Mother’s Day 2011
There are children who cannot say “Thanks for everything, Mom.” There may be mothers who are saddened by this, and there may be mothers who feel a kind of grief over never receiving a bunch of carnations on Mother’s Day. I’ll never truly experience the sorrow these mothers are feeling, I’m afraid, but I do know exactly what those children who can’t express their gratitude are going through. Mother’s Day is supposed to be the time of year when we show our appreciation for everything our mothers, who we love, do for us. In my case, however, I’m unable to utter even a simple “thank you.” It’s wretched and it’s miserable. I’m sure that if a nonverbal person like me could speak fluently all of a sudden, the very first words he or she would utter would be, “Thanks so much for everything, Mom.” Please remember: there are young people, like me, who dream of a day in the future when we too can say these few words.
image of empty vase tk
A sudden shower arrived out of nowhere. As soon as Mum heard the sound of rain she cried, “It’s raining!” and dashed upstairs to the balcony to gather in the washing without looking out of the window. I just watched her, no doubt seeming a bit vacant. What follows is a chronology of what went on inside my head as this scene unfolded:
1) A million pitter-patter-pitter-patter sounds.
2) I wonder, What could that noise be?
3) Mom cries, “It’s raining!” Then the noise must be rain.
4) So I look out of the window . . .
5) . . . and watch the rain, mesmerized; yet as I watch now, I hear nothing; it’s like a close-up scene of rain in a silent movie.
6) Only now does the sound of the rain start to register.
7) I seek to connect the concept “rain” to its sound; I search for common aspects between all the downpours in my memory and the rain now hammering down outside.
8) Upon finding common aspects, I feel relief and reassurance.
9) I wonder, How come it’s raining now? It was clear earlier.
10) Up to this point, my mother hadn’t crossed my mind. Now she comes downstairs, saying, “That shower was on us all of a sudden, wasn’t it?”
11) I recall Mom running to the balcony to save the laundry.
12) How could she realize so quickly that it was raining?
If I couldn’t communicate via my alphabet grid, my questions would go unanswered and I’d be sad to my core about how little I understood. As it is, I was able to consult my mother about how she identified the rain by the sound alone. She told me: “Well, because that sound’s the sound of rain and when it starts raining, we bring in the washing. The weather forecast was saying it might rain today, remember?” I did recall the weather forecast, although to have done so of my own volition would have been impossible. As I remembered the relevant section of the report, the forecaster’s words returned and I understood a little more clearly why the rain appeared from nowhere, which eased my confusion and frustration.
What remains a mystery is how to infer that it’s raining purely from the noise. To me, the sound of rain is an abstract. Identifying the voices of my family or the trill of a phone, the barking of dogs or meowing of cats, these are relatively easy. Some sounds, however, take me forever to figure out, like the chirruping of cicadas at the start of summer. I sense that I’ve heard these sounds before but without further clues their origins remain obscure. Even if I could identify the source of rain-noise, making the jump from the thought It’s raining! to bringing in the laundry would be virtually out of the question. I’d be too occupied just sitting there, entranced.
Rain is a special case. I have certain memories within which rain has left a lasting impression. When I see rain, bitter incidents I have come to associate with it come back to haunt me. Fun things must have happened on rainy days as well, yet somehow it’s only the sad scenes which summon themselves up. I have to put a lot of effort into distinguishing “memory rain” from real rain if I want to avoid triggering bad flashbacks. To do so, my mind tends to give first priority to organizing my memories ahead of thinking about what actions I need to take right at this moment. All these transactions are a part of what I need to factor in as I work toward behaving like a neurotypical person.
It was when I was trying to close an umbrella that had been drying out that I ran into trouble. One of its two snap-fasteners wouldn’t snap shut. Normally it clicks into place in no time at all, so I felt a surge of annoyance and managed to call out, “Mom, to come!” I asked her to close up the umbrella—but my mother couldn’t do it either. She peered at the fastener and said, “Ah, it’s gone all rusty—that’s why it won’t snap shut.” Being unable to do what I normally can—even very trivial things—is a big deal for me, in a bad way. So I just handed the umbrella back to Mom—that was my way of asking her to try again. This time she showed me how corroded the little fastener thing was, and said, “See? It’s all rusted up. There’s no way this umbrella can be closed now.” Once upon a time, even with this clear explanation, I might have lost it completely and gone to pieces. By this point, however, I was able to accept the situation and give up on trying to close the umbrella.
None of the above was down to greater patience leading to stronger powers of endurance. Rather, I think that my brain, upon fully grasping the cause of a problem, was able to say to itself, It’s okay, that’s impossible to fix, you can move on now.
On the whole I feel I’ve always understood the causes of the obstacles I’ve run up against, but my emotions could still be quite inflammable. It helps me very much that whenever a new issue arises my mother gives short, positive, clear guidance and instructions. People with autism might need more time, but as we grow there are countless things that we can learn how to do, so even if you can’t see your efforts bear fruit, please don’t quit. Our lives are still ahead of us. Some kinds of success can be won by, and only by, sheer effort and sweat. We all have to bear in mind that adulthood lasts a lot longer than childhood. This is what I’ve been constantly reminding myself.
One winter day my mother was surprised to find me shivering with cold after I’d just had a bath. She told me, “You ought to make your bath warmer, you know.” The thing is, I really love water, and whenever I get into the bath, I just can’t help turning on the cold tap and letting the water run. I don’t really notice my body cooling down. When the temperature of the bath is down to roughly that of an indoor swimming pool, my body feels as if it is one with the water itself. I feel like I’m a fish or some aquatic creature who has dwelt in the water for aeons.
Of course, I can’t very well stay in the bath forever, however much I might want to. Upon leaving the water I always feel a sense of regret, but because my bath is a fixture in my daily schedule I never get too agitated about it. I’m not even aware of having been cooled down by my cold bath until someone says to me, “Wow, your body’s really cold” or “Look, you’re shivering!” However often this is pointed out to me, I still seem to end up with a bathtub full of cool water. My hope is that by being told over and over that chilly baths really aren’t that great for my body, it will gradually sink in.
Provided that life and limb aren’t being threatened, and that I’m not overly bothering people, this approach of it’ll gradually sink in has a lot to be said for it, I think. Every day is so full of challenges and difficulties that if I was more wound up about fixing my autism-derived behaviors now, life would be unbearable. When I was growing up, my mother couldn’t be watching over my each and every move—she, too, has had to develop a “hands-off” mode. This approach might not suit every instance of autism, but it’s served us pretty well, so far.
The other day, when I glanced at myself in the mirror, I froze. Reflected there was a face that was not mine. I kept staring, thinking, What on earth’s that strange face doing in the mirror? Then I heard my mother laughing. “You look like an old man,” she told me, “with those wrinkles on your forehead.” I was surprised—without noticing, I’d made my forehead go all scrunched up and, like Mom said, there were now three horizontal furrows across my brow. It was thanks to those three lines that I failed to recognize myself in the mirror. I know I’m not brilliant at distinguishing one face from another, but I never would have believed that I could fail to know my own face just because of a wrinkled forehead. It really sunk in for me then: there’s a world of difference between merely seeing a thing and knowing what it is.
I’ve noticed people often use the words “cool” or “hip” when talking about clothing or fashion. This whole concept of “cool,” however, makes no sense to me whatsoever. When I do up all the buttons on my shirt, I’m advised, “Best to leave the top one undone.” Or, when I zip my jacket all the way up to my throat, I’m told, “You’re supposed to leave it unzipped, you know.” It’s cooler that way, apparently, but to my way of thinking, buttons and zips are there to be buttoned and zipped up, so it feels strange not to. As for the clothes themselves, as long as they fit me and feel comfortable, that’s good enough—I don’t really care what impression my outfit makes on other people. Sometimes I admire sports people or celebrities or stars, but I never look at their clothes or style with any envy. Fashion just leaves me cold, I suppose.
As an adult, I know that it’s not good to wear grubby or inappropriate clothing, and choosing clothes has become a fraught area—I’m simply not in the habit of thinking about my wardrobe and appearance. When I look in a mirror, I never know what it is exactly that I ought to be checking out. Even if I select one point, focusing my attention on it is already difficult. Aspects of my appearance that need fixing don’t leap out at me, and I can’t distinguish very well between how things look pre-adjustment and how they appear afterward.
I’ve compiled a few personal “going out” rituals: change into an outdoors outfit, put on a hat, clean my glasses and put them on too, check my belt, tuck my shirt in and so on. Whenever I’m given fashion or style advice, I do my best to take it on board. But I always think that the daily life of the fashion-conscious, with all its dos and don’ts, must get really exhausting.
Whenever I get some kind of a cut or scrape, I want to stick on a Band-Aid without delay. Sometimes I put one on not because I’m actually in pain, but because I want to confirm to myself where the “injury” happened. Also, it brings me reassurance to know that the Band-Aid will flag up the cut, scrape, scratch or whatever to other people. Having something on my skin that normally isn’t there—in this case, a Band-Aid—feels weird, so usually I take it off quite soon. But when I notice my skin is a little damaged, or when it bothers me, I sometimes put another Band-Aid on so that other people will notice it too. Whenever a zit appears under my nose I put a Band-Aid on that as well, which always makes my family burst out laughing. I don’t clock that this is funny until I see my family laugh, but I soon forget all about it, so the next time I have a zit in the same place, I do exactly the same thing. . . .
Since I left school, I’ve been enjoying doing digital jigsaw puzzles on my computer. I suspect there are many children with autism who really love jigsaw puzzles. When I do puzzles, I pay more attention to the pieces than to the picture. All the pieces might look similar, but in fact, if you examine them closely, you’ll see that each one is minutely different in outline.
I don’t begin the puzzle by working on the outside edges. Slotting two pieces together is the fun part for me and rushing to the completion of the puzzle defeats the whole point. I don’t take much pleasure from finishing it because that means the slotting together—the good part—is over. Once it’s done, I like to flip it over so it’s back to front. I love inspecting how the pieces all fit together from the plain reverse side, too.
Then, after admiring the beautiful curved lines for a short time, I demolish the puzzle so it’s ready for next time. Simple pleasures are jigsaws.
When I was really small I couldn’t eat a hard candy the way you’re supposed to. The moment I popped it into my mouth I just crunched it up into lots of hard little bits. I knew what “munching” meant, but I didn’t understand the idea of allowing a candy to dissolve slowly in the corner of your mouth. I remember eating those sweets thinking, Wow, these things are really hard. My family must have racked their brains trying to figure out a way to get me to suck sweets instead of crunching them.
Then, one day, as I was biting a hard candy into gravel as usual, Mom told me, “No, it’s not crunchy-munchy, Naoki—it’s lickety-lick.” Back then, if I’m honest, I never normally paid Mum’s instructions all that much attention. But this time, her “lickety-lick” was so hilarious that it really banged my funny bone. I just gawked at her, waiting to hear her say it again—but then, from the corner of her mouth, there appeared an uncrunched hard candy. Once again Mom said, “lickety-lick,” and showed me the candy that had been in her mouth.
This is how I came to understand the meaning and satisfaction of letting a candy slowly dissolve in your mouth.