13-year-old Thomas has a passion for technology and animation. For years he has worked on his YouTube Channel, creating content and uploading videos. Imagine his shock and heartbreak when he discovered one day that everything on his channel had been deleted, and that all those hours of hard work had been reduced to nothing. Even more upsetting was the eventual revelation that the videos had been deleted by a classmate, one that Thomas had considered a friend.
When Thomas was younger he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Children on the Autism Spectrum are unfortunately often a target of bullying, and Thomas has experienced that firsthand on multiple occasions. Usually Thomas just ignores the negative treatment and tries to believe the best in people. He never dreamed that a friend would be so cruel as to deliberately erase all of his hard work. It eventually came to light that this child had been periodically bullying Thomas all year, but Thomas still tried to forgive and befriend him.
“Hyperfocus” is the ability to zero in on an activity with ultra-intense concentration, often for hours at a time. Neurodivergent individuals often experience this, for example people with autism or ADD. It is a common misconception that people with ADD are simply unfocused. During a period of hyperfocus the world can fade away and individuals may experience greater concentration, clarity, and productivity on their task. Autistic individuals have described similar experiences, especially when the task is related to one of their areas of expertise. I can’t speak to what it is like for everyone, but I can at least describe how hyperfocus manifests for my son and me.
My son is *autistic and vacillates between low-focus and hyperfocus, and I share all this with his permission. He has a hard time concentrating if there are any distractions (like noises, smells, or something else he finds interesting going on around him), if he is tired or unwell, or sometimes simply if he isn’t interested in the task at hand. Then there are other times that he can zone in and gets so lost in what he is doing that he won’t even hear someone if they call his name. When he was a toddler the way I confirmed my suspicions about his unique neurology was by sneaking up behind him and banging a pot while he played. He didn’t even flinch, didn’t even process the sound. This tendency towards hyperfocus and tuning out auditory stimuli can both help him in school and present challenges. It helps him because he can work quickly, efficiently, and often with a greater depth of creativity. Problems occur when he is so focused that he doesn’t notice what is going on in the classroom around him and misses instructions. His teachers are aware of this, however, and try to accommodate accordingly.
When my son was about eight years old he told me that often after he came out of a period of intense concentration at school the world “didn’t feel real”. He said he would have to get up and move around so he could feel like himself again and feel right in his own body. It seems that he was disoriented and also needed to regain his sense of proprioception. When my son told me about those experiences I was astounded that he was able to articulate himself so well about such an abstract feeling. Thankfully there are accommodations in his IEP for pacing and stimming, and he is given the freedom to move around the back of the classroom when necessary.
(*If any of you cringed at the term “autistic” I would encourage you to research the “Identity-First” movement or the neurodiversity paradigm. The concept behind Identity-First language is described as such by the page “Identity-First Autistic”: “As autistic people, we see our neurology as an integral part of who we are – not a separate or negative add-on.” Saying “autistic” or using similar terminology acknowledges the effects that unique neurological wiring or disability has in shaping a person’s identity and the way they interact with the world. Autistic or neurodivergent people hope for acceptance and accommodation.)
Then there’s me. I am a 40-something woman who has known for decades that I am neurodivergent, but it took years to get a proper diagnosis (mis-diagnoses are common for women). When I was in my 30’s I was finally identified as ADD, even though in my 20’s a psychologist insisted I wasn’t. Then about a year ago a therapist affirmed my suspicions that I also displayed characteristics of being on the autism spectrum.
For me hyperfocus means that it is all about The Thing. The Thing is whatever I find most interesting or important at the time. All I can think about is The Thing. All I want to do is The Thing. I get irritated at anything that keeps me from doing The Thing, even if that something else is actually important. Continue reading →
(Description of top image: A young boy with brown hair and a smile on his face leaning his head lovingly against his mom, who has awesome purple hair and is wearing a “Panic! At the Disco” shirt.)
This is what advocacy looks like. I recently had the privilege to meet this exceptional young man who is going to change the world. Actually, he is already changing the world.
It was a hot summer day so I took my two children to a local sprayground. We brought some toys to play with in the water, including a bright beach ball. My youngest son and I tried several times to get the bach ball to float on top of the water jets that came out of the ground, but we weren’t having much luck. Another little boy came over and started trying to help, striking up a conversation with me in the process. His name was Xander. My own son got bored and walked away, but my new friend and I kept trying, laughing at each failed attempt. Finally, after several tries, we accomplished our goal and let out a cheer.
Soon after we were able to get the ball in the air, however, Xander’s little brother knocked it down. He obviously enjoyed manipulating the water flow and watching the ball fall to the ground. Again. And again. And again. His fun was different from the one we had in mind, but he was still having fun.
His repetitive, single-minded behavior seemed familiar to me. What was even more familiar was the fact that he was so focused on what he was doing that he didn’t seem to his hear his older brother when he protested, “Stop!”
“Sorry about that,” Xander apologized, “He’s ADHD.”
I braced myself for what was going to come next, because I mistakenly thought that he was about to disparage his brother and his behavior. As the mother of an autistic child, and as a neurodivergent individual myself, I get sad when I hear family members talking down to or about their loved one.
I shouldn’t have worried.
Xander continued talking, “He’s not a bad kid, he’s just ADHD. He doesn’t hear me when I talk to him. Well, he can sometimes hear me, but he processes differently. He’s, like, a Windows phone in an Android world.”
“I get it!” I replied.
“You do?” Xander asked, incredulously. “I’m glad you get it. Some people don’t understand. They think he’s a bad kid, but he’s just different. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. But one time some people called the police on us. They don’t get it.”
Other people may not “get it,” but it was obvious that young Xander did. It was also obvious that he was being raised in a household where acceptance was actively taught. I stood there listening to him wishing I had a photographic memory. I wanted to remember exactly every word this remarkable young man said to me. His way of speaking about his brother was so incredibly heartfelt and supportive that it made my heart and my eyes swell. I was amazed that he had the bravery to talk to an adult to explain and support his brother. He cared very much about making sure that I understood his brother and didn’t judge him unfairly. Continue reading →
Parenting my youngest child has been quite an adventure. He is funny, kind, smart, creative, exuberant, and autistic. Every day, it seems, he teaches me something new. His unique perspective on the world is often surprising, and the way he fully engages with whatever experience life has to offer is a constant delight.
Something that happened during a recent trip to the zoo is a perfect example. We were watching a flock of flamingos when suddenly they all began to vocalize at once. It sounded like a bunch of noise to me, but I noticed that my son had begun to move. First he bounced, and then he was dancing; feet shifting, arms outstretched. He instinctively sensed the rhythm and the music in the flamingos’ calls to one another, and he couldn’t help but join in. His body demanded it, and he gave himself to it freely and joyfully. It was beautiful to see.
My son dances quite often, no matter where he is or who is watching. His big brother asked him once, as big brothers do, “Why are you dancing?”
The warmth and graciousness experienced by my family at a Target checkout counter this past weekend still has me smiling. A cashier showed us what may seem to some as a simple kindness, but to us it was significant. Kindness is no longer something that I take for granted in today’s society.
My two sons had finally decided to spend some of their Christmas money, so we headed to Target and each of them picked out a video game. A Manager came over to assist our cashier as we checked out, and my youngest decided he wanted to talk to them. He is 9 years old, *Autistic (*not a bad word, see below), and very outgoing. He happily chatted away with the two ladies, excited about his new video game.
“You see that? That’s MY Super Mario Bros. 2 video game. I am buying it with MY own money! You wanna know how to play it? First you get some coins. And then you get some other coins. Basically it’s coins, coins, and more coins! And did I forget to mention COINS?” He really got on a roll and was having some fun joking with them.
The Manager grinned, obviously picking up on his joking. She responded, playing along, “Soooo, maybe the best thing about the game is the COINS, then?”
After we checked out she looked at me and said with a sincere smile, “Thank you for letting him talk to me! He’s a cutie!”
And just like that the scene went from heartwarming to tear-inducing, and I turned into a weepy Mom mess.
SHE said thank you. She treated my son with kindness that many would not, and then SHE thanked US for the privilege. She saw my son for the energetic, engaging, and extraordinary young man that he is. Continue reading →