Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dear Ones with Autism Spectrum

I've been thinking a lot about autism these days.  One of my dearest friends has had a very difficult time throughout his life in maintaining relationships. He was successful as a researcher-engineer, and is brilliant in his ability to make connections where others can't find them, but really has few friends.  In the last couple of years he came to the conclusion that he probably has "Aspberger's Syndrome" and he does seem to fit the profile.  He has a hard time with change and finds it very hard to read people.  He is either completely taken in by them, or totally distrusts them.

Our lives have continued to intersect over the years even as my career took me from California to Denver then the Washington, DC area, then Vienna, Austria and back to California. He came to my ordination and we speak on the phone nearly every day even though at the moment we're at opposite ends of the country.  In some ways I'm his anchor to reality and one of the few people he trusts.  I listen to his latest ideas on the causes of illness and he listens (when I remind him I haven't gotten a word in edgewise) to my ravings about Maine winter weather.

Last summer my only grandchild was given a similar diagnosis.  He is approaching the age of four and has had a difficult time in nursery school essentially having been kicked out of two. Any kind of change is hard for him and social interactions with other children are very hard.  He will hit out, push away, or just ignore. He's always gotten along pretty well with adults, though so most people don't see there's a problem . My son and his wife have fortunately gotten help for him and they're working with him every day.  He's gone from non-verbal last summer to having a pretty good vocabulary, although it's mostly concrete.  He loves pirates, but really can't make up stories or make believe adventures even about them.  He's a lovely little boy and I have have every confidence that with God's help he will grow into a productive adult.  

My friend somehow managed to get through college and even picked up a PhD, but I wish for him that 70 years ago there had been the knowledge and resources to help him with the social aspects of the disease.  He did have an understanding mother and one teacher who helped him figure out how to study.  In our conversations I'm trying to get him to work on figuring out what he's feeling.  I've been reading some books by Paul Ekman on reading faces to help us figure out what other people are feeling and have recommended them to him.  The one I'm finding most helpful is called "Unmasking the face: A guide to recognizing emotions from facial expressions."  My grandson is learning some of the same skills.  The big problem is getting either of them to look at people's faces.

I'm finding the book a help to me, in my work as a priest, as well.  It's sometimes important for me to know when I'm speaking with someone, especially someone I don't know well, if they're trying to put me on.  Other times it's just plain useful to pick up clues as to when parishioners are irritated or mad or suffering, or many other emotions.  Mainers are very close-mouthed and getting a better feel for what they are about is very useful.

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