We are driving to school the same way we do every weekday morning. My kid is next to me in the front seat, his backpack at his feet. We are less than a block away from the house and the warning signals start. He begins to whine a bit, his face is tense, and his typical fidgeting has taken on an anxious vibe. This kid is clearly having an issue about something. And I have no idea why.
This happens every so often – he appears upset “for no reason.” There usually is a reason, it’s just not so easily apparent. “What’s up, kiddo? Did we forget something? What’s bugging you?” I always ask even though I rarely get an answer. I start to review our situation to see if the problem presents itself. My son often needs things returned to their proper place before he can leave the house in the morning – I don’t think we forgot anything today. Maybe he’s got a stomachache? The breakfast he ate was the same as it is almost every morning. Headache? Hmm, I’m starting to get one too.
I think about the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime who dreaded seeing a yellow car on the way to school – if he did, his whole day would be ruined. But, we haven’t seen any other cars yet. Well, something is not right in my child’s world this morning. I just don’t know what it is. If I could get into his head for just a moment, things would be easier. If only I could see what he sees.
It’s funny because I spend a lot of time teaching my son the value of understanding someone else’s perspective. The diagnosis of autism comes with a difficulty in what some call “theory of mind” – which includes, in part, the ability to recognize how someone else might feel or predict what they might do.
The majority of the humor in one of my favorite shows, The Big Bang Theory, is based on this exact concept – the brilliant theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper must rely on his friends to translate the “simple” complexities of the social world that exasperate him at every turn. Why would Penny not feel reassured about how she looks in her Halloween costume after Sheldon explains that Wonder Woman was, in fact, an Amazon – so its just fine that she looks full-figured?
For people like Sheldon and my kid, a question to teach empathy like How do you think she feels? becomes a true guessing game. Coupled with a reduced ability to read social cues like facial expressions and body language, many on the spectrum have to overcome a certain level of “mind-blindness,” to learn that others have their own desires, emotions and beliefs that are not the same as their own.
When my son was about four years old, I was given my first clear understanding of what this meant. After lots of practice, he had finally started waving “hello” or “goodbye” in response to another person’s wave. But we noticed a curious thing. Although he learned that he should return the gesture when someone greeted him, he would wave back in reverse – holding his palm toward himself and presenting the other person with the back of his hand. Instead of taking the other person’s view into account, he copied what he saw – exactly – the palm of a hand, waving.
Here it was, a perfect example of a difficulty with “theory of mind.” The need to take another person’s perspective – to see through their eyes – affected even this most basic social exchange. We continually tried to turn his hand around, but it wasn’t sinking in.
So, in a rare moment of parental inspiration, I figured out how to show him what others saw. I stood beside him in front of the bathroom mirror, my son on his wooden step stool (yes, the boy who is now an inch taller than me was once that small). When I waved to him in the mirror, he watched my reflection. After a pause, he grinned – clearly ‘getting it’ – and copied me, waving back at the mirror, properly, palm out. That was all it took, but he needed that concrete lesson in order to view that exchange through my eyes.
We still work with him to consider what others might be seeing or feeling in any given situation. Social habits such as holding the door for someone else; handing someone a fork or a knife handle-first; saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes; and, my favorite issue at the moment, eating with your mouth closed, all depend on broadening your awareness beyond your own point of view.
But, we’ve also come to understand that the reverse of that lesson is almost more important. I can be just as “blind” to his mind. As much as I want him to become aware of other people’s perspectives, he needs me to see and understand his unique way of experiencing the world. Although Sheldon Cooper’s friends push him to see things from their baffling vantage point, he’s also trained them to respect his own quirky perspective – you don’t sit in his spot or touch his food or eat anything except pizza for dinner on Thursdays, at least not without paying the consequences. In our life, we also take turns teaching lessons on perspective-taking. I still have a lot to learn.
In the car, with a meltdown simmering, I’m trying to do that mirror trick for myself – to see what he sees, and figure out what has set him off today. Then I hear it. A sharp metallic clanking coming from the rear of the car – it’s faint, but it’s constant. I didn’t notice it until I started trying to think like my son – the kid who wears earplugs nearly every day to tolerate the outside world. So, in this case, I needed to hear through his ears. Yes, there’s something rattling in the trunk, and that is one thing that is different on this morning’s commute.
“Is that noise bothering you, hon? It’s really banging around back there, isn’t it?” No response. He starts slapping himself in the leg, making more agitated noises and looking away from me out the passenger-side window. We’re still five minutes from school, and I figure it’s worth a shot.
I pull over into a church parking lot. My kid’s anxious behavior increases instantly – this detour is way out of the routine for driving to school. “Just a minute. I’m going to fix it.” I jump out, open the hatchback, and see an open cardboard box full of kitchen stuff that my husband threw back there last night – pyrex bowls, gadgets, a colander – a donation for a friend’s daughter who is moving into a new apartment. I shift everything in the box to prevent the items from clicking against each other, and I get back in the car. Fingers crossed.
“Seatbelt,” he reminds me, as he always does. Sometimes getting stuck in a routine is a good thing. As we pull back out onto the street, I note the silence from the trunk.
And from the passenger seat. His anxiety has evaporated. As much as I was hoping that the noise was the issue, I am still amazed at how quickly calmness is restored. My detective work doesn’t always uncover the culprit, but this time I got lucky. Case closed.
There’s no need for mind reading or mirrors at this moment. Glancing over at my smiling kid, I have a pretty good idea that the feeling of relief in this car is mutual.