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My six year old has high functioning autism. On paper. Reality is a very different story. One of the more challenging notes in the flavor profile that forms his autism is an apparent inability to separate reality from the imagined.
Ted’s imagined scenarios are a mixture of unique imaginary situations, previous real life events and a dash of excitement from movies or TV shows. For example, Ted’s current hallucination, for lack of a better word, has him hyperfocused on Christmas. Every day now for the past week, Ted spends his day packing and unpacking his toys from one bin into another. He calls these his decorations for the tree. Obviously this is something he has seen me do, and participated in on several occasions.
From there, he pretends to set up a tree. He “holds” the tree in his hands, sets it in the stand, waters the tree and decorates it with Legos, Tinker Toy spare parts and crayons. He asks literally dozens of times each day, “How many night-nights until Christmas?” My current response, after giving him the exact count multiple times each day, is “Too many to count.”
With other, less perseverative children, this would be a harmless way to spend time during the summer. Remembering holidays past, the pageantry and pomp, the trips, gifts and twinkling lights.
With Ted, he is convinced that it IS Christmas right now. That every trip out in town will end in a tete-a-tete with The Big Man. He is desperate to bring a real tree into the house. Obsessed with describing how he wants the tree to be decorated.
Taken from various holiday specials, he has concerns about Santa leaving his bag of toys in our home, reindeer becoming lost and/or ill, sleighs breaking down and how the jolly ol’ elf will get in our current rental when we don’t have a fire place.
These are no mere questions. These are anxiety-producing, panic-filled land mines that he seems to believe we are experiencing right now. The Christmas pretend play has taken on a life of its own so stressful to him that for his own mental health, I have tried, in vain, to make him stop talking about Christmas, Santa or anything even partially related to the theme. He then works himself up about snow (we won’t have it in our new duty station), snowball fights (numerous movies), snow angels, etc.
This is not the only time or topic which snowballs (pun intended) into epic meltdowns for Ted. Scenes from Disney’s Chicken Little are enacted faithfully during every single playground visit. If you happen upon a frustrated mom and a boy yelling, “Everybody, RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” It might be us. He “rings the bell” and hopes to save all the townspeople by warning them to – wait for it – run for their lives.
Easter egg coloring is another episodic preoccupation. Wanting eggs, right now, needing to color them. Pretending to hide them. Asking everyone he sees where the eggs are. And then, melting, when he realizes that it isn’t Easter. That he won’t be seeing the bunny or getting a basket.
It’s not always holiday related. There are mundane reenactments from haircuts, to the time when a well-intentioned medical specialist gave him a blown up glove to occupy his attention.
He has convinced himself that his new school will be the exact cartoon one in his social story about a new school. That there will be a bell in his new school that he will ring (see above). He is sure, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the will be a guitar for him to play in his new school. No gentle corrections will convince him otherwise.
The problem isn’t that his timing is off, or that he perseverates. The problem is that he can’t separate the situation that he has created in his mind from what actually is. The problem is that I can’t distract or dissuade him from pursuing these fantasies and when I can’t comply, he rages. These fixations cannot be used for any sort of reward or educational purpose, either. For example, I cannot use his obsession with Easter eggs to teach him to count (ie, let’s count all the eggs), interest him in reading, or teaching him about chickens, bunnies or seasons. There is simply no room in his delusion for any other information or speech about the topic other than his questions, his script. Attempts to deviate from that are met with aggression and screaming. When he goes to his new school, and it doesn’t look like the one in his story, and there is neither a bell nor guitar, hell will break loose.
My question to YOU, Gentle Reader, is what is going on? How can I help him. His psychiatrist does not believe it is childhood schizophrenia. She has, in the past, encouraged me to help him talk this out. Though, she never really understood the fact that this will last for weeks at a time and consume his every waking moment. Our past BCBAs have directed us to ignore. Answer the questions once and ignore the rest. Both suggestions net bad results.
Does anyone else have kiddos who do this? How do you help them cope? How can I interrupt the cycle? What IS this? Is there a name for this? If you can offer any sort of advice, please do!
Kelly is a Navy wife and mother to three children; 17 year old NT, 6 and 5 year old boys on the spectrum; and, a perfect-to-her beautiful baby girl. Kelly has been featured in a collection of essays on special needs children entitled, “Wit and Wisdom From the Parents of Special Needs Children.” She can also be found at MyTidewaterMoms.com, and as a guest blogger throughout the blog-iverse. In her spare time, Kelly is the Blog Master for, and member of, the Military Special Needs Network Executive Board. You can contact her via email at KellyHafer@MilitarySpecialNeedsNetwork.com.
Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
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