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.
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.’