Inability To Look At Oneself In The Mirror... Look At You!!!
Why Looking At Oneself In The Mirror Is Such A Difficult Task For The Autistic Child!
Update Dec. 2005: When it comes to eye contact issues, an issue too many are completely unaware of is that of potential FACE BLINDNESS in persons on the autism spectrum. This is a critical issue that can go a VERY LONG way in explaining why these children prefer to use peripheral vision, have issues with "reading emotions" and "socialization". Please take the time to read this very, very critical information on FACE BLINDNESS! END OF UPDATE
As with so much in life, things were not always as they seemed.
Zachary always turned away when I tried to make him look at himself in the mirror. At first, I had completely dismissed this as a sign of autism although I had recognized the fact that he simply did not like to look at himself in the mirror from very early on... I just did not see the "why" behind it. I thought he was simply "scared" to see his image there... much as many cultures were afraid to see themselves in the mirror or to see themselves on a picture - believing their "person" or soul had somehow been captured.
Normal children, from a very early time on, were usually fascinated with seeing themselves in the mirror. As such, I believed this could truly be an effective manner of screening for "first signs" of autism. It took me a long time to finally see this one for what it truly was... simply another sign of autism manifesting itself.
There were several factors that come into play in the simple act of "looking in the mirror" when it came to the autistic child.
First and foremost, the child did not understand the "parts" to the "whole". First a mirror appeared as just this "object" and then, out of the blue, "something else" appeared... another part to the whole... the reflection of oneself... and the autistic child simply did not know what to make of this. Also particularly troubling perhaps was the fact that this "thing", the reflection, was a moving object or "thing" within something that just previously was "stationary" or "not moving"... so, you have a "moving thing" within a concrete object. How can that be? Truly, for the autistic child, this was a difficult puzzle to figure out... and without help in understanding this concept, how this was possible, the autistic child would continue to be stressed out by this simple activity... because in this particular activity, the laws of physics themselves seemed to be violated. How could a living, moving object be captured in something that was "not alive"?
I came to understand how the inability to look in the mirror could definitely be related to the issue of motion. Much like a street was a "stable object" without the "cars" or the "moving parts", so too was the mirror a "stable object" in and of itself... without a "moving person" within it. Once that "moving part" was added, however Zachary could no longer understand how this new, - moving part - fit into the whole! Once again, motion appeared to play a part!
The same kind of concept applied to the television screen. The difference in terms of stress levels, however was in the fact that with a television, the child could watch objects that were fascinating to him... objects that kept him occupied and focused on things like circles, triangles, trains, colors, etc. Thus, the objects, objects that had consistency (i.e., a circle was always round, a triangle always had 3 sides, blue was always blue, and red was always red, etc.) themselves became the main focus of interest. They provide consistency and order. That was why certain types of movies/videos were also more interesting than others for these children. With a mirror, however, it was an entirely new ballgame – because of the issue of “self”!
The "object" in the mirror was not only moving, but somehow, it "moved as I did"... yet another "part" to figure out. This "thing" in the mirror, could be perceived as "following" the autistic child... thereby producing even more frustration and stress. Furthermore, this "object" had no definite shape... it was not round, triangular, etc., ... it had a color the child perhaps was not able to relate to (not having learned about "skin color", etc.) and it had all these other "parts" that could not be understood, things like "clothing", etc.
Finally, there was one issue that has alluded even me, for a very long time... the fact that this "thing" in the mirror, this entity - even if once understood in terms of color, clothing, etc. - would not be understood until the autistic child understood the concept of "myself" or "my person" first. This explained why even after being able to look in the mirror, or in looking at pictures, for the longest time, Zachary still did not truly understand "who that was" in the mirror or in the picture... that it was him! "Zachary himself" had to be labeled as "Zachary", and he needed to have an understanding of “his label” for “this part” to the whole to make sense!
The "deaf child syndrome" we so often saw in autism was simply a child who did not yet understand that he "too" had a very specific label - a label we called "a name"... a label the autistic child had to be, specifically, taught! Once that label was learned, then the concept of "self" was understood and could be used to help the child cope with daily life! For more on this issue, of labeling the child himself before he could "see himself" in the mirror, see Auditory Issues and why "the deaf child" was but a child who had not been "labeled" - for himself! :o)
Again, in order to understand this simple activity of "looking in the mirror", the autistic child needed to understand all the "parts" to looking in the mirror... including the "part" of "my self". Until this was done, in my opinion, this simple activity would continue to be one quite confusing and stressful for the autistic child.
It took me a long time to get Zachary to actually look at himself in the mirror...he still had some issues with it... no doubt still trying to totally understand the concept of how his "self" could be "caught" by this mirror. I had no idea as to how to even begin to explain this one to him, but, as time passed, so too did the stress of this situation since Zachary could at least "see" that he "did not stay in the mirror" once he moved away. In helping Zachary with issues of "looking in the mirror", I found using the words: "bye-bye" or "all gone" helped with this activity also. I would also tell Zachary: "look, there's Zachary in the mirror"... or I would ask: "Who is that?" and make sure I answered the question myself if he failed to do so, by saying: "that's Zachary"... to make him see that this "thing" in the mirror was him. Again, for more help with labeling the child himself, see my section on "Auditory Issues" as it related specifically to the "deaf child".
Again, as with so much in autism, I believed the key to helping the autistic child cope and understand their world was in the use of labels, in explanations as to how the "parts" made up the whole - explanations to Break the code, in Words To Cope©, in Fractions and Words Of Quantity , in providing positive coping mechanisms and so forth. The keys were always the same! :o)