I wear a silver ring on my right hand. It is made up of linked puzzle pieces. The puzzle piece has become a symbol of autism, representing the complexity of autism spectrum disorders. I don’t wear my puzzle piece ring as a reminder of autism, however, I wear it because the linked pieces remind me that each of us, specially loved by God, is unique, and my youngest son, David, is the unique piece that completed our our family’s puzzle. David also happens to have autism.
April is Autism Awareness month, so I thought it would be the perfect time to introduce you to David and share with you some of the aspects of autism spectrum disorders that you may witness when he is at church. The saying goes, when you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism. That is, autism reveals itself in myriad ways, and like puzzle pieces, no two individuals on the spectrum are the same. So, the caveat here is that David’s behaviors and the strategies we use with him may not be the same for another individual on the spectrum.
Stimming. David almost never stops moving. Much of David’s non-stop movement during church is “stimming,” or self-stimulatory behavior.
David struggles with regulating sensory input. This means that he sometimes runs, jump, bumps into people and things, and climbs because he is seeking sensory input that he needs to regulate his body. We have techniques we use at home (rolling him up in the blanket, jumping on a trampoline, swinging from the pull up bar) that we can’t do in public. So, you may see me hold him upside down, wrap my arms around him and squeeze, or apply pressure with my hands onto his shoulders. Sometimes this will help settle him. It doesn’t always work, though. If he’s not posing a danger to himself or to others, I will let him move his body the way he needs to re-regulate himself. If his stimming behavior escalates beyond a safe level, then I will remove him.
Sometimes there is too much sensory input. In those cases, you might see David squinting at lights, putting his hands on his ears or covering his head.
Communication. David’s speech has really blossomed over the last year, but he doesn’t always respond verbally. You may see him with an iPad at church. This iPad is his dedicated speech device. It has an app on it that he can use to help him communicate. This is still a developing skill. Please don’t take it personally if he doesn’t speak to you verbally or using his device (or look at you). He usually loves to give high fives, though. And, have no fear, even though he is not responding verbally, he is a sponge soaking up everything around him. He’s always listening.
Scripting. David recites lines from movies he’s seen, songs he’s heard and books he’s read. You may hear this vocalization during church. You might even hear a screech from time to time. He’s not upset. It’s part of the script.
Eloping. It is not unusual for children on the spectrum to elope. While there are many potential reasons for this, David often runs either because he is frustrated or overwhelmed. Please, if you see David running for the door, stop him before he can get outside.
This coming summer, David will receive a highly trained service dog. Among other tasks, the dog will be trained in behavior redirection and scent tracking to find David if he wanders off. We will be bringing the service dog to church with us later this summer. This is really exciting for David, because having the dog will help David access more activities and opportunities. We can’t wait to share this new piece of the puzzle with you all!
If you are interested in learning more about autism spectrum disorders, I recommend the following resources.
National Autism Association www.nationalautismassociation.com
Asperger/Autism Network www.aane.org
The Autistic Brain, by Temple Grandin
Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin
The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year Old Boy with Autism, by Naoki Higashida
Look Me In The Eyes: My Life with Asperger’s, by John Elder Robinson
Rules, by Cynthia Lord
Rain, Reign, by Ann M. Martin
Erin McCoy Alarcon, Esq.