What is autism? And how does it affect Wilson?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the name for a group of developmental disorders that affect communication, social development and sensory processing.  For Wilson, verbal communication is very limited and he can’t always “find” words to express himself and in turn can have difficulty regulating his emotions.

  • Often repeats phrases he learns from cartoons (scripting). In the realm of language, he has always excelled with numbers and songs, because they are the same every time; reliable and easier information for him to access.
  • He tends to scream when he is frustrated vs. using words to express his emotions or desires.
  • Repetitive use of words and sounds non-communicatively (self babbling).

It constantly amazes me the phrases Wilson will learn from his cartoons. Especially when his vocabulary was so limited (he has continually improved his vocabulary in the past few months). Sometimes he is able to generalize these learned words or phrases into correct situations in real life, and sometimes he sounds like he is in another world, reliving scenes from a favorite show, usually at a very random time. One of his favorite shows right now is Dora the Explorer, which includes lessons on Spanish language and culture. The other day he said “Hola! Soy Dora. And I’m boots!” It was adorable but made me think about how odd it was that he can say that in Spanish but not “Hi, my name is Wilson” in English. We’re working on it though!

Social development has been another challenging area for Wilson. One of the harder things for us to see is that he wants to play with others, he just doesn’t always know how to initiate or participate like other children his age.  Often times he can appear aloof or indifferent and it looks like he is ignoring people. Social interaction can be overwhelming for him because he doesn’t always interpret gestures and subtle facial expressions correctly (or at all). We’re learning that many subtle social cues and skills need to be actively taught to Wilson, whereas other children seem to pick them up naturally.

Since Wilson has difficulty regulating his emotions in frustrating or overwhelming situations, he may lose control and have inappropriate outbursts, crying/screaming tantrums and start hitting others or throwing things. In the same realm, Wilson can have difficulty and anxiety dealing with other people’s emotions.  Intense emotions can make him uncomfortable because he doesn’t understand them.

  • His eye contact is minimal. Even if he does communicate with a person, he doesn’t always look at them while doing so.
  • He shows more interest in objects/individual activities than engaging with other people.
  • He can appear aloof or indifferent to anyone depending on his day and mood.
  • Does not understand how his actions affect others.
  • He can get overwhelmed easily.

Repetitive behaviors and sensory processing issues were some of Wilson’s main ASD red flags. Repetitive behaviors can include (but not limited to) repetitive movements with objects, repeated body movements, ritualistic behavior, sensory sensitivities and intense preoccupations.  Also, echolalia, which is the repetition of a single word or phrase. For example, sometimes when I say “Bye, Wilson!” he’ll say “Bye, Wilson!” instead of “Bye, Mama!”

Adhering to plans and routine is another area of importance for Wilson. In comparison to some autistic children who often need absolute consistency in their environment (a slight change in any routine — mealtimes, school preparation, or going to school at a certain time and by the same route — can be extremely disturbing to them) Wilson usually shows some more flexibility in this area. He does, however, thrive on routine and knowing his plans in advance.

Wilson has had a few persistent, intense preoccupations over the past year or two. Some examples are elephants, keys, pirates and trains. He likes to collect them, point them out when he spots them and, unlike other toys, games, etc., his intense interest in them has remained constant over time. We literally have to hide our car keys from him, and he has one giant key from his grandma and grandpa’s house that he likes to sleep with at night (and of course his beloved stuffed Dumbo).  One theory is that children on the autism spectrum experience a lot of anxiety and a preoccupation can be calming because of its familiarity.

  • Stimming: spinning, hand biting/mouthing objects, head bumping
  • Scripting/echolalia
  • Repetitive/rote play
  • Rigidity- has a very hard time transitioning from a preferred activity to a non-preferred or unfamiliar activity.
  • Lining up/sorting toys; hoarding objects/toys
  • Intense interests/preoccupations

Dysfunction within the sensory processing systems can present itself in many different and opposing ways depending on the person. With Wilson, he has shown dysfunction with motor planning. This is the ability to plan and execute different motor tasks. This can affect him both with verbal communication as well as activities such as playing with new toys/games or getting dressed.  A variety of sensory processing difficulties arise for him throughout the day so his mood can be very unpredictable.

  • Displays sensory-seeking behaviors such as movement (running, spinning, bouncing); hyperactive
  • Seeks pressure (bumping into people or objects, calms with tight hugs, like to be wrapped up in tight blankets)
  • Avoids certain textures in food, clothing and touch
  • Motor planning- struggles attempting (planning and executing) new tasks so avoids them and prefers repetitive (known/safe) actions and play
  • Does NOT like hair combed or cut

It’s important to remember that people with autism are all unique individuals, just like you and I. Every person with autism is different, as are their behaviors and challenges. I never want Wilson to lose his individuality in this label.

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