A Trio of Triads

Understanding autismPosted by Stuart Jun 18, 2009 22:01:10

When we first realised that Laurence was autistic, it was in a way a relief to have a name for our son's increasingly eccentric and bizarre behaviours. Naturally we wanted to help him so we started to learn about autism. One of the first things parents come across is the:

Triad of Autistic Impairment.

The entire autistic spectrum is defined by the presence of impairments affecting social interaction, social communication and social imagination. A lot has been written about these impairments and by the time Laurence was five I had read most of it. However, although I knew a lot about what had been written about autism, I realised that I had no understanding of my son. Over the next couple of years, as I tried to understand my son, I realised that there was another triad in play. I called it the:

Triad of Autistic Perception.

There were three groups of people interacting with Laurence. There was the family, the educators and there was the assortment of psychologists and therapists that we saw during this time. This latter grouping of 'experts' saw Laurence as a list of symptoms while the educators saw him as a list of disabilities. As a parent I could see all the symptoms and I could see all the disabilities but I, like many parents before me, could also see that there was much more to him than that. Sadly, the professionals dismiss parental opinions like mine as rose-tinted wishful thinking. The more I learnt about Laurence the harder it became to reconcile these different perceptions, until I stumbled upon a third triad to complete the equation and make sense of it all. I call it the:

Triad of Normal Impairment.

An essential part of working in the service industries is to get on with people and I have been doing that for more than thirty years. I thought I could get on with just about anybody until Laurence came along. However, as I started to understand my son's perspective my perception of normality changed. I learnt that from Laurence's perspective the entire normal spectrum is defined by the presence of the following triad of impairments.

1. They are self obsessed. Not only with their physical appearance but mentally as well. Go into any pub and you will hear people pontificating on all sorts of subjects of which they have little real knowledge and yet they are absolutely convinced that their point of view is right.

2. They develop bizarre obsessions. For example my mother has a harmless obsession with Dalmations; she even has matching car seat covers. However, this was nothing compared with some friends of hers who's entire house, inside and out, was covered in black spots. There are many people prepared to pay double the price for a pair of trainers or a T-shirt simply because it has a tick on it. This mass obsession seems harmless only serving to make a lot of people look ridiculous and make a few people ridiculously rich. Whereas the mass obsession that, 'my version of events two thousand years ago is more accurate than yours' has resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent people over the years.

3. They thrive on odd routines. How many times have you heard a normal person say that, 'they didn't know what to do with themselves' when something was suddenly cancelled? For the last few years I have worked in schools; these places would collapse without all their timetables and rotas. I lost count of the times that I noticed an autistic child just getting into a lesson only to be told to stop because it's time to do something else. Just as they are getting used to the bizarre custom of, five days here and two days there, we throw in irregular length breaks to the routine. Even birthdays and Christmas are held on a different day each year.

It is all so illogical.

Combined with this triad of impairments, normal people can also have some severe sensory impairments.

It is generally accepted that a normal brain invents most of what we think we see. (The, man in a gorilla suit on a basketball court, experiment famously demonstrated this. A lot of people didn't see him jumping around waving his arms in the middle of the basketball court simply because they were not looking for it.) In a similar vein I shaved off my beard at the start of this year and friends, who have known a bearded me for the last decade either didn't notice at all or were puzzled and asked me questions like, 'Have you lost weight?' or 'Are they new glasses?'

These days most people's use of their sense of smell has been reduced to a rather pathetic choice of like or dislike compared to the uses other members of the animal kingdom find for this information-laden sense.

Is it any wonder that when an autistic child finds themselves alone, surrounded by these huge sensory-impaired creatures with their illogical routines and behaviours that they withdraw into their own safe and sensible world?

This intolerable situation is compounded by our near total dependence on oscillating air in our throats to communicate. The enormous amount of brainpower required to think in text and to talk, blinds us from sensing other forms of communication and the wider environment around us. (That is why it is dangerous to talk and drive.)

And so we weave intricate webs of words to justify and obfuscate the illogical reality that we call, normal.

To understand autism the first thing to understand is normality.

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