Understanding Even The Little Things… (i.e., The Loose Tooth And Static Cling)
Very closely related to this issue of potty training and “losing part of yourself” was the issue of “losing a tooth”.
My sister-in-law, Christine, was also the mother of a child with autism. Her son, Andrew, was now approximately twelve years old. To this day, whenever he was about to lose a tooth and a tooth indicated any sign of being “loose”, Andrew became very, very stressed out – to the point that the entire day was lost as he could only focus on this particular issue – nothing else.
Andrew’s teeth were rather unusual. Many of his adult teeth had come in without the first set having fallen out. Thus, in many parts of his mouth, it was as though he had two sets of teeth. I did not know if this was related to his autism or not. It had just been something both his mother and I had found rather strange.
My sister-in-law, Christine, had truly been a blessing in so much of what we had gone through with autism. Andrew had been through many misdiagnoses before it was finally determined that he had autism. My sister-in-law also worked very hard with her son. Given Andrew was approximately six years older than Zachary, seeing what Andrew went through helped “prepare” me for oncoming issues and one of those issues – as trivial as it would have been in a normal child – was the loss of a tooth – something that, like potty training, could be very stressful in a child with autism who always needed “pieces to be - in place” – and that certainly also applied to “body parts”.
Zachary’s first tooth was finally loose and he sensed that. He came to me, complaining and showing me his mouth, clearly, not understanding what was going on. Luckily, I had been made aware of this "losing a tooth" issue by my sister-in-law and her son. Having seen Andrew, a twelve year old, so overwhelmed and stressed out over the thought of losing a tooth, I immediately thought to myself: “No… we are not going through this”. I had worked a great deal in recent days and was exhausted. I simply did not have it in me to deal with “a loose tooth and a stressed out child” for the entire day. Rather than allow Zachary to get completely stressed out over the entire issue, I decided to simply pull the tooth with a tissue.
Zachary was very upset when he had seen his first tooth come out – as had been my “normal” daughter Anika when she had lost her first tooth too. But, for Zachary, the stress was a little more intense. He kept saying: "Fix it" or "Put it back", but within a half hour, his distress was gone. Luckily, I also had a picture of Anika holding the first tooth she had lost and showing her smile with the missing tooth as she too had learned to cope with this issue. I showed that to Zachary to help him understand that he would be getting a new tooth - a big boy tooth - and had Anika show him how she had a new tooth in her mouth to replace the old one.
Over the next few hours and days, if Zachary showed any stress over the issue of the lost tooth, I simply said: “Don’t worry… your body is going to fix it”. I would say: “Let me see if it is fixed, yet” as I put my hand where the fallen tooth used to be – pushing down gently on his gum as I felt for the new tooth. I knew that if I could feel it, he would also if I placed his finger on it. The anticipation of “getting a new tooth to replace the old one” helped a great deal. For the next few days, I simply “checked for the new tooth” and sure enough, within a few days, I could feel it – and so could Zachary. He soon lost a second tooth. Now all I had to say was: “Don’t worry, your body will fix it” and he was fine.
Knowing of this "issue" in children with autism had made it a lot easier to deal with when it came about because I had time to “prepare” for the event!
Losing a tooth caused a great deal of stress in children with autism because, much like potty training, it literally involved “losing a part of yourself” – as did hair and nail cutting. To lose a part of “yourself” – to Zachary – was like having a piece of the puzzle missing.
To help alleviate some
of the stress in personal hygiene situations, I had always found one of the
simplest and most helpful things to do was simply to “count slowly” as I did
whatever needed to be done – be that cutting hair and/or nails, removing – or
even – simply brushing – teeth, too!
When I brushed his teeth, I simply counted very slowly to ten for the top teeth and then to ten for the bottom teeth. This helped Zachary “gauge” how long the process would last and provided that all necessary “label” of ten – the number indicating completion. Slowly, I could do away with the counting altogether. If Zachary ever became stressed again over this process, I simply resumed counting. When I cut Zachary’s hair, I made him hold a plastic container to “keep him busy” and asked him to count the clumps of hair as I put them in the container. I then had him participate in putting the hair in the garbage to emphasize that some things tied to his body – like poop – were a kind of “garbage” he could throw out.
The simple act of counting had been invaluable for Zachary in so many situations. Just providing “something else” to focus on other than the stressful situation helped tremendously. For example, on one occasion, I had awakened to sounds of Zachary saying something I could not understand until I went to his room. Zachary was clearly stressed out as he lay there in bed. I finally understood him to say that he was “stuck” to his bed. He actually seemed to think he could not move and was rather distressed over this. I soon realized that his pajamas had a great deal of static cling in them – I could see the “sparks” in the night as I lifted his sheets to see what was wrong and why he felt he could not move. Every once in a while, my husband forgot to put in a “dryer sheet” for static when he did the laundry.
Zachary certainly had seemed much more sensitive to the static cling than a normal person would have been. So, in the middle of the night, I changed his flannel sheets to cotton and changed him to clothes that had no static in them as I counted with him and said “the sticky” would be all gone if we counted to ten. By that time, I could easily have him up and out of those “sticky clothes”. Most importantly, however, I labeled “what the problem was” – static cling – so that he had a name – a label – a reference for this for future use. I simply told him that we had forgotten to put something in the dryer and so when we washed the clothes, they came out “all sticky”.
Zachary usually threw his blankets off after a little while in bed. Often, I had checked on him during the night to find him completely uncovered – his little feet so cold. I knew that during the day, Zachary hated to keep his socks on and as such, to convince him to put them on to go to bed at night, I thought would be a real challenge. I was actually amazed to see that once again it had all been in – the label. My husband had come up with the term “sleeping socks” and because he had labeled them as such, Zachary was perfectly fine with putting them on for bed.
I had seen the same type of thing when it came to “changing clothes”. Zachary pretty well only liked to wear sweatpants or very loose clothing. It had taken me a long time to finally figure this one out. I used to always say: “Put your pants on”… to Zachary – that meant “his sweatpants”. When I had tried to put jeans on him, he had resisted. It finally dawned on me when on my in-laws farm that “pants” could have “different names”. So, I did my little test. I attempted to put overalls on Zachary – only this time, I did not call them “pants” but rather “farmer pants”. Sure enough – that made it ok. The label had made all the difference! In the past, Zachary had more issues with touch perception than he now did while on enzymes and that too, could certainly have played a role in this better ability to sense various “touches”.
Simple tricks like this had come to make life much easier because it certainly did not take much at times to completely stress Zachary out. Just knowing how to handle him and being able to identify the issue quickly when stressful situations occurred made life one hundred percent easier. I had always found it important to get Zachary back in control of his emotions as quickly as possible.
I discussed the issue of emotions in my second book, Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism: When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost! There was no doubt that for most children with autism, there were only extremes when it came to emotions. When these children experienced emotions, they were either very happy or tremendously sad or upset – there were no “in betweens”. Yet, as with everything in life for Zachary, providing those “in betweens” – even in the area of emotions – in my opinion, was the key. Given I knew Zachary lived “via reference”, I had to provide for him references of “appropriate emotions” given certain situations and explain to him during a given “event” what was “ok” and what “was not” given the circumstances of the situation. If Zachary became very upset over a minor situation, I simply explained to him that this situation was only one over which to be “a little upset” or that it was one that could make him “pretty upset” or “kind of upset a lot”. Again, providing “shades” of the emotion or variations – helped a lot. Prior to my doing that, Zachary only knew the “extremes”, it was as if he was unaware that “in between emotions” could exist too – just as he had been unaware that there were “in betweens” or “alternatives” to many, many other situations – in everything from learning math, to language – to emotions.
In my opinion, the best way to help children with autism deal with “emotions” was to provide them with references of acceptable emotions and that could certainly be done via computer software because there certainly did exist the possibility to make software to teach “in betweens” in emotions. Of course, these had to be as realistic looking as possible – I did not believe, for example, that “cartoons” would be as helpful as “real persons”. Perhaps a “mix” would be necessary to maintain interest. I was not sure, but, again, I did believe that the computer could be key in this area also!
The area of emotion control certainly was one I still had to work on with Zachary, but there was no doubt that “words to cope” as described in my second book, and the providing of “in between” examples of appropriate emotions had helped tremendously. It was now much easier to “bring Zachary back in control” than it had been prior to my finding these “tricks”.
I had always found it critical to help Zachary maintain control over his emotions. In my second book I discussed “words to cope” that I used frequently. These many simple words and phrases had been a tremendous help to Zachary and had always helped us in bringing things back under control much more quickly than if such words and phrases had not become part of our daily lives. I quickly learned many of the tricks to maintaining control and my understanding of Zachary’s issues with “partiality processing” and the need to understand the “parts” in order for the “whole” to make sense had helped me tremendously in addressing any issues having to do with transitions – be those emotional issues where Zachary had to learn to transition from “not acceptable” to acceptable – or physical issues – that involved actually moving from one task to another, etc.
Given there obviously was damage in terms of neural connections not working properly in so many parts of Zachary’s brain, it certainly made sense that Zachary would have transition issues in many, many areas of life – in everything from emotions – to motions – to the understanding of concepts (i.e., how each part fit into the whole) – to the grasping of life threatening situations.
If connections simply were not there or communication among the various lobes was very limited, as one moved from one function or process to another, problems related to this brain damage in terms of improper neural functioning would certainly manifest themselves in “slower responses” or “transitions”.
Indeed, issues with transition were easily explained by the theory of little or no communication among the various parts of the brain. If indeed I was correct and there existed only very limited communication between the various areas of the brain, then, by definition, when you moved from one task to another, you were using different parts of your brain and as such, you needed to "activate" another area and that “switch” could certainly be difficult to do if neural connections were not working properly in order to allow one to go back and forth between tasks.
The simple fact that neural degeneration had been shown to result from mercury exposure made me believe that even within one task, there could be transition issues since in all likelihood, neural connections even within a specific region could been damaged.
It had also been shown that neurotransmitter levels for several key transmitters were also very much impacted. That, too would cause problems with "transitions". To switch, especially from one area to another in the brain, was most likely quite difficult in the person with autism and as such, I suspected that to ease transition issues, you would have to move from one task to another by using gradual transitions or transitions that allowed as many functions currently being used to be used when you moved on to the next task.
Looking for “bridging functions” was truly key in this area. Thus, to transition from frontal lobe functions (motor activity, word associations, language production, higher functioning, control of emotions, olfactory, etc.) to say temporal lobe functions (auditory, olfactory, memory acquisition, emotion, understanding of language, voice/face recognition, categorization of objects, some visual perception, ability to distinguish between truth and a lie) you had to look for “related functions” and use functions that were somewhat available in both areas of the brain in order to “make the transition” more easily. This was why “labels” were so key to Zachary. They provided for “word associations” (frontal lobe) that could then be used in categorization (temporal lobe) functions and hence provided that critical link between the frontal and temporal lobe that would help activate not only those specific functions but others in these areas as well. That, again, was why the computer was such a fantastic tool for children with autism – because it activated almost the entire brain at once – and hence, transitions from one task to another could be much more easily accomplished.
Glial cells issues were known to exist in persons with autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. These cells provided the "scaffolding" necessary for neurons to grown and "connect". Hans Moises - who had studied schizophrenia – hypothesized these cells could be weakened by viruses. Glial cell damage could certainly contribute to what we saw in terms of transition issues in these disorders and as such it was critical that connections get re-established. When one also considered the fact that several key neurotransmitters were found in abnormal levels in these disorders, and you indeed could begin to understand why transition issues were such a serious problem. In my opinion, that need to activate as many areas as possible in the brain to facilitate learning was also key to facilitating transitions as the generation of “new connections” within the brain would undoubtedly help facilitate transitions by enhancing communication within the various parts of the brain. And hence, again - the computer - in my opinion, was a medical necessity for these children.
Of course, there were other advantages to having a computer for the child with autism. Another key area I saw computers helping with was that of “hyperactivity” in children with autism. There was no doubt that when a child was happily playing on the computer, he was not running around the house, jumping everywhere – exhausting his parents who could themselves easily become “drained” from all this activity in their child.
Hyperactivity… another problem area for so many children with autism…