David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | david@davidaltshuler.com

Rainman

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I'm not saying that I am any good at my job. I'm not saying that I do good work with spectrummy kids. But if in fact I am able to do a good job with kiddos on the spectrum, it's because I "get it." I connect with spectrummy kids because, to a first approximation, I am one. I have walked many a mile in those moccasins.

Remember Dustin Hoffman's brilliant portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in "Rainman"? The rest of the audience is identifying with the smooth talking, handsome Tom Cruise character. The Tom Cruise character has an impossibly pretty girlfriend with a French accent, no less. The Tom Cruise character drives expensive sports cars. But I'm right there with cognitively impaired Rainman doing arithmetic in my head, understanding the obsessive need to watch "Wapner" on an inflexible schedule. I saw this fine film 30 years ago, but I remember that there are 496 toothpicks--if any more proof were needed.

There is a common misperception that all kids with autism bang their heads against the wall, fuss uncontrollably, are easily overwhelmed, and aren't social at all. Autism spectrum kids are thought to be lost in their own inner world, unable to take the perspective of another. Collective misinformation also suggests that kids with autism have no social skills or empathy whatsoever. Raymond Babbitt in the movie typifies the cliche. He is concerned only with himself. Maybe there are some kids on the autism spectrum who can't connect emotionally with anybody else, but the kids I see are typically desperate to relate; they just don't have the first clue about how to go about it. They want to have friends, go on dates, be popular. They certainly don't want to be bullied and humiliated. They just don't have the skills to do anything other than shoot themselves in the foot. Maybe that's why "spectrum" is in "autism spectrum disorders." No two of us are the same.

Admittedly, my spectrummy kids are missing some pieces. "Gabe" draws a perfect blueprint of the Denver Airport. Every gate is labeled accurately, every concourse, every runway. He tries to show his drawings to a girl whom he likes. He does not understand that her preferences lie elsewhere. He is hurt and confused about her lack of interest. But he comes to the wrong conclusion: "I can also draw a flawless copy of the airport in Chicago," he says. "Maybe she would have been more interested in O'Hare."

I can't find my way through the airport in Denver let alone draw a picture of it from memory. Nor am I a mathematician. But I get the perseverating, the obsessive fascination with one topic. Like many kids on the spectrum, I like numbers. When I meet with a spectrummy kid, I frequently begin our conversation by asking which fraction denominators result in terminating rather than repeating fractions. (3/4 = .75, a termination fraction; 5/6, on the other hand, is a repeating decimal, equal to .83333.... Why do some fractions terminate, others repeat? How are the denominators different?) The kids, recognizing a kindred spirit, ask me if I'd like to know how many pages there are in each of the Harry Potter books. I agree that I would very much like to be informed of how many pages there are in each of the Harry Potter books and would they like to know the first 50 digits of the infinite decimal expansion of pi. The spectrummy kids frequently already know the first 50 digits of the infinite decimal expansion of pi, but they ask me if I would like to know the license numbers of the cars they passed in the parking lot on the way into my office. "Of course, I would like to hear you recite the numbers on those license plates," I respond. "Were any of those numbers prime, by the way? And would you like to know the numbers on the uniforms of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers?" "Yes, by all means," they respond. "Would you like to know the serial numbers of the dollar bills I used to buy a package of  'Magic, the Gathering' cards at the comic book store last Saturday afternoon at 2:31?" "Yes, please. What were the serial numbers of those dollar bills?"

Subsequent to our conversation about twin primes, we feel pretty well connected. If not well connected to one another, at least well connected to the prime numbers about which we both feel so strongly. And therein lies the lesson for how to relate to our kids: you gotta find common ground. Even if the ground is shaky for you. Maybe your kids take to languages like a panda bear loves bamboo. But perhaps your relationship with languages is more like that of a cat and bathwater. Fair enough. So you disagree about that which you find invigorating--numbers, languages, anything at all. "That's why they make 28 flavors," as my grandmother used to say when we differed on some issue. Affecting an interest, taking the perspective of another person, relating to a different viewpoint is what strong relationships are all about.

Rather than focusing on changing your kids, "Stop drawing pictures of airports for goodness gracious sakes and get back to learning Mandarin," try to take a longer view. For neuro-typical kids, insisting that they attend to language or chemistry or music or lacrosse for that matter, is possibly a reasonable request. For spectrummy kids, a little understanding goes a long way. Bang your head against a wall if you must; the wall seldom complains.

I would write more on the topic of how to connect with kids on the spectrum and kids in general, but I want to get back to memorizing the squares of all the two-digit numbers. "Quantas." See you next week.

David

David

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Copyright © David Altshuler 2019    |    Miami, FL • Charlotte, NC     |    (305) 978-8917    |    david@davidaltshuler.com