Today is World Autism Awareness Day. It’s the one day out of the year when skyscrapers and other monuments around the world are bathed in blue light as a way of raising awareness of the growing epidemic of autism spectrum disorders. And our home will be no exception. After work tonight, I’m going to swap out the light bulbs over our front porch and on our garage doors so that our house will be set apart by a soft blue hue all month long.
So it’s only appropriate that I started out Autism Awareness Day with a little episode that made us aware of the challenges of ASD—and that gave us a brief lesson in how to help.
The Case of the Missing Purse.
My twelve-year-old daughter, who has Asperger syndrome, wouldn’t go to school this morning. At least not until she found her purse. Why? Because her purse contained her spare set of earrings. And she was deathly scared that the ones in her ears would start bothering her in the middle of the day, and she wouldn’t have anything to replace them with.
Never mind that her earrings were perfectly fine. Never mind that her ears were perfectly fine. She had got the idea in her head that something bad might happen, and she couldn’t let it go. Typical aspie behavior: Your brain gets stuck on something, and it’s nearly impossible to get it unstuck.
Lord knows I tried this morning. I looked in all the usual places. Nothing. I looked in all the unusual places. Nothing. I suggested even more unusual places where my daughter could look. But she had become so frustrated and anxious at the thought of not finding her purse that she had curled up on our bed, tense and sobbing. I tried reasoning with her. “Why don’t you go to school, and Mom and I will keep looking. When we find it, we’ll bring it to you.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t go until I have that purse!”
“But you’ve already missed a lot of school, and you have exams this week.”
“I don’t care. I need that purse! I won’t go without it!”
A Fresh Start.
Not wanting to have two kids tardy, I took her older brother to school and came back home. Katie, in the mean time, took on the task of getting the other kids ready for elementary school—and dealing with a couple of minor ASD-related crises from them.
When I got back, I laid down next to my daughter and stared at the ceiling for a couple of minutes. “Let her get used to me being here. Just breathe. Don’t push her too hard, or she’ll melt down, and then all bets are off.”
After a short while, she uncurled a bit, and began verbally retracing her steps from the last time she had the purse. It’s something Katie and I had tried to get her to do before, but she had to decide to do it herself. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s look around all those places.” This time, she actually got up and began searching on her own—and far less agitated, too.
It took nearly an hour, but we found the silly thing. It was one of those “hidden in plain sight” things that makes you embarrassed you hadn’t seen it earlier.
Problem solved. Crisis averted.
A Lesson to Be Learned.
But here’s the really quirky part. Once she found her purse, she immediately changed her earrings, put the purse down, and gathered her books. “I’m okay now,” she told us. “I can go to school.” No spare set. No need to carry the purse. No fear of irritation or infection. She had forgotten why she needed the purse. Her brain had gotten so stuck that she didn’t even know what the initial problem was!
Neither Katie nor I wanted to argue with her at this point. We were just glad that the episode didn’t escalate beyond general anxiety and obsessive thinking.
We were also glad that we were able to stay relatively calm—a key ingredient in helping her avoid a full-scale melt down. Episodes like this don’t always end so pleasantly. Especially if we parents lose our cool.
So on this day when advocacy groups everywhere are raising awareness, my little girl contributed to the cause. She made us aware of how unpredictable ASD can be. She told us to expect the unexpected. And she showed us that a little kindness and empathy can go a long way.
If only the rest of the world could learn this lesson!