Back to the ABC’s

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, autism, Communication, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 23-02-2010

We are confronted with new challenges in our new home. Adam seemed to transition well at first, but now it is difficult again. As mentioned in the previous post, we do not know if Adam’s spasms are seizures or are spurned by tumultuous transition. On my end, all I want to do is get back on track with Adam. I for certain want my sleep as I function horribly without it. I want him to get over the hump as smoothly as possible until he can have his tests and/or become comfortable in his new home and situation.

But there’s another problem.

It could be me.

I need to re-learn my ABC’s. Remember those: Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence? We put an autistic child under our neurotypical microscope (as if that doesn’t cause distress), and evaluate the antecedent (or cause) of a behaviour so that we can seek to change (or eliminate) it. The Consequence in behavioural-speak is what happens after the behaviour. I’m not saying that these tools are not useful to us. They can be if we learn how to assist autistic children cope. I’m not a fan of eliminating behaviour. But there’s another side to this story.

When I worry I am studying Adam. I watch for every little sign. Then I realize that I’m not watching myself. How am I feeling? How has my anxiety triggered a course of events? Adam just wants to explore, and yes, he cannot sleep like most autistic people who, as they become adults, learn to cope on very little. In his new home, Adam is very “disorganized” in his body (for those unfamiliar with this language, it means that Adam is moving his body in unfamiliar ways or hyperactive ways and it can appear distressing), and I still do not know for sure if it’s medical.

Yet, I also am thinking he is learning about every nook and cranny of the house as he used to memorize routes on road trips from school to home or from his old house to the park. While he didn’t get upset if we changed the route, he certainly memorized it. I’m thinking of Dawn Prince Hughes, author (and new friend of mine since I met her in Toronto a couple of years ago — little did she know that I was a HUGE fan of her book beforehand) of Songs of A Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism and the excerpt on herself as a child running around in the same circle in her house. Experiencing this first hand, it’s exhausting for a parent who wants their child to “behave” or settle. Then I have to think again.

“The way I said ‘siiiilllverrr doooollllaaarrr’ was only the start of a profound pattern I had throughout childhood saying words and phrases in peculiar, experimental ways and having a complete fascination for words. When I was young, my parents and I often stayed at my mother’s new house, and my favorite uncle lived there also. A hallway ran around the perimeter of the house, past the dining room, the bedrooms, the bathroom, the front door, and through the living room back to the dining room, in a big circle. My favorite game (to the exclusion of all others) was to wait in the dining room for the adults to come up with a word — the more difficult the better — and then I would speed off down the hallway, in the same direction every time, either on my tricycle or on foot, repeating the word over and over.” (pp. 17-18).

Hughes describes then running to each of the rooms saying the word “where the word would absorb the comfort of my grandparent’s bed, their clothing, the beauty of the vanity table, and the smell of cedar drawers…” (p. 18)

Not only have I found Adam enclosed in drawers, but under the bed, and in the deep dark crawl space in our new basement. It takes a lot of effort for me to stay awake and keep an eye on him, as his safety always comes first. His body jerks, he lays on his back and holds his legs. He opens every cupboard, closet and drawer and is still absorbing them — and maybe he can do this better when he can enter them.  Save for the things that he knows — books, his computer that still has the same “Alligator King” from Sesame Street on it, and a cupboard full of crackers and goodies he now knows is his own, he is still disorganized here but is working so hard himself on trying to get organized and calm. Indeed, my boy is making gargantuan efforts.

To this Hughes writes, “I also wanted to keep as many of my own accoutrements as possible the same. This meant that I did not want a new toothbrush, new clothes, new shoes…When I went shopping for clothes with my mother [Hughes describes being afraid of mannequins]…My strategy for survival was to hide inside the clothing racks…the lack of light would calm me down. Hiding was yet another thing that later connected me to my gorilla family — when they went behind the hills to sit or seek out the little caves in the underbrush or rock to be by themselves, I would understand.” (p.21). Similarly, Adam has gone to the books that were the same from his old house. He is not interested yet in new things.

Adam’s grandparents have been around a lot to support him. I believe his grandparents are two of his favorite people (and most consistent). Again this relates so closely to Hughes: “When I was young I stayed with my grandparents on the weekends, and those were among my favorite times. I did feel safe there.” (pp. 21-22). Ask my parents and they’ll likely say that their condo is his “turf.” They have been helpful to Adam and I during this time.

Adam craves lemons during this year of transition. To this, Hughes writes, “I craved salt and would eat it straight from the shaker. I craved burnt matchheads and would suck on them whenever I could find them. I craved Alka Seltzer for its taste and feel….A sound like the thrum of a tumbler full of milkshake when is was tapped [Adam does this all the time] by a spoon or the Westminster chime of the clock would fill me with rapture.”

So I give Adam his lemons. Right now, I’ll buy him a bucketfull, although other people will tell him to “stop eating lemons,” or, “stop doing that.” Sure, I worry about his teeth, or of Adam’s safety in potentially dangerous situations. I’m not saying that we have to allow our kids to do everything, but I have to let him do more than usual and I have to change my behaviour to accommodate it right now, for this is an exceptional situation. I’m always trying to stay one step ahead of Adam to figure out how he can explore safely.

“Most autistic people need order and ritual and will find ways to make order where they feel chaos. So much stimulation streams in, rushing into one’s body without ever being processed: the filters that other people have simply aren’t there. Swimming through the din of the fractured and the unexpected, one feels as if one were drowning in an ocean without predictability, without markers, without a shore. It is like being blinded in the brightness of a keener sight. Autistic people will instinctively reach for order and symmetry; they arrange the spoons on the table, they line up matchsticks, or they rock back and forth, cutting a deluge of stimulation into smaller bits with repetition of their bodies’ movements.” (p. 25).

This is quite an overwhelming statement for me on how Adam may be experiencing his new life situation. It is quite a disability and a sensory overload.

My point is, Adam is adapting as naturally as he can in a home that is entirely new to him. He will thrust his body upside down, will spin, will seek those dark tight spaces and not be able to sleep in his new bed precisely because he has not yet created his order. But he is doing what he needs to do. I, on the other hand, despite knowing this, am having difficulties of my own in managing it. Watching my son in distress distresses me. While this may be natural for Adam, it was re-reading some of Dawn’s excerpts this morning that helped me realize what I’ve learned in the past, but am now experiencing first-hand in a larger way.

I realize that I too am adjusting to my new surroundings as I listen to the house and figure out how I’m supposed to live in it. Things break down and I get frustrated because I am not yet calm and oriented, and this is difficult on both Adam and I.  While I feel guilty much of the time that my own anxiety is not helping Adam, I know too that we are not in control of everything that happens to us. Life happens. We are dealing with it. Like Adam, I am human.

So I was thinking about going back to the ABC’s and I thought of using it as a pun on behavioural-speak because what most of us want to try and do is “fix” the situation or behaviour. Today, I am reminding myself that this needs exploration and time — we’ve only been in our new house for a week! Not only does the alphabet, which Adam loves, stay constant in a world that is always changing, but re-reading Dawn’s book has helped me realize what tumultuous change feels like to an autistic child. It may require more effort on my part now to help him adapt by creating safe ways for him to do so. Adam will reach for his ABC books that always stay the same and he’s doing his part, and I am having this feeling he will eventually make lemonade out of lemons.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.