, gleaming coins.  His eyes lit up like a kid at Christmas.  As I looked around the crowded convention hall, it was clear that he was the only kid in the building.  As he approached each table, studying the cases carefully, the vendors would look up in surprise, especially as he started naming the coins he recognized from the Internet.  Many would over and talk to him and were amazed that he could carry on a conversation about their coins.  They were clearly pleased to see a young person taking such an interest in their collection.  Many passed on tips and advice.  Some would even take coins out of the case and let him hold them.  One asked when his birthday was and dug until he found a coin from his birth year, giving it to him at no charge.  He would not accept our money, instead making Ben “pay” by promising to “do what Mom and Dad say”.  My heart warmed as I watched my little boy become accepted into a community as their apprentice.  He left with his pockets jingling and a huge smile on his face.
3)  It makes him happy

This is perhaps the most important reason of all.  How many of us still find the time for the things in life that bring us true happiness?  When Ben finds a new quarter, his whole face lights up.  He may not be interested in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Avengers or other things that six-year-old boys typically enjoy, but his interests are no less valid.  And, by cultivating his interests rather than pushing him towards something that is more “socially typical”, we are allowing him to express his true self, and, by extension, teaching him to be happy in his own skin. 

I have no desire to change my son.  If anything, I want to be more like him when I grow up. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How He Learns

Ben is practicing his writing using the stop light letter technique invented by his OT.  
            This year Ben has started first grade at yet another new school.  This is the third new school he’s attended in as many years.  I know how important stability is for a child, and I never imagined I would have moved him as many times as we have already.  However, it was more important to find a school that has the flexibility to teach in a way that Ben learns best.  We are thrilled to report that it looks like we have finally found that place.  This meant a move to a private school, which wasn't an easy choice since I'm a public school teacher.  You can read more about the reasons behind our decisions here.
            From the first week of school it was clear that Ben felt comfortable at his new school.  On Friday of the first week of school, he told me that I had found a school that is a perfect match for him.  After the second week of school he told me that he wants to stay at his new school forever. 
            These comments comfort and reassure me, but I still find that I can’t completely relax.  Ben’s new school is not without its challenges. The indoor gym at the school makes the children’s voices “loud and echoey” and Ben must wear noise cancelling headsets to tolerate the amplified sounds.  “I hate when the boys and girls scream,” he tells me.  His after school teacher came up with a plan that allowed him to play just outside the gym in the lobby with a friend or two, and that has helped enormously. 
            Situations like these that make me realize that he has grown old enough for the talk.   There is much debate in the special needs community about the proper time to let your child know about his or her disability.  Some argue against telling the child at all, while others tell their child from the moment of his or her diagnosis.  I have read articles written by special needs adults who were not told about their disability until they were much older (or- worse yet- they discovered it on their own by coming across the paperwork), and they describe the resentment that they feel because they knew that they were different but didn’t know why.  They believed that there was something wrong with themselves because of these differences. 
            I never want Ben to have to feel that something is wrong with him just because he has different needs.  I want Ben to understand how his unique brain works and both the strengths and challenges that it brings him.   I want to talk about it in a kid-friendly way.  I’m not ready to put a label on these differences yet and call it autism or sensory processing disorder.  I will use these terms when the time is right, but for now I plan to have the conversation in a way that makes sense to him.  It will no doubt become multiple conversations that unfold over time.  I have patiently waited until the time when he was ready.
            I found the perfect moment one Saturday morning when he and I were out running errands.  I decided to stop off at our neighborhood Starbucks.  I bought him his favorite special drink- a vanilla bean Frappuccino (a caffeine-free treat) and we headed outside to sit at an umbrella table and watch the cars drive by. 
            After we settled into our spots, a long comfortable silence filled the space between us.  I learned long ago to respect the silence.  I could tell that it wasn’t just any silence.  Inside my son’s head, his thoughts were swirling and he was searching for just the right words to shape his deep thoughts.
             “I don’t go to my old schools anymore,” he mused, beginning the conversation in the middle as he so often does.  Or, more accurately, picking up on a conversation that we had begun days before.  “Those schools were not a match for me.”
            I paused, considering his words, and deciding that this was the moment I had been waiting for.  “And your new school is a match for you?”
            “Uh-huh,” he agreed.
            “Do you want to know why it feels like a match?” I asked.
            Ben met my gaze with a piercing stare of fierce concentration.  He nodded.
            I proceeded to explain how our brains are like machines.  Every person’s brain is different.  Each of us has things that we are good at and things that are hard for us.  I told Ben that his brain is excellent at remembering numbers and facts like his states and capitals.  However, his brain can sometimes get stuck and stop working well, such as when a room gets too busy or filled with noise.  It’s also hard for his brain to work when someone is telling him things to quickly.  This can make his brain shut down.
            “It’s like a traffic jam in my mind,” he agreed.  “I don’t like traffic jams.”
            I told him that his brain remembers things better when he sees pictures of what he is learning or when he can try things out with his hands.  However, his brain forgets easily if he only hears words.
           “I love stations,” he piped up.  “They help me learn.  My new school has lots of stations.   And I love science too.  Especially the experiments.”
            We talked about how every brain is different.  One is not better than the other.  We also talked about how every school is different, and some schools that may be a match for some boys and girls may not be the best match for him.  Ben has many friends who still attend these schools, and I wanted him to understand that there was nothing wrong with these places.  Lots of great learning is happening there, but his new school teaches in a way that his brain learns best.  Ben nodded.  He understood. 
            We talked for awhile longer about his sensory needs.  We talked about how things seem louder to him than they might seem to others.  We talked about how he is bothered more easily by noises and what to do when things become too much for him. 
             Ben and I talked like this for ten magical minutes.  It was the longest conversation that he and I have ever had.  As I think back on it now, I’m amazed at how easily the conversation flowed.  I didn’t have to steer the talk, nor did I have to probe him for information, which often causes him to shut down and turn off the conversation immediately.   In the past Ben hasn’t wanted to talk about school but on that sunny Saturday morning he shared details about his class with me that gave me a glimpse into his academic world.
             I am grateful that we have found a school that is so suited to his needs.  I wish every child could find such a place to learn and grow.  Ben is fortunate to be surrounded with so much love.  He has left his imprint on the hearts of those who have worked with him, and we appreciate each and every person who has helped him grow into the amazing boy who is is today.  
            I know that I cannot predict what the future will hold.  I know that I cannot make myself stop worrying completely, but what I can do is to teach Ben to know himself well enough to be his own advocate.  The more he can articulate his needs in a respectful way to the adults in his life, the more chances he will have for success.  And I know he is well on his way.

Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!