Friday, December 23, 2011

using our imagination

Counterfactuals are the scenerios we play in our minds to imagine other worlds: what might happen,  what could have happened.   Counterfactuals are the "woulda,  coulda, shouldas".  The ability to create alternative worlds in our mind is a very common human trait.  We do it all the time.  It allows us to imagine our world in a different way and allows us to make changes in our world. We see this phenomenon in children manifest through imaginary friends, pretend play, and made up stories. 

In studies, it has been shown that sociable children are more likely to have imaginary friends than shy children. Having imaginary friends allows a child to have greater theory of mind: a term used to describe the understanding that other people can think differently and have different beliefs and intentions  than you do.

Children with autism,  on the other hand, do not live in a world of counterfactuals and struggle with theory of mind. They are most comfortable with facts only and things which are measurable, logical and predictable.  For many kids on the spectrum, pretend play just doesn't make much sense...why bother?

I've noticed lately that Calder has a really hard time making things up, surmising, and guessing.  If it is not clear to him what is happening in a new picturebook for example, he hesitates to guess, or even make things up.  "Whats happening in that picture?".  "I don't know".  We are learning right now how to 'use our imagination'.  Our imagination is in our head (as concrete a biological placement as you can get),  and our imagination is the part of us that makes up stories.  This stumps him.  Calder wants to be told the right answer in which case he will memorize in one instance.  When asked the same question again at a later date, he will find the answer filed away in his mind and recall what you had once said.  That is quite different than looking at a picture for clues to what is happening.

The other day I was trying to explain to him that when I  cook rice pasta, I don't time it, I just guess when it may be done and then I test it.  This really rocked his world.  Up on his stool ready to punch in the time on our microwave timer, he just could not accept 'guessing'.  We went back and forth forever...."give me a number", "no Calder, I'll wait and test it". Rice pasta is not nearly as forgiving as semolina pasta.  It goes from raw, to falling apart and mushy very fast.  And it depends on how much water and pasta is in the pot which I never measure.  I think this is why he loves recipes and baking as much as he does, it is very concrete.  Baking, in fact is much like a science.

Calder has been working on story skills with his therapists the past few weeks, and already since I have begun this post about a week ago, he is beginning to explain pictures. I don't doubt for one second that one day he will be making up so many stories I'll have to wonder what is truth and what is make believe.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

you say hello....I say goodbye...

Up until a couple of months ago, Calder has had anxiety when greeting others. Not so much family and dear friends, but people like: neighbors, the crossing guard, the bus driver, some of the elementary teachers at school, so I guess "aquaintances". Here is what that might look like: we are walking along and someone who knows Calder will say "hey Calder", and they may come over to chat. He then mumbles something like "oh", or "oh no!", bows his head and often will drop to the floor and kind of ball up. If he is near a table, he may try to go under it or might curl up really close to the stroller wheels or a bench nearby. I usually take a moment to greet the person, or they may then turn their attention to Elodie in the stroller. As soon as they are gone, Calder will perk up and resume where he left off, seemingly alright. Sometimes he has been known to say aloud, "I don't like that man".

So I decided to print out greeting words from the internet. We taped them up on one of the walls in our dining area, and Calder likes to occasionally read off the words on the list. We've had this list up for a couple of weeks. It was two days ago that Calder felt ready to 'field test' his newfound vocabulary.

Before school the other day, he asked me if I could write his hello words on an index card so that he can take it to school with him, which I did. When we got to his classroom he found one of the rougher kids to practice on. He walked up to the kid who was taking off his winter coat at the cubbys. With index card in hand he says to the kid "Hey Dude". The kid looks at Calder like he was an alien. Probably because this new greeting is in such contrast to his usual inwardness. I doubt Calder has ever spoken to this kid before.

As a Mom, you want your kids to succeed. You teach them about how things work the best you can and you pray to God that when they decide to try or test something you've tought them, that it all works out the way you say it will... Well, when it's kids you're dealing with they are entirely unpredictable. The rough kid never said anything back to Calder and after giving Calder a strange look went about his own business. Calder looked at me perhaps thinking "is that how it was supposed to work?" So I said to him that sometimes kids are not ready to say hello (hoping Calder would relate to this). And that was that. Walking home I was a little bummed that after so long, Calder decided to try a greeting, prepared for it and was brave enough to initiate it and it kind of just flopped. Ouch.

When I picked him up from school that day, I saw he had his list again walking around the classroom. I was speaking with his teacher and off to the side I barely noticed a couple of kids chatting. All of a sudden Calder turnes to me and said "It worked!". Knowing that he had just tried another greeting word, and with proper reciprocation felt gratified and shouted to the world, "IT WORKED!". I felt so proud of him, and so happy, and so GRATEFUL the other kid replied to Calder!

To an outsider it may appear as if Calder wanted to avoid people, which can be a personality trait I suppose. But given the opportunity to learn what is expected in a certain (social) situation, he came out his shell. He is eager to know how we interact as people in this culture of ours. He soaked up the greeting word list like a sponge. Not knowing what to do, or not knowing what others expect from us can really wreck a nervous system, whether we are speaking about a 5 year old, or a spouse or a boss. Just give me the tools already, just decode the expectations for me and I'll show you what I am capable of.