Autism: an Observation

He's a happy kid.

My son Marcus is turning 5 the day after Valentine’s day, and was diagnosed as autistic a few months ago, in late 2010.

That diagnosis isn’t something he’s noticed, but it helps me  focus my attention onto behaviours that otherwise might have slipped notice.

Autistic kids have difficulty with social interaction, being generally more literally minded. This manifests itself in different ways, but many of the common clues, such as avoiding eye contact or a broad lack of empathy, have never really been an issue with Marcus. It was really only recently that I noticed how it manifested itself in my son, outside of a general preference to play by himself instead of with others: I noticed he often fakes his way through social interaction, by applying rote templates that he’s picked up contextually, which are then applied to situations based on cues he registers from the people around him.

Strangers (friends of mum and dad) arrive at the front door, and he greets them excitedly with ‘Hi guys!’ but he doesn’t grasp what that means, other than how it fits in that social context: people appear, so you say ‘hello’. Dad looks like he’s packing one of two bags that he takes with him when he leaves the house? ‘Bye dad! Seeya later!’ (Everything he says has exclamation points in it, just so you know).

I’ll provide two examples after the jump.

1) Coming out of the recent Christmas season, Marcus noticed an addendum to the usual farewell ritual: ‘Merry Christmas!’ So, with positive feedback from adoring onlookers, he’d wish every random bastard a Merry Christmas as they were entering his social sphere. A courier dropping off an online purchase? ‘Bye! Merry Christmas!’ His grandmother returning his sister from a trip to the movies? ‘Hi gran! Merry Christmas!’

On the surface this is a perfectly successful adaptation to this new social change, but because he applies these phrases with no comprehension outside their contextual application, he’s been wishing everyone Merry Christmas deep into January. He’s slowing down now, because no one else seems to be doing it, and it’ll be shelved for another 10 months soon.

Long road ahead

It's a long road ahead and a lot of catching up to do.

2) He’s started responding to questions politely. If I ask him if he wants a peanut butter sandwich, or a bath, or if he’s hungry, he’ll respond with, ‘No thank you dad.’ It’s a practical and polite response. He doesn’t understand politeness or rudeness, just that it’s accepted behaviour to respond as such. This fakery works really well until he overapplies the rule of  ‘If I am asked a question, I need to respond Yes or No and then thank the person who asked me.’

In all fairness it’s my own fault for not being literal enough with him, for applying my neurotypical social deceits instead of being direct. For instance, I recently turned to Marcus and said, ‘Can you please pick up your sandwich and put it in the bin?’

Did I really mean that? Was it even remotely optional? No, it was just the kind of silly nicety we garnish our interaction with and which confuses kids like Marcus.

I should have rephrased it as ‘Marcus, pick up your sandwich and put it in the bin,’ but I wasn’t thinking.

Of course his response was, ‘No thank you dad.’

11 thoughts on “Autism: an Observation

  1. Onya Marcus! I would have given the same response (and received a cuff on the head for being a smart alec) 🙂 It does make you aware how often, when interpreted literally, our standard phrases and sentence structures don’t map to our intended meaning, doesn’t it?

    • Yeah, it’s helpful to get a bit of a view like that, from a different perspective. I’m going to be keeping an ear out for anything else with a polite-but-confusing turn of phrase like that.

  2. I am the adult daughter of a man who lived almost his whole life with undiagnosed asperger’s. I sometimes wonder how things would have been different had he and everyone else understood his ways. I’m often pained to think back on the scant fond memories before our estrangement and wonder if they were “real” or only acted out social pantomimes of father to daughter love. I do know that from my end I really did love our time together doing things like measuring (without question) the neighborhood with a walking wheel so that when we went jogging together our training distances were exact.

    • It’s tragic how a lack of understanding can damage relationships, and I’m heartened that I’m seeing so much support in education and later life to help people cope and adjust to ‘thinking different’. Social pantomime is a powerful phrase – I don’t mean to imply that my son and others like him don’t have any genuine emotions, just that regular society’s social interactions have a lot of unnecessary fat, that (at least my son) needs to spend effort decoding. It must seem awfully wasteful… eg. ‘but I want dad to scratch my back, why would I ask him when I need him to do it?’

  3. The hardest thing (I have observed) for NT people, parents especially, is joking.

    Of course, you learn to read a person and their sense of humour, and over time you can decode the intent of certain people’s utterances – but on Some Days, or for Some People, it’s always difficult to tell. And when you’re growing up, unless your parent says something is explicitly ‘A Joke’ then it is just another important piece of information about the world that they are teaching you.

  4. Well spotted, and well written! In my last job in disability, we had a client with a reputation for being really difficult becuse he had Asperger’s in addition to the disability he was receiving support for. When I had to meet him at short notice we got along like a house on fire because I never assume anything about clients and I go in respecting their space and their rules.

    Have you ever seen the documentary An Anthropologist On Mars? Well worth finding. The title is because, with no intuitive understanding of social interactions, she’s had to learn everything by observation and that’s what she feels like – an alien.

    • Wow, that sounds cool, and sounds about right, too. It’s interesting to see what we take as given during social interaction, but once two or more people agree on the groundrules, even if they aren’t neurotypical groundrules, communication often flows much more easily. A different culture is a great way of thinking about it.

  5. It reflects a concept I’ve been thinking on lately called ‘phatic language’ (

    So much communication is contextual and embedded with social meaning that isn’t directly linked to the denotative meaning of the words. A bit like when I first went to the UK and had somebody say, ‘You oright?’. ‘Um…yeah, why? Do I look sick?’

    Yup. I actually said that.

    • It’s very true, and a cultural disconnect will do that. Someone says, ‘What’s up?’ and you react as though you’re being accused of being shifty. 🙂 Of course, in your case that would be a legitimate concern from a stranger’s perspective…

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