A little past 10 on a Tuesday night my 16-year-old son Alex jackknifes up in his bed, throws down his blanket, looks at me, raises his arm and moans, “Tiger.”
“I don’t have it, Alex. Did you have it in here?”
Does he mean the $5, four-inch tiger or the $4, four-inch one with his (her?) head turned slightly to the right? Or the little one from the dollar set that also contained a little plastic lion, a jaguar and – ha ha – a zebra. A food chain for a dollar. Sometimes Alex’s thing for plastic animals is a real riot.
Sometimes. “Tiger? Aw, tiger.”
TIGER! He’s on his feet and lifting his mattress to peer under the bed and around the bedframe. It’s pushing 11:00 pm. “Aw tiger, tiger. A-ba-ba-ba!” Alex (PDD-NOS) usually uses more words than this.
So do I. “Alex, I don’t have it and I don’t know where it is. You have to take care of your things, Alex. Where did you last have your tiger?”
“Ti-GER!” He’s back out to the living room, where I find my wife Jill shoving her face under the couch and doing her part to erase what’s normal in our household. “I’ve gone through all the regular tigers,” she says. We offer them to Alex. This one? This one? “Aw, tiger.” Back to the bedroom where starts craning under the radiator next to his bed.
“Alex, we will find it tomorrow. You have to go bed now. Here-” I switch on a flashlight and hand it to him. Alex has never used a flashlight. What a good parent to turn this into a teaching moment.
Alex has a ton of plastic animals – too many to keep straight, Jill thinks – standing at attention along the edges of almost piece of furniture in our apartment. The two-inch-long elephant on the edge of the dining room table. The pigs on the hutch, flanked on one side by the lion and on the other by the lioness. The big elephant, the rhino and the turtle. The plastic cat, the plastic salamander and otter and aardvark and chickens. Animals detailed down to the ruffles in the fur and the shine of the eyes as they stare at you.
Mental health? I don’t know. All we tell anyone who asks is that somewhere among those animals is Alex’s idea of order.
Those with ASD may develop obsessions for several reasons, according to Great Britain’s National Autistic Society (www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/understanding-behaviour/obsessions-repetitive-behaviours-and-routines.aspx), including:
- obsessions may provide structure, order and predictability;
- special interests may be ways to start conversations and interaction; and
- obsessions may help people relax and feel happy.
Fine but does it have to be when the school bus is coming? On more than one school morning Alex demanded a lost plastic animal (Rhino! ‘potomos!) minutes before his bus pulled up. “Alex, come on!” “‘potomos!” In the lobby his hand would shoot up and he’d bolt for the elevator back to our apartment. If we even made it to curbside on those rotten mornings, he’d wriggle back off the bus and sometimes lay flat on the actual pavement of East 108th Street.
Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests are among autism’s core symptoms, according to a study cited by Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/treatment-associated-psychiatric-conditions). The symptoms of autism’s version of obsessive compulsive disorder often fool therapists and doctors unfamiliar with autism.
“A distinguishing hallmark of OCD is that the compulsive thoughts or behavior cause anxiety,” the citation reads. “Persons with autism are not generally bothered by their repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. Just the opposite, these behaviors and interests tend to bring comfort and enjoyment.”
To some. Wednesday: I turn on the coffee and wake him up. Maybe he forgot all about it overnight.
“Tiger? Tiger.” His arm is up as his eyes still squint with sleep. What’d Jill once say about this? Life comes to a halt.
“School, Alex, then tiger. You’ll find it when you get home. Mom’s working from home today and she’ll look for it.” Did he toss it out the window, I wonder? I show him the plastic cat, the big tiger, the little tiger, the other big tiger. Wrong. Wrong and wrong. You can’t fool him. Can’t reason with him, either. “Aw tiger-” I actually get him into his hoodie, out the door and down to the lobby where we sit to wait for the bus.
“It is the intensity and duration of a person’s interest in a particular topic, object or collection that marks it out as an obsession,” another Autism Speaks article adds.
Find it tomorrow, mom will look all day, time for school when he snaps, “Aw elevator!” and he’s up and off.
Jill doesn’t seem surprised when we come back through the front door. “Kind of makes you want to die,” she says. Should we scream and yell? Seek help? Who can help Alex understand a connection only Alex can see?
Moreover, what happens if he does this again tomorrow? The next day? For the rest of his life? It’s a peek at living with an autistic adult who doesn’t, when you get right down to it, have to do a thing he doesn’t want to. Nobody can live like this. “We’re very unhappy with you, Alex,” we say. “Very unhappy.”
He stares. “Tiger? iPad?”
I haven’t lost that much sense as a parent. “There won’t be any iPad, Alex. If you stay home today you will clean your room, do the laundry, wash the floor. We’re very unhappy with you, Alex.”
“Very unhappy with you,” he says.
Jill stays home with him. At my desk at work, I keep thinking how he’s home but if I call to see how he is, no illness is the enemy this time. I don’t call. Instead I rehearse what I’ll say to him tonight: And you’re going to school tomorrow, aren’t you? … And tomorrow, school … The bus is coming in the morning and you’re getting on it.
What will he reply? Repeat it back, which for some stupid reason I still take to mean agreement? Say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry?” and pat my arm? Or just more “Tiger”?
No easing of my mind will come until Thursday morning at 7:25 am when he climbs into that bus. Even then, how will I avoid thinking, What about the next day? All I can do is hope he just gets better.
(On Thursday morning Alex goes to school as if nothing happened. On Friday morning, he again refuses to go anywhere near our front door without a plastic animal. He says it’s a chicken but it’s really a rooster.)
Jeff Stimpson’s two books are Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism. His blog is http://jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jeffslife.