My son has a consistent habit of opening up the closet where the cleaning supplies are kept in our home. We know the sound of the old wood door being jostled open, like a staple of the background noise in our home. Many times we just ignore it, but at least once a day my wife or I will come up to him and observe him looking at the items in the closet. Nothing in the closet is that interesting as far as we’re concerned, just a vacuum, mop and bucket, broom, dustpan and some cleaning rags. The really fun bottles of cleaner live on the top shelf in safety. But our son is somehow entranced by these cleaning tools. While he will occasionally try to grab at some of the items, he mostly just hangs out with the door open. Although he is autistic and non-verbal, we still ask if there is anything he wants or likes in the closet. He just walks away as if he was caught doing something wrong.
He has picked up other interesting habits recently, such as going to the mailbox after we park the car in the driveway. He picks up the mailbox lid and tries to stick his hand inside it. We usually say “No, don’t touch,” since we don’t want him to smash his finger if he drops the lid. There is also the excitement—yes, actual excitement—when the dishwasher is opened and unloaded. He jumps and squeals and reaches for things. Also in the kitchen is a small stereo that he will turn on and off and adjust the volume, usually way too high. The weirdest habit is when he goes into our bedroom, jumps on our bed and reaches for the nightstand lamp shades. He reaches up to fiddle with them like he’s trying to shake them or maybe just take them off.
Observing and Copying
Are these just examples of a bored child playing, or examples of an autistic child demonstrating repetitive behaviors with no real logic? Is there something he is seeing or experiencing we just can’t grasp? My wife, his mother, the keeper of all wisdom, was fortunately able to enlighten me:
“He is watching you.”
“He is watching me, what do you mean?”
“He wants to be like daddy, so he’s doing what you do.”
“What exactly do I do?”
“Well, you like to clean, and are always going in the closet for the broom, so I think he wants to use it too.”
“And what about the other stuff, like the mailbox and the dishwasher?”
“You always get the mail when you get out of the car with him, and he sees both of us unloading the dishwasher and probably wants to help.”
“Okay, sure, but what about the thing he does with the lamps?”
“You always fix the shade on that one lamp because it gets loose, right?”
“So, you’re saying he’s just copying what I do to be like me?”
“Yes, your son is watching you. He wants to be just like his daddy.”
I was dumbfounded and awestruck at the same time. My son, who I always assumed was demonstrating illogical and repetitive behaviors due to his autism, was possibly copying what I did and trying to do the same things. My son was legitimately observing my actions and trying to emulate them in the best ways he possibly could. He was watching me.
This may not be the most radical of parental discoveries, since this is the kind of revelation that most parents of neurotypical children have when their child is a toddler, but for special needs parents this can be quite an event. It is profound on a variety of levels, but mostly because it means he is paying attention to his environment and the people he cares about. Most importantly, it very much suggests he knows what he is doing.
His new behaviors are much different from what I am used to seeing from him, such as the stimming, movements and repetitive banging. Now, I am viewing my child in a whole new light, as someone who is displaying the skills of observation, mimicking, and attempting to assist his mom and dad with the household chores. We have become keenly aware of his desire to help, to have a job or jobs in the house, to have real value in the activities that he is doing. But just giving him a small chore or something to keep him busy is not really honoring this milestone that he seems to be going through; we need to use this as an opportunity to connect with him in a totally different way.
Our New Response
What changes have we made? For starters, at the first sign our son is engaging in any of the above behaviors, we don’t respond with an automatic “stop” or “no.” Instead, we usually don’t respond right away. We allow him to engage with the behavior, and then come up and do something we have not always been good about in the past: we ask questions. It might be as simple as, “What do you need, buddy?” “What would you like in here?” “Would you like to clean something?” This all sounds simple enough, and in some ways you might ask why we haven’t done these things before. I’d like to say we have, but not consistently, and not with the new awareness we have.
Of course, many times he doesn’t say what he wants. Even if we ask him with the communication app on his Ipad, it’s not always clear. But even if we don’t understand what he wants, the action of one of us engaging him has still accomplished something. As we’ve learned, all behaviors are a form of communication. This is something special needs parents must always remember. Even when your child is pushing your buttons the most, they are trying to tell you something.
We may not always know how to respond, but we can at least begin with a question, and see where it goes from there. In our experience, it has taken a long time just to get to asking a question. Now, because we are more ready and willing to engage him, we are ready to somehow respond, with questions, with connecting, with actions. Admittedly, there are days when I am too tired to try and connect, but that’s when I turn to God and pray for strength, to help me get beyond just ignoring him or telling him no. Instead, I ask God for a way to somehow reach my son.
Several years ago, I attended a week-long workshop on a behavioral model for working for kids with autism. I recall the first day of training, how all of us parents were asked to share about our families and our kids. I remember how one young father wrestled with the question, “What do you hope to get out of this?” He was clearly uncomfortable, but with tears in his eyes, he mustered the strength to say how he hoped the techniques might help his child with her speaking. He spoke about how wonderful hearing “I love you” would be.
I Love You
These days, my autistic non-verbal son has begun a new form of greeting with me and other family members. He will reach out with his hands, grab my face and bring it close to his, with his gaze fixed on mine the entire time. When my son takes my face in that way, I praise God for the way my son watches me, and not just when I clean the house or do chores. I praise God for when he looks deeply into my eyes with the most incredible smile. I always wished my son would say I love you to me when I walked in the door, and now he is: he says it every time he grabs my face in greeting, every time he opens the closet, and every time he tries to fix that darn lamp shade.
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