Cars

So often, I get caught up in the BIG things of autism — sleep, behavior, social interaction, meds, etc. — that I overlook the little things that are more a subtle part of our family’s journey. Worse, I forget. I forget the unique behaviors or original ways of thinking or truly amazing powers of my son’s mind as we focus on how to address whatever BIG issue rules the day.

Sometimes, all it takes is a small reminder to reset my point of view.

I was browsing Facebook Tuesday when a post from one of my fellow autism dad bloggers, Stuart Duncan of Autism from a Father’s Point of View, caught my eye. He updated his cover photo with the following:

Cover photo
The cover photo on Stuart Duncan’s Facebook page got me thinking (click picture to visit his page).

You find my child odd? Your 1 year old is pushing a car back and forth. Mine just did geometry.

The photo struck me for several reasons. Ryan used to constantly line up his cars just like in the picture. We would find them in little collections all over the house, always perfectly aligned. He had hundreds of cars, and when he played with them he often arranged them in long lines exactly like Stuart’s photo.

I hate to say it now, but back then it bothered me. The lining up served as unspoken confirmation of what Veronica and I both feared. I sometimes moved his cars — either putting them away in a bin or maybe just moving one out of place — to see how Ryan would react. He might be racing past them at top speed, but he would stop to rearrange whichever one I messed up.

I wish I had the perspective then that I am gaining now. I wish I could have stopped more often to appreciate the pure wonder of my son’s mind. It was on display all over the place, from the ability to instantly recognize something out of place to the immediate identification of patterns to the amazing powers of recall.

We had a set of foam bathtub letters. I remember one time Ryan arranged them all very carefully on the tile walls of the tub. Except he didn’t just put them in alphabetical order. He figured out the repeating color pattern of the letters and placed them in rows on the wall in a way that created perfect diagonal lines of like-colored letters, one per tile.

There was the time last year we were at a Devils game, as we often are. There was a horrendous line change, allowing the Devils to break in 5-on-1 for a goal. I told my kids that I had never seen that before in all my years of watching hockey. Ryan instantly answered that he had, and then told me the date, teams, and score of the game. When we got home, we found the highlight on NHL.com, and of course he was correct. His memory is astounding, and well documented here.

The other reason Stuart’s photo jogged my memory is that, after years of his cars sitting idle, Ryan has been playing with them a lot lately. He likes to play school, re-enacting his bus route home. This started after the bus began turning right instead of left when leaving school, adding a few minutes to the trip. I think Ryan is retracing the route in order to figure out exactly how much time this new wrinkle has added to his route home, since it annoys him greatly.

But he doesn’t just pretend to retrace the route. He builds a geographically accurate model of the streets surrounding the school using blocks. When our cleaning service was due to come this week, a quick-thinking Veronica saved the day by telling Ryan to leave a note on the blocks lest they get cleaned up and put away.

Ryan's blocks
At the prompting of Veronica, Ryan left a note on his “map” of his bus route, made of blocks.

I saw the blocks, and the note, sitting on the floor of our basement playroom and I thought back to another amazing thing Ryan used to do, another that we didn’t quite appreciate at the time.

He couldn’t have been more than five years old. He was playing with his blocks and cars and had, like now, used the blocks to lay out streets for the cars to drive on.

Veronica and I looked at the blocks, and at each other. I’m not sure which one of us figured it out first, but the “streets” were laid out exactly like the streets in our surrounding neighborhood, including stacking the blocks higher in certain spots to represent hills. We were blown away. How had this child, so seemingly unaware of his surroundings, reproduced a map of his world?

We were amazed but didn’t call up family and friends to brag of our son’s geographic prowess. Back then, we were bothered by these displays of amazing brain power. It was as if acknowledging them would have also acknowledged his place on the autism spectrum and we weren’t comfortable with either.

I’m glad I don’t feel that way anymore. My son’s mind is an awesome and powerful thing, and I am resolute in the belief that it will take him to great places in his life. It is our job as parents to arm him with the tools to navigate the journey, and help him learn to appreciate his gifts the same way our thinking about them continues to evolve.

You may see a 12 year old pushing cars back and forth. I want to declare “I see a cartographer.”

I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m getting closer every day.

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