Perhaps it's my passing interest in Zen, but whenever faced with a difficult or frustrating situation I try to see if from a different angle. Sometimes that allows me to see the humour, grace or beauty of it.
I think this philosophy is particularly useful in trying to understand ASD children. Sometimes they challenge us to our wits' end but sometimes it can be a bit of a fun game - a puzzle to be solved.
So last night my son, who is 18 and lives with his mother, sends me a text. "What do you know about the orange key?"
Let the games begin.
Sometimes I'll start out by keeping my cards close to my chest, but in this case I have no idea what he's talking about. (Theory of Mind deficit is apparently common with ASD.) "Orange key?"
"To the lawnmower."
Now as an aside, I really don't like lawnmowers. They are noisy, smelly and a polluting nuisance - a blight on suburban society. I dislike them so much that I've owned about a dozen of them over the years, searching for one I didn't despise, before seeing the light and replacing the grass with clover (no mowing required).
Back to the problem at hand: of all the lawnmowers I'm aware of, at either house, none I can recall needing an orange key. The mystery deepens, and leaves me in the position of continuing the ancient tradition of children everywhere making their parents feel entirely stupid.
"I don't know."
"Our lawnmower needs an orange key to insert and run, since it's electrical and cordless."
Overcoming the urge to point out the gaps in this logic - why it necessarily needs a key just because ...? Never mind - I quietly celebrate the breaking of a critical communication barrier. I can rule out my lawnmower, which despite the key mystery had been a possibility since I had left him with the task of mowing my lawn (the one I haven't yet replaced with clover). I can also deduce that they have recently purchased a mower meeting that description. Briefly I ask myself why I might know anything about that, but am reminded of the Theory of Mind deficit.
"I don't understand. Are you looking for the key or are you sharing the fact that you have a mower that uses a key?"
Either one was a valid possibility, but clarification would come surprisingly quickly (how do people text mini essays on that miniscule excuse for a keyboard?)
"The key is lost somewhere behind the counter that you built for the garage. I was hoping that since you're coming over tomorrow, could you help me temporarily dismantle the counter for the key. The lawn really needs to be mowed."
And thus, finally, we have arrived at the answer. A typical day in the life of trying to understand and communicate with someone on the autism spectrum. It's easy to see how autism in the past may have been mistaken for low intelligence, which we now know is not the case at all. Clearly he has a complete grasp of the situation, he just has this mental fog that often impairs his ability to communicate what he's after without prompting. Far from being stupid, he's a gifted mathematician and out-of-the-box thinker who graduated high school last year with honours.
It's this realization that I think is triggering organizations to take positive steps to help ASD individuals make meaningful contributions that recognize their untapped potential. It's even got its own name: "Neuro-diversification". Check out the links below for more information on just a few of these uplifting initiatives:
Microsoft Autism Hiring Program
SAP's Autism at Work program
Danish company Specilisterne exclusively hires software developers on the spectrum
Vancouver-based Focus Professional Services - autistic professional IT consultants