Wednesday, August 13, 2014

You can go your own way

I just returned from a blissful vacation hiking the California coast. The day I got home I took Martin on a special outing to the roller rink. Martin is an excellent skater. He's had roller skates for a few years and loves to zip around the neighborhood. Everyone smiles when Martin skates.

Even though Martin skates quite often around our house he has rarely been to roller rinks. It was a huge delight for him. When we walked in the door his eyes grew big. "This place is amazing," he said. I helped Martin lace up his skates and started working on my own. Before I could finish mine, Martin was out on the floor.

When I looked up I saw the most magical and scary thing. 150 people skated counterclockwise while Martin went the other way. As people flew by him he simply charged forward with a look of joy, howling at the top of his lungs. He was thrilled. I was fascinated and terrified. 

Martin seemed to have no idea that everyone else was doing things another way. That's quite typical with autism. Folks like Martin simply don't seem to apprehend the rules. There is something quite beautiful about it. But there are also dangers. I rolled onto the skate floor, caught up with Martin, and asked him to pay attention to my eyes. I told him that everyone needed to skate the same way. He would have to join the others skating counterclockwise. He looked at me with total surprise and said okay. He began to skate with everyone else and things were fine for a little while. But after he took a break and entered the floor again, he went the wrong way once more. Again, I told him he needed to go the same way as everyone else and again he looked at me with a little surprise and said okay. 

With autism, you have to say the rules over and over and over. Not only can you not trust that folks with autism will apprehend the rules on their own, but you also can't be sure that the rules will stick in their heads once you've communicated them. Your best chance is to make the rules available visually by creating a social story. Social stories are little books in which the rules are written down and illustrated. I've written many social stories over the past few years: social stories about getting on airplanes, social stories about where it's appropriate to pee, and social stories about going to the zoo. But at the roller rink I didn't have the capacity to make a social story and I could tell that the rules I told Martin with just my voice were never going to stick. If he's ever to learn that he needs to skate counterclockwise, he'll need to see it written down. 

Our society let's certain people go their own way. Great artists. The filthy rich. Toddlers. It's also the case that certain people feel they have no chance to do things in a different way. Imagine if Martin had brown skin. Imagine him growing up into a tall teenage boy who doesn't follow every rule and might not understand when a police officer commands him to do something. It's a question of privilege. Who's allowed to go their own way? By our society? By the police? By the roller rink staff?   

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