My grandson Michael and our daughter Rebecca visited over last weekend from New Jersey. Michael is 14 years old and handsome, with very dark brown hair and eyes resembling his older brother Alex, and is about 5ft -9 inches tall. He has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Michael is entering a regular high school this year, with some pull-out support from Special Education, to which he is looking forward with mostly positive anticipation, though he acknowledges it is a little scary, much like any other kid his age. He plays drums in the school band.
|Michael in 2009|
We went out for lunch at Mexican restaurant with one of Michael’s aunts (he had a small plain steak and fries), and had dinner at Chili’s (chicken strips and fries). We visited the Minneapolis Art Institute to see the African masks, the mummy case and mechanical bank exhibit, and Minnesota Science Museum. At the Science Museum he was fascinated by the machine that created “tornados” out of mist by manipulating columns of air. He also visited the Minnesota History Center featuring an exhibit of underwear made by Munsingwear, an old Minnesota company, which he found amusing and embarrassing. We had a birthday dinner at our home with two other adult daughters and grandchildren, a situation which Michael found difficult… too many unfamiliar people and too much hub-bub. He disappeared periodically and put his hands over his eyes.
Being with Michael these past few days reminds me of how very difficult communication and social situations are for many young people on the autism spectrum. It is easier to tune out than try to process and react to ongoing, multipart adult comments, meaning that Michael spends a good deal of time “in his own head.” While many typically developing kids also tune out, Michael does so very visibly the majority of the time he is with adults. Many adult-initiated conversation attempts appear unpleasant to him, though he seems to greatly enjoy being with other people and wants to be part of family events. When a comment or question is directed to him, there is usually a considerable delay while he appears to be trying to understand what is said and conjure up an answer. Sometimes he answers and others not. When he responds it is often with age-appropriate vocabulary, sometimes surprisingly complex, indicating a high degree of comprehension. The process appears to be laborious for him, so it is easy to understand why he avoids adult questions when possible. Scripted language is much easier for him because he doesn’t need to create a novel verbal response from whole cloth; unfortunately the scripted language doesn’t always fit the situation well, but most of the time he does very well.
Michael likes to play soccer and Wii, watching movies and kid programs on TV, and playing video games. Sometimes he plays drums with his brother Alex. His dad is also a skilled drummer. He knows nearly everything there is to know about The Beatles, each recording and its year, list of songs, such as "In what year was "Abbey Road" recorded and which songs did the Beatles perform?" No problem. He has a best friend his age in NJ who also has a high functioning ASD. He and 6-7 other boys his age get together at someone’s house to hang out, some of whom have no disability. His teachers say he enjoys school and often volunteers answers, usually appropriate to the question. He tends to rock and makes unusual hand and arm gestures when he is not actively engaged, which unfortunately are stigmatizing. His Mom, Dad and Stepmom are working with Michael on that.
Michael headed back to NJ a few days ago with a spiffy new bright blue T shirt with Science Museum of Minnesota printed on it in red, and a book and cylindric plastic container with liquid and some kind of precipitate in it he can use to make his own tornados. He also has a postcard from the Art Institute with photo of a bronze statue on it from ancient China that Michael referred to as “that Dude.” Unfortunately, the TSA confiscated his “tornado in a bottle” memento at the airport in Minneapolis on his return flight. Maybe I can find a replacement and send it to him.
When I asked Michael what job he wants to do when he is older he replied, “President, and make things better for people." Very cool. When asked whether there was a second choice of jobs, he replied “Fireman.” Those seem to be the same job these days, given the rigid unrealistic stance of the Republicans in Washington who are trying to eliminate programs to assist people like Michael. He may be just the right guy for the job.