Autism and supporting the curious

Liz Becker


Learning for an autistic child can take quite a curious route. For my son Matt, the simple process of learning to write is one such example. After learning the alphabet (another curious route), words were the next logical step. We taught him his name, address, and the names of family members, but Matt wanted to know more important words - like “train.” Usually a child begins to learn more words of their daily life, like “dog” and “cat” and “house.” Not so with Matt. Once he understood that letters formed words his attention went to the listing of his favorite items in a group. Whatever he listed also became new drawings and the progression of his writing became intimately tied to his love of art. His love of trains brought with it the need to list every type of car pulled by the engine and paper after paper was filled with the list – “coal car,” “gondola car,” “box car,” etc. He also found weather to be quite fascinating and started writing long lists of weather related phenomena: “tornado,” “cyclone,” “hurricane” . . .

The biggest of storms – hurricanes – have names, and Matt started writing the list of each major hurricane that hit the United States. This led to an interest in all natural disasters and made into a separate, specific list. The list of natural disasters was followed by a list of all US disasters: “Titanic,” Challenger,” “Oklahoma Bombing,” etc. The lists would be simple at first – just the names, but soon I noticed that each list was evolving to include detailed information, such as dates, specific locations and the number of people killed. Lists were a curious behavior he engaged in everyday.

New subject lists took time to start, as if he had to know absolutely everything from the previous list before he could venture on to a new one. Drawings of twisters, the titanic, and the space shuttle blowing up filled his art collection – extremely detailed pictures to match extremely detailed lists. Over the years the intervals between an old list and a new list got shorter and shorter. He went from creating his lists on paper to typing his lists on the computer (saving us reams of paper). I still have the files containing Matt’s lists on my computer, and open them on occasion to just marvel at their thoroughness. Even typing using just a 12 font the list of just one subject can take several pages.

His desire to memorize each list brought a wealth of information and Matt could spout off details at will. “How many planets are there, Matt?” Matt would not only answer with the number but also with the distance of each planet from the sun, the number of moons and rings, and the characteristics of each planet’s specific atmosphere. No wonder Matt did so well in school! After all, most classes ask students to know a list – History, for example, requires a student to know events and their dates, and this was right up Matt’s alley.

Matt also wrote lists of his favorite video games and movies. Some of his favorite video games were war games and race-car games. We soon began seeing lists of weapons, armored vehicles, and body gear worn by the soldiers along with new drawings that contained the details of each item. Various types of race cars found their way into his art as well – very detailed race cars. The art and the lists went hand-in-hand. Each list was accompanied by drawing after drawing. His favorite movies were put on pause and then drawn scene by scene - the important details captured in his art. Of course, there were long lists of his favorite films to go along with them.

In the beginning it all seemed a bit curious - that is until I realized that this was how Matt was learning. I soon dawned on me that Matt’s mind was organizing, filing away each bit of information into a specific category and it was tediously hard work. Many autistic individuals perform similar rituals and most people brush it off as a quirk of behavior, but I would advise them to look deeper, and ask "why?"

Everyone has a special method of learning and we intuitively know how to encourage their gifts. Then we find ourselves raising an autistic child and we forget to be intuitive. Matt’s specific method of learning used lists and drawings. This was his gift – the ability to organize everything to where it could be understood, and retrieved upon demand. He still uses this method for learning new things. His focus is still very intense. He must see the words. He must put them into categorical lists. He must see each item –as detailed as possible. He must train his hands to draw the subject from memory. This is the sequence of his learning strategy. I wish I had seen it earlier - I might have advanced his learning sooner.

It didn't end there. Words must be put together to make sentences, and this was the most difficult aspects of school. Matt had no desire to add words that could not describe the items of his list and these words were often left completely out when writing a sentence; if, as, it, the, at, or, to. I called them the “useless little words.” Matt had trouble with the insertion of these words into sentences for most of his school years, making English his worst subject. This area of difficulty was finally overcome by Matt’s desire to know more details on a subject and create new story lines for his art. He began reading more. He would copy a story line by line to paper first, then just as he had trained his hands to draw, he trained his mind to write. He copied story after story verbatim, and this meant even the little words had to be written. As his reading progressed from simple stories to novels we saw a dramatic change in his ability to write. I would love to tell you that we had a gifted teacher that taught him these things, or brag on my superb skills of parenting - but let's get real. In reality, Matt taught himself to write. The teachers helped and I helped – because we supplied him with paper, lots and lots of paper, and we supplied him with reading material – book after book. Most importantly, Matt was allowed to continue his curious behaviors. The ability to learn came about through repeated practice - on Matt’s own terms - in the making of lists, the drawing of pictures and the writing of stories. This entire progression encompassed years and required his intense focus - a gift that came from within him. The curious behavior of list making, a behavior considered quite odd to those unaware, was his way of learning to connect the dots.

Matt knew how to train his own brain in a way which was logical to him. Alas, I had only a supporting role in that I supported his curious behaviors (and supplied him with a forest full of paper). To this day I am still in awe of the intensity at which he still drives himself to learn. To the unaware, Matt seems focused on the mundane and his behaviors appear oddly ritualistic. Looking deeper one can see he was actually organizing his mind. I admit I never really understood his needs back then, but I am very glad I supported them. I can see it all so very clearly now . . . .

So this story is for those watching the curious behaviors of their autistic child and trying to figure out if these behaviors are acceptable or should be deterred. I understand they appear a bit strange and I am aware that many parents feel these behaviors are unacceptable and want to promote something more “normal.” I would like to stress the exact opposite. I challenge you to look a bit deeper. There’s a good possibility that your autistic child has found their very own unique way to learn. I don't see the behaviors as odd - not anymore.

I highly recommend you support the curious.
Liz Becker - World According to Matt


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