Recall vs. Understanding

Ryan, Riley and the trophy
Ryan and Riley after his championship game and the most-improved player award.

Do you ever catch yourself wondering if your child on the autism spectrum perceives events the same way his peers do? The way you do? They way, ahem, normal people do?

I used to find myself doing that a lot, but not so much anymore. When, as a younger child, Ryan didn’t show excitement about things like Christmas, his birthday or a visit from the Tooth Fairy, of course it made me wonder about how he perceived the world around him. Does he get it? Does he understand why these occasions mean so much to other people?

As I said, this feeling is far less frequent these days, mostly because Ryan’s reactions more often resemble those of his peers.

I got another reminder of this on the car ride home after the last game of Ryan’s street-hockey regular season. We were exchanging typical banter about how he played, how the team played, and estimating the number of shots on goal each team had in the game when Ryan took the conversation in a surprising direction.

Suddenly, he wanted to talk about his ice hockey championship game from back in March. This shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we know that Ryan has a remarkable memory. But this conversation was different. Yes, Ryan remembered the final score and the shots-on-goal total from the game, but he also remembered something else — a scoring chance he had late in the game with the score tied.

He asked me if I remembered. I did — vaguely. I waited for him to fill in the details to jog my memory. It was what came next that was both atypical and pleasantly surprising.

“What if I had scored on that shot?” he asked.

“Oh, Ryan, that would have been incredible,” I told him. “You would have scored the game-winning goal in the championship. You would have been the hero.”

A big smile crossed his face.

I asked him about the trophy he got after that game, about how it made him feel. But he didn’t want to talk about that. He said something about how he’d rather have scored that goal and won the championship. He sought reassurance that he — and his team — had played well in the game.

Such a typical moment of recall — but not for him. I can still remember details of games I played in high school. Why does it surprise me that he can do the same?

It’s not his recall that surprises me, it’s the subject matter. I expect him to remember the shots on goal total and the score — finite facts, the black-and-white info of a game. He doesn’t usually place his memories in context, nor talk about how they make him feel. That’s a far more complex emotional recall, and to me it reveals growth in his ability to place his thoughts in a more-social and less-wrote context.

It’s the difference between recall and understanding.

The former has never been an issue for Ryan. The latter? That’s a revelation.

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