I walk by Johnny’s room and he has an arm load of stuffed animals and his closet door is open. He is trying to shove all of his stuffies onto a shelf in his closet. He has a lot of stuffed animals that he likes to sleep with it because “I don’t want to sleep all by myself Mommy.” Yesterday morning he was taking all of his constructions vehicles off of his shelving unit and placing them all on his trampoline. Why? Because he needed to move them to another shelving unit and move his fire trucks to the other book shelf. The problem is he has a morning routine to follow which ends with him getting on the school bus with his little sister.
Why is Johnny suddenly organizing his room instead of getting ready for school? He’s very anxious and for him, he instinctually knows that by sorting and moving things it makes him feel better inside. It was the same when he was 4 and he liked to dump 2 small bins of toys and then precede to sort and put them all away. He had this insatiable need to do this before school and if you didn’t let him finish the way he wanted to, then he would get very upset. I had some professionals point out to me that he doesn’t know how to play with toys and teachers who told me that he is just making a mess in the classroom. I had other professionals tell me to put all of his toys in clear bins so he could see them all but he would have to ask me for any toy he had to play with to compel him to interact with me. In my gut I knew when I saw my little guy sorting the clutter he made on the floor after the exhilarating feeling of just dumping stuff in the first place he was doing something to feel good. My sister n’law once pointed out to me that she wondered if this was giving us a window into his mind when he was non-verbal. She felt that maybe at that moment when he is anxious he needs to do something physical, like make a mess that mirrors his mind. By repetitively sorting and organizing he is re-setting his mind so he can face what he has to do next. I swear when I heard that a light bulb went off in my head. Why can’t it be just this simple? Why can’t people look outside of the box and be as flexible with their thinking that they are asking an Autistic child to be? Why do they continue to think that the child is just making a mess and (we know in their heads they are thinking naughty bad boy) and try to ABA them into playing properly? In kindergarten I just suggested to the teacher to not have so many bins down low for Johnny to reach and then I suggested that she have him be clean up monitor in the classroom. After the other children tidy up and put all the toys or school tools away have him do and double check because I promise he will instantly notice if they have put the toys in the wrong bins and by letting him take control and fix this helps him too. It also teachers him to channel what he “needs” to do into something that is more constructive for everyone and that is more classroom worthy. This if you will then translates into a life skill then feeling like you are doing something wrong all the time. When I think back it was Johnny’s senior kindergarten teacher who appreciated this side to him because she was very meticulous and precise about everything and she liked that he was “so helpful.”
When my Dad lived with us (he has since passed away), he used to get Johnny to help him as well. When it came time to fill the dishwasher with dirty dishes he would hand Johnny the utensils and have him put them into the slots. One by one he would hand him each spoon and fork and wait patiently until he mastered his fine/gross motor skill. It built up Johnny’s confidence because it made him feel helpful in the kitchen and it deterred him from following his curiosity too far in the kitchen by re-directing him to a more useful task. Then when my Dad thought Johnny was ready (and tall enough) he let him put the clean spoons and forks away in the cutlery drawer. He now had to match each size spoon and fork to the right spot over and over again. My Dad had such patience watching him slowly do this two to three times a day. Especially when my little guy decided that he had a better way to organize the cutlery drawer and would re-arrange all the slots. Sigh. Its been four years since Johnny started doing this and to this day the way my cutlery drawer is organized and laid out is “all Johnny.” He might not do the cutlery all the time anymore but he’s moved on to helping me do the laundry. A repetitive task that we have to do many times that is always the same and is helpful and is a life skill. The fringe benefit is that Johnny’s anxiety is lessoned, his confidence is higher and he’s happy. Win win.