Autism And The Unknown

Yesterday we visited Wake the Tiger in Bristol primarily because it’s the summer holidays and it looked a fab thing to do. Earlier in the week I’d seen a friend’s pictures after her visit and thought it looked interesting and although she was a little confused by the whole thing I booked tickets because sometimes confusing and interesting things are good to do.

I talked to my family about it: eldest said he didn’t want to come as he was working on that day, second son seemed keen but third son and daughter went quiet. This means that they aren’t sure either way and instead of expressing any opinion they go quiet in order to think.

Then the questions started.

‘What is it?’

‘When are we going?’

What are we going to do?’

What is it again?’

And so on.

I understand that their questioning is to find out information and all children do this. I’ve worked in schools, worked with children in out of school settings and I have 4 very active and inquisitive children so I totally understand a child’s need to question. What I also know that asking the same question on repeat every hour or so to then change that question to another one for another hour or so to then go back to the original question and do the same is not usual. Not all children do this and it’s what separates the way my third son and daughter’s brain work. It’s what makes my son autistic (and very probably my daughter though we haven’t had the assessment yet).

They both want information and reassurance and context in which to place this unknown they face. We had a discussion with the psychologist who assessed my third son during his assessment about this very issue because he knew he asked repetitive questions but wasn’t sure why he did it. Through careful questioning the psychologist was able to help him realise that his questioning was from an anxiety base. He has long recognised his own anxiety challenges (it’s awful to hear him use the word ‘fear’ and ‘scared’ but amazing to hear his honesty) so this was another part of how his brain works unlocked for him which he found quite revelatory. It hasn’t stopped the questioning, but we all now understand why it happens.

My son and daughter had no frame of reference for ‘…an immersive art experience consisting of 27 different creative environments including artwork, installations, narrative, soundscape, secret passageways and so much more.’

‘What is it?’ They both asked at various times throughout the few days leading up to our visit.

I explained that it was a series of rooms with objects, lights and things to see and do.

‘Yes, but what is it?’ They both said despite my different approaches in explaining essentially the same thing.

‘When are we going?’

‘When are we leaving?’

‘Are we leaving now?’

‘How long will it take to get there?’

On repeat. No matter how many times I gave them the answers they just asked the questions again. They asked me, my husband and their siblings and yes, once again, I do understand that children ask questions but this really is on another level.

My third son is of an age where if I were to deflect the question back to him he could easily answer it so the questions aren’t just purely for information gathering purposes. My son is feeding his anxiety in an attempt to quash it in the only way he knows how. My answers are usually followed with one of his bear hugs (that you can hardly breathe through) which is another sign of how anxious he is. When he sensory seeks he tends to seek pressured experiences like hugs, high fives (I wouldn’t if he offers you one, they often hurt!), jumping in the kitchen to hit a beam (there are many others depending on the environment he’s in) and also repeating the last word you’ve said or a phrase and he’ll get louder and the movements more exaggerated. All because he’s anxious.

We arrived early (that’s very me) and as we sat in the car we had, ‘When are we going in/Are we going in?/Why are we in the car/When are we getting out?’ over and over, particularly from F. Once in and listening to the ‘sales spiel’ from the actors my son starts to sway. Swaying is another sensory seeking behaviour. The better you know him the more you can read his inner feelings.

Once in, my husband and I were interested to see how each of our children would react. We knew it was like nothing they had ever experienced and we knew that this would be difficult for them to process. We also didn’t know how our daughter would react because being only 8, we’re still learning about how her brain works and haven’t quite got her figured yet.

“What’s the point of it?’ Asked my son. ‘I just don’t get it?’ And he didn’t and it didn’t matter how different one room was from the last he never quite got into the whole imaginative experience. He can’t take things for what they are and needs to ‘file’ them in an ordered and categorised way that in no way was this experience going to fit. You could see his confusion. On the outside his straight face gave absolutely no emotion away. This is usual for him when he’s emotionally confused or stressed.

My daughter loved it. She didn’t follow the story but just enjoyed each space taking it for exactly what it was -an experience. She looked, touched, listened, critiqued, and gave her opinion happily and with curiosity and interest while looking around. She didn’t like the ‘scary things’ like the masks and reused dolls and also some of the darker spaces with shadows and unknowns behind corners.

These sorts of experiences are just what my son and daughter need and to explore with trusted people who can support them in their exploration. My son finds the unknown very difficult and my daughter often finds it impossible but once that first connection is made, assuming it is a positive one, both are able to build on that initial experience. A good example of this is our local lake cafe. At first my son wasn’t able to go and order for himself because he didn’t know what they had, how the payment system worked or what to say to the servers. He came up with me a few times, observed, said a few things himself (‘What flavour would you like? Would you like cream?) and was then able to slowly order for himself. Now he does it easily and without me even being in the same room but he couldn’t at first.

We can now build on this (and have done) and use it to try another cafe. Cafes sell similar things, have similar payment systems and the language used is also similar so the skills from cafe 1 can be taken to cafe 2. We can introduce more strategies (and have done) such as not joining the queue but looking at the menu before he does so he can rehearse his choices with less pressure. He can use his phone and write his order so he has a script to use should his mind go blank or situational mutism takes over. The skills from cafe 2 can then be used, perhaps, in another situation. We just slowly build his skills taking one step at a time.

So you can imagine why putting him in an imaginative art experience/installation with people, in character, who talk to you is very challenging. Replying to someone in character when you know they are in character isn’t easy for him at all and he slunk behind my husband and I, waiting for anyone else to be called on.

But putting him into situations like that is very good for him. He wasn’t stressed at all, could ask us any questions he wanted (hug us at any time and sway away to his heart’s content) and just be in the moment. And he did very well despite saying as often as he could that he didn’t get it and what was the point.

He can take the skills from the experience and apply them to another situation where he might feel confusion, anxiety and fear. He knows he can handle some ‘oddness’ and he can advocate for himself should he become uncomfortable – he knew that he could leave at any time if this was the case. This is a given in our family. The unknown is scary (I find this too) but with people you know (that love you and whom you trust), a supportive and encouraging environment and an escape plan that you have total control over shows that things that you might think of as impossible may very well be possible.

We’ll take the experience and build on it. We’ll talk about his, ‘What’s the point?’ too and push him to think about whether everything has to have a point or can it just be an experience that you, well, experience?

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