I once worked with a ten-year-old boy with Asperger’s who changed entirely at age eleven. While he had always been socially awkward and withdrawn, rarely making eye contact and showing the “classic” nearly obsessive, and exhaustive, level of interest in one particular, and narrow, subject (arachnids). We were slowly working our way to a relationship, some dialogue, and the faint glimpses of a give and take when fifth grade came to a quiet close.
And then, when the special needs school started up again and our therapy along with it, I was dealing with an entirely different kid. He was surly, depressed and his non-communicativeness took on an angry edge. I wondered what had changed, and part of the story seemed to be that his father would get frustrated and could be verbally harsh, which was particularly destabilizing to this very sensitive child. Yet another reason for the change in personality was that this boy’s brain had reached the stage of myelination, where the neurons develop a sheathing that make the brain faster and more capable of abstract thinking. (for more on this see tiny.cc/HJh16). While this affects all kids during their development, this was a keen illustration of a person who truly was quite “different” from the norm, and as his brain developed, he came to more fully realize his situation. It was good-news/bad news: good because he had enough social relatedness to feel awkward, yet bad because it only lowered his self-esteem and deepened feelings of isolation.
And just when I was poised to capitalize on this child’s negative feelings, hoping to use them as leverage for change, his parents pulled him out of treatment. And this illustrates a second point: spectrum children frequently come from at least one parent with a “ghosting” of the disorder themselves. The father in this case was absolutely loath to be involved with therapy at any level. But since families are systems of relationships, it is not unheard of for a parent to, at least unconsciously, need a child not to function at the highest level possible for them. Sometimes this is about not wanting to be abandoned; sometimes it’s about a child holding the pathology for the system as a sort of scapegoat.
It can be a tall order for a spectrum parent (or a bi-polar parent, or a substance abusing parent) to confront their own limitations and wrestle with their demons in the service of their child. My experiences have taught me that all parents love their children, and those who are not able, for whatever reasons, to be their best Selves do suffer deep in their hearts—I’ve seen it in the eyes of schizophrenic moms and brutal dads. As for my Asperger’s eleven-year-old, I never once got to look into that father’s eyes. My fantasy is that if I had, that father might have sensed that I was on his side; yet there are walls that we are not empowered to break down, and that was another humbling lesson of my years with group home kids and all manner of special needs children.
A final note on spectrum kids and intelligence: with “spectrum” disorders (autism and Asperger’s) a child may range from mild to severe impairment in social relatedness and language functioning; but just as with non-spectrum folks, spectrum kids also range from very cognitively gifted to cognitively limited. It is a common misconception that spectrum kids are not smart; for example, a family friend is a highly gifted, but socially limited, autistic who became a doctor, and found his niche in radiology (where he could deal brilliantly with equipment and imagery, and not so much with people, who he could enjoy, but in a limited range of interaction). His narrow area of passion was astronomy, again, finding interest in the stars more than in people. Having a conversation with this man was like dropping a pebble into a deep well; you would say something and then, five beats after you thought he just didn’t hear it, he would respond and it was like the delayed splash of the stone. Yet as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we are well-served to stay open to the possibility that people on the spectrum may be tuned into things that the rest of us miss just a fully as they seem to miss our eye contact and social cues.
So, let’s dedicate today to decreasing judgment and re-thinking our pre-conceived notions about people who seem different from ourselves, whether we are on the spectrum and those “others” are very social, or we consider ourselves more “normal” and those with differences from us are along the spectrum. And let’s do this in honor of all our collective children and whatever “ghosts” hover around them.