Autism and Subtle Successes

Mark Rothko, White Center
National Gallery of Art
I visited the National Gallery of Art when I was three months pregnant with my daughter Iz, who is now thirteen. I had never been fond of abstract art, but upon walking into a room full of Rothkos -- experiencing their luminous, subtle color play in person, at full scale, I wanted to fall to my knees and shout, "I'm sorry! I get it now!"

It's like that with Leo. You have to be there, watching, intensely, in person, to understand what he's about. If you focus only on the obvious things -- not speaking much, getting easily frustrated, obsession with food -- you'll miss the little things, the sly things, the actions that reveal not just his capability but his potential.

I love the way he performs many actions, like slipping on his shoes, bilaterally -- both shoes at once. Not one at a time. That's some serious motor planning and coordination. And he does it with ease. Today he read favorite books on his iPad with one hand and twiddled a straw in another, which was impressive enough -- but then he reached out with his foot and picked up another straw with his toes -- and twiddled that, too. I certainly can't do three separate things with three separate limbs simultaneously (though I could make sure that toe-straw went straight into the trash after he was done with it).

He's got a gift for scatting, whether making up his own tunes, or his own variations on favorite songs. You might not recognize Leo's version if you aren't paying attention, as with Cassandra Wilson or Nouvelle Vague. If you sing a run back to him, and if you succeed in doing so to his pitch-perfect standards -- which isn't easy as he doesn't restrict himself to typical scales or progressions -- you'll be rewarded with a huge smile or a tight eye-lock.

He remembers what you say to him. It may take you a while to realize that the phrase he's saying to you is something you've said to him, a saying resurrected because it makes sense in this new moment -- even though you may have originally said it months ago. Why should Leo spend energy creating new phrases when he can store and retrieve yours? "I wear my sweater when it's cold" works as acknowledgment, reminder, reassurance, question, and statement. It's functional language.

He's not above a bait-and-switch. If he asks you for a big kiss, it may be because he wants you to leave -- rather like visitors in Japan being asked if they'd like another cup of tea. Though Leo is not always gracious: Big ask, big kiss, then "Bye bye, Name," and possibly a big shove. But at least you got something out of it, too.

Today Leo started learning how to play Wii. And at the outset, he wasn't all that successful -- not by typical standards of trajectories mastered and points gained. But it was a social experience for him, and he stayed engaged and seemed to enjoy it. I suspect he'll learn to play Wii in his own way, too -- and successfully, to those who have the patience or intuition to understand that atypical does not mean less than. Who know that intelligence takes many, many forms if you take the time to see it, if you can recognize its sometimes subtle signs.


  1. I am so glad you got a wii. I think Leo will love it. We are thinking of getting a Kinect, since the controller in the hand thing is not working for Jack. I want to be able to offer Jack some better indoor activities, and I think Katie will be thrilled to help him learn.

  2. Reminds my of that scene in the movie Matilda, where the baby Matilda has smeared strained prunes all over the counter. Her Rhea Perlman mom freaks out on the smeared prunes, yet misses the M-A-T-I-L-D-A she had spelled in the mess. Lots of subtleties in the 'mess' which we miss if we're not watching closely...

  3. I look forward to hearing about leo's experiences with the Wii!

    I had a similar moment to the moment you opened with with the following image:


    It looks so different in person. You realize the thickness, the texture of the paint. You can see the fact that De Kooning started out as a House Painter in the strokes and how the paint is used. You can see where the dust in the air have settled on the ridges, enhancing the depth and bringing this odd sense of utility to the brush strikes. It's unbelievable the difference of seeing it in person.

  4. Jen, we're considering a Kinect as well. I've heard really good first-hand accounts of our kids getting a kick out of it.

    LIVSPARENTS, we love Matilda and quote from it liberally, usually Wormwood lines. And I love the cameos.

    nicocoer, we'll document. And I'm so glad you understand that museum experience. A revelation.

  5. Wow, I can't chew gum and walk at the same time, and forget about the whole had pat/tummy rubbing thing.

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  7. I've read a few of your posts recently that really remind me of Moe. He is, of course, much younger than Leo, but I also see these subtle signs of real intelligence that could easily go unnoticed by someone not looking. He notices everything. If I change one thing in the living room, he goes right to it. If we leave a door open to a room he's usually not allowed in unsupervised, he's in there. He doesn't talk, but sometimes, I also see him start to move his mouth in the shape of the word, like he's about to say it. I can see he's trying, even if you can barely tell. I have so many more examples that show me he's paying attention.

  8. Lucky Moe, that the people who love him are also *seeing* him.

  9. Anonymous12:02 PM

    That's so cute!! My son does the same thing (kiss kiss goodbye Mami!) and it always makes me giggle. And dang, I'm with the above poster who said she couldn't do the pat head/rub tummy thing!

  10. The subtle - so true with Jack, too. The bait & switch - oh, yes, the rascal. ;) And we want to get the Wii, too - and he will learn his own way, too.

  11. Jennifer6:21 AM

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    most sincerely, Jennifer Jantz Estes

    Versatile Blogger Award: http://versatilebloggeraward.wordpress.com/

    from my blog entry at http://jenniferjantzestes.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/the-vba/


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