A couple of days ago, I wrote about my 12-year-old girl’s hour-long search for her purse—a quest that made her late for school and me late for work. Well, I want to follow up with something that happened as I drove her to school that morning.
As we backed out of the driveway , she picked up my wallet and began rifling through my cards: driver’s license, insurance ID, business cards, credit cards, etc.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“I’m reorganizing your cards.”
“Why? They were perfectly fine the way they were.”
“I know. But this helps me work out my anger.”
I didn’t pursue it right then and there. I was just glad we were heading in the right direction without any major incident. But later that evening, I asked her about it.
“I was angry that the purse was right there all along, and I passed by it about thirty times without ever seeing it,” she told me. “I figured that if I could mess up your cards and put them back in the right order, I would feel better.”
Evidently, it worked. She had a pretty good day at school—which is to say that Katie had to field only one anxiety-laden phone call from her. She did okay on her homework, and the evening went off without any major melt downs.
If that’s all it took for her to get right with the world, I was more than happy to oblige. Heck, I’d stack my wallet with a whole deck of playing cards!
While this kind of behavior is quirky, it’s not uncommon for my daughter. Actually, I’m glad to see her doing it. It’s a lot better than other habits she has had over the years. For instance, when she was a very little girl, she used to do what she called “belly exercises”—a rhythmic motion, akin to dry humping—for nearly 20 minutes at a time in the middle of the afternoon. We never knew what to make of it, especially when she would emerge from the exercises sweaty and out of breath. But our pediatrician dismissed it, so we never followed up. (We have since changed to a doctor who actually knows what ASD is and has experience working with kids on the spectrum.)
Then there was the phase when she had to take all of her Littlest Pet Shop dolls to school in a purse so that she could reach in and touch them when she was feeling stressed out or lonely. Or the habit, which persists, of taking a suitcase filled with her Webkinz plush animals whenever we go on a day trip or a vacation. Oh, and she still plays with water. She’ll dunk her face in the bathroom sink or fill up a small hole she dug in the back yard so that she can squish her feet in the mud.
Defusing by Diffusing.
Anyone who has a child on the autism spectrum will identify with these types of behavior. They’re all the unique ways ASD kids will diffuse tension. When they’re not melting down, that is.
What’s there to diffuse? Plenty. There’s the tension that comes from sensory processing glitches. Most of us don’t get bothered by things like fluorescent lights, the sound of traffic, or other sensory input that is part of our everyday, noisy existence. But many kids on the spectrum are highly attuned to these things. One of my kids, for instance, can’t stand the feel of denim. The only pants he will wear are sweats—and not the shiny kind. There’s also the tension that comes from having to deal with people. Social communication can be hard on ASD kids, because many of them have a hard time reading the subtleties of body language and vocal inflections. It’s like deciphering hieroglyphics, and it’s exhausting. And finally, there’s the tension that comes from just plain knowing how different you are. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the co-incidence of ASD and depression or anxiety is very high—mainly stemming from this sense of otherness.
So with all of these factors at work, it’s no wonder that folks on the spectrum try to find ways to relieve the pressure that builds up. Temple Grandin has her squeeze machine. Bill Gates rocks back and forth. A young man in Great Britain carries a well-worn plush lion around with him. And my little girl takes mud baths and reorganizes cards.
Here’s what I like about what I saw in the car Tuesday morning. My daughter found a pretty creative way of acting out without, well, acting out. This little episode also shows how intelligent and insightful she can be. She knows she has Aspergers. She knows she’s different. She knows she has challenges that other kids don’t have. And while it can make her sad and frustrated, it has also moved her to find ways to deal with it. I also like the fact that she is experimenting with strategies that don’t get her in trouble or that don’t mark her out for teasing or bullying from her peers. And finally, I like the fact that she’s doing this on her own, without any coaching from her parents or her psychologist. Mind you, this doesn’t happen all the time. There are many times when she will act out more dramatically and more emotionally. But the fact that she worked this one out all on her own makes me smile. It tells me that she will find her way.
Now, if I can just get her seven-year-old brother to stop staging mock battles with his little brother when he’s uptight. Or her nine-year-old brother to stop sucking his thumb. Or her four-year-old brother to stop throwing things all around the house. Or her big brother to stop chewing his finger nails down to the cuticles. Baby steps, Leo. Baby steps.