Many people with autism don't understand idioms, nuances, or puns. They are literal thinkers who need other people to say exactly what they mean, or the message may be lost. To prevent traumatizing Cowboy, Flash and I avoid phrases like "die laughing," "cough it up," or "you're full of horse feathers" (one of my dad's favorite sayings). Even a seemingly straightforward request such as, "Can you go hang up this hand towel in the bathroom, please" can leave me searching for the towel for 15 minutes. I discovered it slung over the side of the tub on a stack of dirty towels; I had neglected to explain exactly where to hang the towel. Being specific is a requirement in our home.
One night at dinner, I told Cowboy, “No more gum until all the food on your plate is gone.”
He promptly got up from the table, walked to the kitchen, and scraped what was left of his meal into the garbage. How could I get upset about that? It was brilliant.
Since Cowboy, like all kids, did not come with an instruction manual – God’s little oversight - we learn as we go along. When we teach a new task, we often break it down into smaller steps. Instructions for brushing teeth began as, "Walk into the bathroom, pick up the purple toothbrush, turn the water on…" instead of giving one general instruction, “Go brush your teeth.” Until Cowboy was 11, we often took photos of the steps. After he mastered a task using photos as visual prompts (aids), we progressed to using written prompts, then, lastly, to verbal prompts alone. Finally, verbal prompts were faded out when he could complete a task prompt-free. These days, we start with verbal instructions while showing him how a task is done. He catches on right away, and we help him tweak the details when needed.
But at the top of the what-autism-brought-with-it list was a crash-course in obsessive behavior.
Whatever we had in abundance in our house reflected the Obsession of the Year. Two years passed without our having to add bar soap to our grocery list; we had accumulated over 100 blue bars and green bars. Cowboy was obsessed with buying it, not owning it. Once he got it home and put it by the bathroom sinks and tubs, he had nothing more to do with it. He had to buy it frequently, and not just one bar, but 3-packs. He’d find the one he wanted in the store, unwrap it immediately, and smell it – the equivalent of sniffing the cork of a fine wine. Thankfully, he didn’t feel the need to swish it in his mouth before buying.
During this period, I occasionally thought we’d finally run out of soap.
“Flash, are we out of soap?” I excitedly anticipated buying a different color.
“No, look under our bedroom dresser or in my underwear drawer.”
“Cowboy put them under our dresser and in drawers?”
“No, I did,” he hollered from the other room, as if these were normal places for soap.
Clearly, he had lost his mind. But I thought I’d ask and remove all doubt. “Why on earth did you put them there?”
“Air fresheners and potpourri. My clothes smell great.”
When Cowboy went soap shopping with Mom, he left his wares at her house. After the unveiling and the smelling, he sometimes carried it around for a few minutes, then he was finished with it. If Mom took him to a different store from the usual one, he would pick a new brand and open the package right away to make sure it was blue, although sometimes Mom talked him into waiting until they paid for it. Even when he waited until they got in the car for the color to be revealed, it was always blue. He had a sixth sense for the blue soap. Occasionally with Mom, Cowboy would purposely choose green or pink bars; she had a little more variety for her showering experiences than we did.
In the Gum Years, we owned every brand and color of non-sugar-free gum known to mankind, often all at the same time. Like addicts needing a fix, we would scour the land in search of these precious gems. Finding them was not an easy task; everyone is sugar-free these days. Once we hit pay dirt, we paid $15 for a hefty stash.
But of all the obsessions, "squishies" have stood the test of time. These can be toys, balls, fake animals, etc., that feel "squishy." Cowboy even made up a word in sign language for "squishy." Apparently, some outside our world use the term, too. I was delighted one Christmas season when I googled "squishy toys" and hit the mother lode.
One of the more unique interests was squishy potty seats. That’s right; the small cushioned seat you put on top of the toilet while a toddler is being potty trained. I had taken Cowboy across the street to play with some younger kids. As soon as he saw the pink squishy seat, he picked it up and started carrying it. The seat was in the living room and no longer being used in line of active duty; the mom assured me it was clean. But still, it was a potty seat, something my son had never seen before. He was trained at 4 years old on a regular seat. I told Cowboy what it was for and put it away, thinking that was the end of it.
Not so. He created a specific sign for “squishy potty seat” and insisted on seeing one the next time we went to Walmart. I indulged. It was five years before we could skip the infant department on our trips to the store. And he still wanted a pink one, just like his friend’s. Since the potty seats for small butts cost much more than those for adult butts, I finally bought a regular pink cushioned toilet seat. Flash, being the parent of sound mind at the moment, was against it; but sometimes the one hearing the wheel squeak ad nauseum is the one who finally oils it. Every time we were expecting company to come visit, I quickly hid it in Cowboy’s toy box to decrease the “Addams Family factor” of our home by one notch.
When the pink seat wore out, I told Flash, “Cowboy needs a new cushioned toilet seat.” It sounded more respectable and reasonable with this name.
“At least get a blue one” was his only response. I splurged and got a toddler size.
When Cowboy was 14, I asked him if he wanted to keep getting squishy toys as rewards for chores done or if he wanted money, and he picked money. Real money, not squishy money.
The next year, when he was ill right before Christmas, he and I watched Home Alone five times in two days, and again every day after, for 10 days. I was thrilled. His obsessions were maturing; it was the first time he showed that much interest in and focused on a non-animated movie. He acted out the emotions of the characters, screaming right along with Kevin McAllister every time Kevin slapped on his dad's aftershave. It was a breath-of-fresh-air obsession. Had Cowboy returned to A Chipmunk Christmas, having us play his favorite scene over and over again, it would've been a lonely season with Flash living elsewhere. Last December, Cowboy’s favorite Christmas movie was Elf. But he didn’t have to watch it every day.
Oh sure, he still plays his favorite Christmas song over and over on the stereo throughout the year and puts things back where they go immediately after using them, including getting up from the table and returning the salt shaker to the pantry as soon as he salts his food. But who says these are bad things? We’re our own brand of family; “Everything in moderation, including moderation” (Oscar Wilde) is our motto.
At the moment, we’re out of bar soap and have only half a package of chewing gum. Squishies are stored in two drawers in Cowboy’s room, but I can’t remember the last time he wanted to buy one. He is more relaxed now. Obsession is no longer a way of life in our home, with Cowboy, anyway. I still check my clock five times after setting the alarm, and I am eternally obsessed with the brilliance of my son.