Motion And The Autistic Child!

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Another critical piece of the puzzle I came to understand in terms of how I believed the autistic child perceived his world had to do with the role of motion.   As had happened in my first book, Saving Zachary: The Death And Rebirth Of A Family Coping With Autism, as I neared the completion of my second book, Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism:  When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost! with only final edits remaining, and once again thinking I was basically "all done", I came to see, what in my opinion, was yet another huge variable that had been there all along but that I simply had not seen until now:  motion!

I had always suspected that "motion" somehow played a critical role in the life of the autistic child, but I really did not understand to what extent that was true until very recently (end of August 2002). 

As I went for one of my many walks when I tried to sort things out, as I listened to cars going by, I became more aware of "my person" as an intrusion within a specific environment.    For some reason, although I had walked this same route so many times, on this particular occasion, I had an overwhelming sensation that can only be explained as a sense of "not belonging there".  

I had learned a long time ago to always listen to that inner voice.   Why did I all of a sudden have this overwhelming feeling of "not belonging there"?  As with so many things I pondered on my walks, I tried to understand this in terms of autism.  So many of my "answers" had come to me this way... and once again, I came to see a critical piece I had overlooked:  motion!

The best way for me to explain the role of motion in the life of the autistic child was, again, via the use of examples as I saw the role of motion in the life of my son, Zachary.

In trying to understand the role of motion as it related to partiality, I came to see that those things Zachary had the most trouble with were things that were not constant, but rather, involved motion.   For example, making Zachary "see cars" in terms of perceiving them as parts to a street, had been very, very difficult for me.  

Try as I may, I simply could not get him to understand that "cars were parts to a street", that the two "went together".    I now saw, that for Zachary, perhaps this concept had been so difficult to grasp because cars were really not part of the street itself... they were something that may or may not be there... things in motion, that came and went.  I knew that Zachary understood the concept of "walk and don’t walk" and what those particular words meant, but I now understood that even though Zachary understood these specific words, I suspect that if I said: "walk" even though a car was coming, that he would still proceed and walk directly in front of an oncoming car!   He had a "reference" established in terms of what "walk" and "don’t walk" meant... that you cross or do not cross the street... from our experience with the "walk and don’t walk" signs, but, I now feared that this "reference" was still incomplete... because, even though Zachary understood these words in and of themselves, he did not understand all that went "behind those words" in terms of assessing safety issues!

If Zachary could not perceive the "cars" visually as a part to the whole, perhaps helping him understand the danger of a coming car would better be explained by making Zachary "listen" for a car and to make him understand that when he "heard a car" his response had to be to "stay on the grass or on the sidewalk".   Again, this was all so new to me that all these issues of "safety" were very troubling to me.    I feared even "listening for a car" may not be the answer, because as Zachary came to understand the "label of cars", perhaps they would simply all be simply integrated into the whole, as a now "acceptable part" that had been labeled... and understood in terms of what it object called a "car"... but, I feared the much more abstract concept of "what a moving car meant" in terms of safety issues, involved a great deal more work!  How do you teach such abstracts concepts to an autistic child…that things that could or could not be there were really “part of the whole, too”?   Needless to say, given the fact that I believed autistic children did not perceive moving objects as a "part to the whole",  the entire issue of safety as it related to autistic children weighed very heavily on my heart!  :o(

Although safety issues such as the above could now be explained in terms of the relation of the "parts to the whole"  and the fact, that in autistic children, I believed objects in motion were not perceived as "parts to the whole",  there were other things, in addition to the safety issues that I now came to understand based on "motion".

For example, issues with eye contact and blank stares also now made more sense.   The eye, by design,  needed light in order to "see", but, much of our sight was also dependent on motion.   In fact, the eye itself was an object in constant motion, forever adjusting to light as it moved.  In addition, the very act of "seeing" involved motion.    Your eyes were not "blank stares" as they observed objects... rather, they were constantly in motion.    In a normal person, to do what an autistic child does in terms of "blank stares" was  a very difficult thing to do.   To simply "stare" at something, without moving your eyes was indeed almost impossible to do.   Yet, in the autistic child, "blank stares" were commonplace.   Why was that?   Why was an "activity"  I considered so difficult to do - staring at one spot -  something the autistic child engaged in so much?  Was this simply another coping mechanism - the autistic child's attempt at doing away with motion?  I truly wondered!

Another area I came to understand a little more had to do with "self spinning"... something I still saw in Zachary to this day.   Zachary often looked up to the ceiling or down at the floor as he "spun himself".    Was this his way of attempting to figure out how he himself fit into the "whole"... the environment?   After all, persons were, like cars, moving  "parts" to the world and perhaps Zachary simply could not understand how he, personally, fit into that whole... the environment, much in the way, I believed he did not understand how cars, these "other moving objects", did not fit into the whole!  Self-spinning  was simply Zachary’s way of attempting to “decode” how he, himself, fit into his world!

I now understood why the simple act of catching a ball could be so difficult for these children.  If they had difficulty integrating motion in their world, all areas involving motion would be impacted – including motor function!

I also came to understand how the inability to look in the mirror could also 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!

Difficulty in understanding how objects that moved fit into the whole could also explain many socialization issues in these children.   Large crowds, by definition, had a great deal of motion (in addition to the many sounds, smells, etc.).   As such, I certainly understood how situations involving many persons could be difficult for young children still trying to understand how "all these moving parts" fit into the whole.   In Zachary, I knew this had been somewhat of an issue, although now, he liked the hustle and bustle of certain crowds.  The fair, for example, with all its rides and things to explore, had been something he truly enjoyed this year.  Of course, as expected, some things were more fun than others.  Rides, with all the mechanics involved, were fascinating... animals were not!  Rides were part of a whole entity - animals and people were not!

If you looked at the issue of motion, it appeared that motion of "parts" that were truly "part of the whole", like fair rides, the moving parts of a clock, gears of countless objects, etc. were more readily perceived and understood by Zachary.   Such motion was "ok".   But, the motion of "parts" that did not "truly belong to the whole", parts that "could or could not be there" (like cars, people, etc.) were more the problem!   As such, animals at the fair, or a bull in a pen, or cars on the street - all moving objects that did not actually "belong" to the whole -  were objects that simply did not seem to be understood in terms of how they "fit" into the "whole"... and as such, they were ignored!  The implications for the autistic child  were huge and indeed, overwhelming! 

This also explained why spinning was so fascinating to these children.   I believed Zachary spun things in an attempt to “decode” the mechanics of motion and how motion fit into his world.   The large wheels on the McDonalds toy (see Spinning section) created the interesting illusion of the wheels spinning in the direction opposite of that the child was spinning.  No doubt, this created even further interest in Zachary when it came to this particular toy.   There were plenty of things he spun that did not create this “illusion”, but, surely, perhaps, many did.  The fact that motion, such as spinning also resulted in the disappearance of “parts to the whole”, in my view, was how “spinning” could be used as a coping mechanism also.   Thus, spinning, I thought, played a dual role in the autistic child.   It was his way to attempt to “break the code” of motion and his way to cope with partiality when the parts to the whole simply did not make sense!  Add to that the visual stimulation or vertigo effect of spinning, and this activity became powerful indeed!

Perhaps this issue with motion also explained why fluorescent lights were so interesting to Zachary, too.   Fluorescent lights  could create interest in several ways… via the motion or flickering within them and perhaps also in their light intensity and the possibility that this somehow impacted how colors were perceived.   As with so much in autism, I always felt there were several factors at play in even the smallest of things!

With motion, it was as if that “normal instinct” as it related to danger… that connection we all instinctively made when we perceived motion – to assess a moving object in terms of potential danger – was simply not there in the autistic child!

In my view, autistic children had to somehow be taught "how moving parts" fit into the whole of life... moving people, moving animals, moving insects, moving things.   Of these, I felt moving "things" (i.e., trains, trucks, cars, etc.) and moving animals that could pose a danger, were the first things to tackle... to clearly define, label and for which clear explanations of "consequences" had to be given.   I felt videos would be the best way to teach such things, but I knew of none that even came close to what was needed for these children!

As with so many issues, as I wrote these materials, I came to understand even more in terms of how the autistic child saw his world.  I came to understand why “motion” was such an issue for the autistic, especially when it came to the subject of “safety”.  Although many apparently felt that “overall ability to see” was not impacted in the autistic, truly it was, in my opinion.   I came to see that, for Zachary, even when motion was involved, such as a moving car, a past memory would over-ride incoming sensory input.  As such, Zachary, literally, could not “see” the car coming… based on the fact that a past similar situation had already been ingrained in his mind and that was the information he chose to draw from when asked “do you see a car coming?”… as opposed to relying on incoming sensory input.   Thus, truly, Zachary could not “see” the coming car… the object in motion… the object that could so easily take his life!

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