Autism and OCD: the Sacred Half-Banana

Thanks to the nature of autism, many of us with the condition have other psychological problems that are either caused by our autism or overlap with it. Combine the rigid, obsessional thought processes associated with autism with the anxiety and poor coping mechanisms that are often part and parcel of living with the condition, and you have the recipe for obsessive compulsion. So it is, then, that at times of stress and anxiety we can slip into full-blown obsessive compulsive behaviour and lose all sense of proportion, driving the people around us to despair.

And when I say ‘we’, I mean my wife Lizzie.

And by ‘people around us’, I mean me.

And instead of ‘being driven to despair’, a better metaphor would be that I am steaming uncontrollably towards a mid-Atlantic collision with an iceberg on a dark April evening. All because of half a freaking banana.

It all started a month ago when we returned from holiday. Every night after I’ve put Izzie to bed, Lizzie goes around the lounge and tidies up the baby’s toys. And given that Lizzie’s other big obsession right now is buying toys for the baby, we have an awful lot of them. Before going to Toys R Us to get something, I just check the massive pile of plastic bags stacked up in the corner of the study, and odds are we’ll already have at least two of what I’m considering buying.

Anyway, Lizzie’s particular inclination is that all the toys have to go back complete – if the toy food blender has six shapes that go inside it, then when it goes back on the toy shelf it needs to have six shapes inside it. Not five inside it and one in the box of building blocks, but all six inside it. This is non-negotiable and woe betide anybody who forgets.

So, a month ago we return from holiday, play with Izzie for a couple of hours, and then I put her to bed as usual. Lizzie tidies the lounge and – gasp – half the toy banana from the kitchen set is missing. We have both halves of the tomato, the pepper and the carrot, and the three parts of the cucumber, but only one half of the banana.

In the normal scheme of things, you might think this is minor. I thought so myself, it being a two-inch long piece of yellow plastic with a bit of Velcro stuck to it. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realised that in Lizzie’s mind it was the Holy Grail and it had just been stolen from us by person or persons unknown.

My reassurance that ‘it’ll turn up eventually’ didn’t cut the mustard. Before the holiday, the sacred banana had been complete, entire, unsullied – Izzie had only been in the lounge a couple of hours upon our return, thus it could not have gone very far. We had to find it.

Many hours after midnight, having overturned the sofas, emptied all the drawers and cupboards, removed the building blocks piece by piece from their boxes, turfed the dog out of her bed, checked behind the fridge, in the cat litter and around the driveway (as if!), I managed to persuade an increasingly irascible Lizzie to come to bed, we’d find it later. Problem solved – or so I thought.

The following day we repeated the exact same process, double and triple checking all the places we’d already double and triple checked the night before. I ended up checking through the bins, the nappy bin, the freezer, inside the guitars, stretching my hands into deep, dark crevices no mortal ever dared to delve. Still no banana.

Long after midnight, I managed to persuade Lizzie to come to bed, where she tossed and turned all night, no doubt dreaming of incompleteness.

It was two-thirds of the way through the third day of the search, after putting the baby to bed and moving the sofas for perhaps the eighth time, that I finally declared enough to be enough. Actually, I think what I might have said was something along the lines of, ‘I’m all out of f**ks to give about half a goddamned plastic banana! Don’t ever mention it to me again, I don’t care anymore, there’re another two plastic bananas in the corner of the study anyway, for God’s sake, let me live, why won’t you let me live!’ And suchlike and so forth.

Two days later, Lizzie stopped moving the furniture. Two days after that, she stopped talking about the banana.

But the stage was set. The anxiety was there. And it manifested itself late every evening with the words, ‘Have you seen…?’

Every evening for the past month, Lizzie has lost something and pressganged me into helping her find it. Mostly it’s Izzie’s hairclips, less than an inch long, or her dummies, transparent. Sometimes it’s pieces of paper, a scrap torn off the back of an envelope on which she has written the world’s most important information. Quite often it’s socks, which necessitate going through the sleeves of every item of clothing we own in case it’s become lodged inside in the wash. Occasionally it’s earrings, tiny, insignificant, nigh-invisible earrings. Every single evening, give or take.

I’ve been under the sofa so many times now, I can describe it better than the back of my hand. The inside of the dustbin no longer holds any mysteries. The sound of building blocks being removed from the box one at a time fills me with dread, and every time I hear the words, ‘Have you seen…?’ my blood chills within me. No, I haven’t seen it. But I guarantee we’re spending the next two hours searching for it.

There are two possibllities for explaining this behaviour. The first is that, because both sets of our parents were away, Lizzie has been anxious for the last month, and this anxiety has triggered an obsessive need to have control over the minutiae of our household to distract her from her own feelings of vulnerability. Once triggered by the missing banana, her mind became stuck in a loop of repetitive, obsessive behaviour, fostered by her rigid autistic way of thinking.

The second is that she’s faking all these disappearances and we’re still searching for that flipping plastic banana!

Which does, to be fair, remain something of a mystery…

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Imitation, experimentation, and intuition

How do children learn about the world? This is the issue dominating my mind right now, partly because fourteen-month Izzie is learning at an exponential rate and partly because I’ve ploughed through Sophie’s World over the last few nights and 3000 years of philosophy compressed into 400 pages is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

You can get really deep and complex and ponder the effects of sensory perceptions and experience versus the influence of innate cognition and primitive, pre-verbal mental reasoning. But if I’m not mistaken – which I might be as I haven’t really been sleeping – I’ve been able to reduce the entire field of infant learning down to three key processes:

  • Imitation: watching and copying;
  • Experimentation: fiddling until you’ve figured it out; and
  • Intuition: good god, how the hell did you know to do that?

Imitation is pretty simple. Since Izzie has seen us drink from cans, whenever she comes across one she lifts it to her mouth as though drinking. She does the same thing with deodorant cans, so it’s not a foolproof system, but the idea is right.

The good thing about imitation as a learning tool is that you don’t have to teach her – she just picks it up. Watching us press the pointy end of the pen to paper, whenever she gets her hands on a writing implement she now seeks out a newspaper, TV guide, or daddy’s book so that she can make lots of lovely little squiggles. Seeing us use the sponge to wash her face, every time I bath her now she grabs it off me, wets it, and washes my face – usually covering me with water. And when we tell her we’re going out, she grabs our shoes and tries to put them on our feet to help us get ready quicker – or not, as the case invariably is.

On the other hand, the bad thing about imitation as a learning tool is that you don’t have to teach her – she just picks it up. So when mummy playfully throws one of the baby’s cuddly toys at me, Izzie discovers that wonderful game called ‘throwing things at daddy’, but instead of limiting herself to soft, light toys, she thinks it’s all fair – books, coasters, wooden blocks, the kinds of things that really hurt when they connect with your shin bone, or elbow, or forehead. Likewise, because she sees daddy turn on his Xbox by pressing the on/off button on the front and hears a terribly interesting ‘beep’, at random times she’ll toddle over and press it – even if daddy has been playing a game for half an hour and hasn’t saved it! And because she sees Ozzie the dog chasing the cat around the lounge, for the last few days she’s been terrorising Korea (in case you’re wondering, she’s a rescue cat and that’s the name we’re stuck with).

Experimentation is a slightly more cerebral process. It’s all about taking an object and figuring out its intrinsic physical qualities. Whenever Izzie gets a new toy she starts out by bashing it against things (how heavy is it? What noise does it make?), proceeds to bite it (is it food? What does it taste like?), and then turns it all round and decides which is the most enjoyable way of interacting with it. So she’s gradually discovered that it’s more rewarding to press the keys on the piano thing we got her from a car boot sale (plinky-plonky style) than slap it or slobber all over it – although I kind of wish she hadn’t. And she’s discovered that if she pulls the oven door on her toy kitchen really hard, she can yank it off and then throw it at daddy – thus combining experimentation and imitation.

She’s also been using experimentation to discover how, if something doesn’t work one way, another way might produce a better outcome. Hitting her xylophone with the end of the beater that the string was attached to made a muffled thudding sound; now she uses the proper end and smacks the crap out of those metal bars with the volume and melody of a pneumatic drill. Drawing on paper with marker is all well and good, but drawing on her legs and/or dress gets a much more exciting reaction. And if she wants me to read her a book, she brings it to me and puts it on my lap, and if I don’t read it, she hits me with it, which is equally as fun.

You see, Izzie also experiments by varying causes to provoke multiple effects – a long-winded way of saying she tries various methods to manipulate her parents to get what she wants. Screaming, crying, stamping her feet, balling her fists – and if daddy doesn’t give in, she goes to mummy and repeats the process, and vice versa. She likes to point, to say ‘uh’ to indicate ‘that’, and failing that, to reach for it and clamber up on the furniture and move things about until she either gets it or gets given an equally attractive alternative. And if you’re walking in a direction she doesn’t want to go, she’s discovered that instead of resisting, screaming or crying, she can just go limp and sink down to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, refusing to budge until you turn the other way, whereupon she springs into life like Popeye with spinach in his belly. Too clever for her own good, that one.

Which brings us to the final learning process: intuition. Or rather, instead of a learning process it’s more like a remembering process because I have no freaking idea how to explain some of Izzie’s behaviours beyond the possibility that past lives exist. These are the things she does that she has not witnessed so can’t be imitating, hasn’t experimented with, and by rights should not have the reasoning power or cognition to achieve.

Like a few weeks back when I drank a Coke from a glass bottle and left it with a few dregs in the bottom on my father-in-law’s lawn. A few minutes later, Izzie totters over, picks up the bottle, sees it has some left in it, carries it over to the table, pours it into a glass, puts the bottle on the table top, picks up the glass, knocks back the Coke in a single gulp, puts the glass back on the table and toddles off again. If there weren’t other witnesses, I would have doubted the evidence of my own eyes. We’re not the kind of people who pour drinks from bottles into glasses – we drink it from the bottle or else drink cans – so where did that come from?

Similarly, I was bathing her the other day when she picked up her mum’s lady razor from the side of the bath, and despite never having seen or touched one before, proceeded to shave my forearm. Had it not had the plastic cover over the blade, I would have an arm as bald as an Olympic swimmer’s. The thing is, holding a wiggly-handled lady razor is quite a skill for a baby, especially getting it the right way up and to then run it down my arm multiple times in perfect imitation of a person shaving – where did that come from?

My mum took her to a toy shop and after looking around for a few minutes, Izzie took a box off the shelf, lay it on the floor, and then pressed it repeatedly with her foot. So far, so normal, except that inside the box was a mat you put on the floor then press with your foot to make noises – so how the hell did she know to do that?

And the other day we gave her a yellow duster, and what did she do with it? Yup. Started dusting the surfaces. I can guarantee she’s never seen us do that before!

So here is my treatise on child learning: imitation, experimentation, intuition…unless my daughter is the reincarnation of a Coke-drinking, music-mat-playing barber who likes cleaning, in which case I’m not sure I can generalise using her as my case study.

AS, Children and Play

As a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, albeit undiagnosed, I never understood how to play with others.

At playschool I’d wander straight through the middle of the toy farm the other kids had carefully set out, trampling the animals underfoot and kicking apart the barns without realising it, and unable to comprehend why they were cross with me.

When I tried to play with my brother, I couldn’t get into the fantasy the way he could – the toys were plastic, or wooden or cloth, and had no existence beyond my own control. I cared for them as objects, not as independent beings. They didn’t have feelings – they didn’t mind being thrown against the wall or stuffed under the sofa. Just so long as no one else touched them.

Because I didn’t share. What was mine was mine, and what was yours was yours until it was either mine, or I broke it so you couldn’t have it. As a young child, it’s safe to say I was an asshat.

And I didn’t know how to mix with my peers. We used to go camping almost every weekend, and every weekend we’d be sent to play with the other kids on the campsite. My brother would take it in his stride, marching up to complete strangers and joining them in football or climbing trees or riding bikes – I’d hide behind him and never know what to say or do.

When I tried to be funny, I came across as spiteful; when I wanted to be cool, I was condescending; and playfulness always turned into physical domination where my clumsiness and misunderstanding of appropriate behaviour turned me into a one-man wrecking ball – and that’s when it wasn’t deliberate. When it was, it was much worse. No wonder I couldn’t make any friends!

At eleven months old, Izzie loves playing with the other kids – and I am finding it like pulling teeth.

Every time she crawls towards another child, I watch her like a hawk and get so tense I’m lucky I don’t drive my fingernails through my palms. I see other parents just dump their kids and let them get on with it, but I perch on the edge of my seat ready to pull them apart at the slightest sign of aggression from either side. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve experienced as a dad.

‘Why’s she doing that?’ I think as she pulls a brick out of another child’s hand. ‘Now why’s she doing that?’ I wonder as she passes it back. I’m fine when she plays by herself, but the second she starts to move towards another toddler I cringe and hope she stops before she reaches them because I don’t understand why she wants to play with them.

It’s my problem, I know. You’re supposed to let kids figure out the social rules for themselves, with a little guidance. I’m not going to stop her playing with other children, but damn I wish it was easier.

I’m terrified the other kids will hurt her. I’m terrified they’ll make her cry and she’ll sit there screaming and grow up to be a recluse like me. But more than that, I’m terrified she’ll do something to the other child, and she’s too young to understand the consequences of her actions, but everyone will look at me, and judge me, and realise what a bad dad I am, raising a little tearaway. And I’m worried they’re right, and a dad with AS won’t be able to provide for his child’s social education.

And the thing is, it’s not an idle fear – Izzie’s bloody strong for a toddler. While I was bathing her this evening she rammed her finger so far up my nose it took five pieces of toilet paper to staunch the flow of blood. What if she hits another child? Pulls their hair? Scratches them? Oh God, what would I do then?

The thing with autism is that you like to control your life. You minimise your exposure to stressful, unpredictable social situations in order to protect yourself. Izzie playing by herself in the lounge I can cope with fine as I understand it and can control the variables – the moment you introduce a second child, all control and predictability goes out the window.

But unfortunately, for Izzie’s sake, I have to expose myself to increasingly stressful, unpredictable social situations so she can learn to function as a socially active neurotypical child. I can’t allow my own hang-ups to hold her back.

I just need to learn how to relax when my little girl is learning how to play with others – or at the very least make sure my fingernails are cut so short I can’t do myself any serious damage!

Autistic Building Blocks

There’s an episode of Scrubs in which Dr Cox’s infant son has a playdate with a rival’s child. After seeing the other boy’s precision with building blocks, Dr Cox states that kids of that age shouldn’t be able to do that, leading him to suspect the boy has autism. And of course, since Dr Cox is like House, only with a larger ego, he’s absolutely right.

Far be it from me to take facts about autism from a TV show, particularly one that perpetuates the myth you can restart a stopped heart with a defibrillator (shocking revelation: you can’t!), but it’s lingered in the back of my mind for years. So when Izzie started playing with building blocks a few weeks ago, I watched her very carefully.

Actually, that’s not what happened. I was meant to watch her. Instead, as an autistic guy myself, every time she started to play with them I couldn’t resist the opportunity to shoulder her aside, organise the blocks by colour and shape and build towers all around the lounge. To my annoyance, Izzie kept knocking them over and mucking up my neat piles and throwing the bricks into her ball pit. I started to design stronger towers, pyramids, all kinds of defensive structures to protect my colour-coded edifices. Then, after about a fortnight of this, I realised I was getting obsessive over a baby’s building blocks and really ought to let Izzie play with them. Then I watched her.

Mostly she was destructive with them, smashing them together, bashing them against the furniture, throwing them at the wall, and stuffing them into her mouth. Just like a baby. Phew.

But then she started to play with them differently. Starting a couple of weeks back, she would empty them out of her trolley one at a time onto the carpet and then very carefully put them all back in again. After a few days of this, she decided that was too easy. From then on she’d wheel the trolley over to the coffee table, and one by one she’d put the blocks on top. Once she was done, she’d take them down and put them back in the trolley, walk over to her toy box and repeat the process. Stacking, unstacking, loading, unloading like a particularly conscientious warehouseman.

I consoled myself that she wasn’t able to make towers out of them yet. That would be the time to worry.

Two days ago she managed to stack two on top of each other. By yesterday, her towers were up to three blocks. Today, she managed five. And that’s when alarm bells started to ring.

I mean, they weren’t very good towers – they were wonky and multicoloured and would fall over if you walked too heavily across the carpet – but they were towers nonetheless. Were these the skills Dr Cox was talking about, those abilities with bricks a non-autistic child shouldn’t possess?

It says on the Baby Centre website that at 15 months she should be able to start putting one block on top of another, and by 18 months might be up to towers of three blocks.

Izzie is ten months old.

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That’s the wrong colour, dumb ass!

So without any further evidence, I started panicking that ohmygod she’s autistic.

After a few minutes of reassuring myself that it’s okay, she’s happy and if she has autism, that’s just the way things are, I’m autistic, Lizzie’s autistic, and we’re fine, everyone has problems, neurotypical, Aspie or otherwise, I decided it might be an idea to research early signs of autism.

And Izzie has NONE of them.

Now of course, not every child with autism is going to have all the signs, and even if a child has many of them, it doesn’t mean they’re autistic, but for anybody who’s curious, these early signs of autism are:

  • Lack of eye contact (I never made eye contact as a child; I sometimes have to look away, the amount that Izzie stares at me!);
  • Failing to imitate social cues, like smiling back at you (Izzie smiles so much, I’m sure her face must hurt);
  • Not babbling to themselves or making noises to get your attention (Izzie is by far the noisiest person in my life);
  • Failure to respond to their name (Izzie comes when called, and if I say, ‘Where’s mummy?’ she looks right at Lizzie);
  • Not using gestures to point things out or respond to your gestures (Izzie’s favourite activity is pointing);
  • Disinterest in physical contact like cuddling or being picked up (if you don’t pick Izzie up, she climbs up your legs!);
  • Doesn’t want to play with others (Izzie is currently loving rolling balls to me and getting me to roll them back);
  • Repetitive interests, movements or behaviours (Izzie does seem a little preoccupied with food…);
  • Delayed motor development i.e. rolling, sitting, crawling, standing (Izzie rolls, sits, crawls, stands, swims, climbs and throws).

Conclusion: Izzie doesn’t have any of the classic signs of autism.

So why is she so advanced when it comes to building blocks if not autism? Who knows? Maybe she’s just really really freaking intelligent.

The pleasures of toys (not that sort!)

Prior to the arrival of our little bundle of joy, I’d see those parents with a wicker basket of handcrafted wooden toys for their children – ‘we don’t believe in consumerism’ – and I’d think: ‘what a bunch of bloody hippies. Go back to smoking roll-ups and drinking herbal tea, the grown-ups are talking.’

In hindsight I think they’re geniuses and I really wish we’d had a rule about toys long before Izzie was born.

The problem is that without a clear idea of what you want, toys have a tendency to multiply. My lounge has turned into a multicoloured mayhem of shapes, materials and textures. It’s like living inside a Disney cartoon, complete with jaunty music, flashing lights, and twee sing-songs.

You see, Lizzie is obsessed with trawling around charity shops and baby jumble sales and returning with endless bargains in pink plastic and green felt. Bargains that ring and chime and jangle, and aren’t really bargains at all when you can’t walk from one side of the lounge to the other without stepping on something that squeaks, or dances, or blinks at you.

Most of the noisy toys are from a company called Vtech, and I have nothing against them. Individually. My problem comes from the fact that when the table is singing, and the walker joins in, the toy TV controller sings its song, and the toy phone starts to warble, it creates a cacophony so unholy it can summon Satan.

Worse, they seem to have used the same woman to voice all of them. ‘Watch some TV with some friends,’ she says, along with ‘can you find the duck,’ ‘ring home,’ ‘who’s calling,’ ‘now I know my abc,’ all at the same time. The voices never stop. These things are meant to teach kids, not make them schizophrenic.

And that’s just the start of it.

I’m not sure the lessons are as productive as they might think. Apparently, rabbits go ‘boing’. Never heard that myself. And one toy from Fisher Price sings, ‘five little cookies make a yummy snack.’ Really? I’d have thought five little cookies make a baby fat!

And thanks to it being in the public domain, every single one of them plays Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. That song’s always bewildered me, even as a kid. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ It’s a freaking’ STAR! The answer’s in the question. Okay, when Jane Taylor wrote it way back in 1800-and-whatever, she probably thought they were ‘God lights’ or ‘angel smiles’, or something, but damn, can’t we change it to reflect current understanding?

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, you’re a ball of hot gases undergoing nuclear fusion, that’s what you are.

Better?

The ABC song, which I’ve noticed has the exact same tune as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, and which all the toys also play, is driving me utterly insane. In American English it work fine: ‘T U Vee, W X, Y and Zee.’ But the toys have all been recorded in British English, so she sings: ‘T U Vee, W X, Y and Zed.’ It doesn’t seem to bother Lizzie, but every time the song starts up I cringe, waiting for that awful, jarring non-rhyme. The only way I can cope is to sing along with it, substituting  Zee for Zed. And doing that fifty times a day isn’t relaxing.

I think there’s a reason the musical drum Lizzie brought home a few weeks back was so cheap, because if you ever want to torture someone, this thing was designed by the Marquis de Sade. Every time you tap it, it plays a note. The notes it plays seem to unite to create ‘The Wheels On the Bus.’ But it doesn’t play ‘The Wheels On the Bus.’ There are extra notes crammed in there at random, and others arbitrarily removed. If you were to sing along to it in your head, as you do automatically, it would go like this: ‘The wheels on round and round, round and round round, round and round, the wheels on the round and round, all all day day long.’

‘Just turn them off!’ I hear you scream.

I fully agree. But you clearly don’t appreciate the depth of my problem. Turning them off isn’t as easy as you might think. You find a switch and flip it, move onto the next one, only to discover you haven’t turned it off at all – you’ve simply switched it from ‘annoying tune’ to ‘annoying song’, or increased the volume, or switched on the lights so you can enjoy your own disco/epilepsy. One of them even rolls around the room, forcing you to chase it, and once you’ve caught it, it spins a chicken over the top of the off-switch, as if laughing at you: ‘ha, the only way you can reach this switch is with lightning reactions, or else you break it!’

Funnily enough, despite all the bells and whistles she can choose from, Izzie’s fallen in love with a little cuddly green dog that has become something of a security blanket. Well, not the dog, actually – the bone attached to the dog by a little blue cord. She’s only happy when she’s clutching this blue cord, the bone on top, the dog dangling down under her feet. She drags the dog around behind her, trips over it, gets it stuck on things. Instead of using two hands to pull herself to her feet, she only has one free nowadays.

It’s made dressing her, or changing her nappy, or strapping her into the car seat or high chair, an absolute nightmare. Because she has to let go of it so you can put her arm through the sleeve or the strap, or avoid getting poo on it, and letting go of it is not something she’s going to do without a fight, followed by excessive amounts of screaming.

She even sleeps with it now, and I have to admit, I’m happy to let her if it keeps her quiet.

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She’s asleep, we have fifteen minutes to turn off all the toys!

So here’s to the hippy parents with the handcrafted wooden toys, roll-up cigarettes and herbal tea – I take mine with milk and a sweetener, thanks. See you at the commune!