I was one of those super-mums-to-be who promised herself that she wouldn’t complain about the endless questions of childhood. Instead I would embrace the opportunity to teach my child. This determination became even more resolute when I was told my son’s autism would have a serious impact on his language abilities; if he ever developed language to the point that he could ask me questions at all – form meaningful sentences and use them to seek knowledge – I would never let myself take such a joyous ability for granted.
And I don’t. I answer his questions, and I am ever glad he is capable of asking questions. But autism has a way of twisting “normal milestones” – like the endless question-asking of childhood – into something so utterly different and challenging.
My son’s latest and growing obsession, is vehicles; specifically their logos and licenses. He wants to know the names attached to every logo he sees (Mazda, Toyota, Mercedes etc), but if he can’t see the logo on a vehicle or we didn’t see it in time to tell him what it was as we drive past, he’ll get quite anxious about wanting us to turn the car around so he can get a second look at it. At times there is no visible logo – such as on many local buses and in a good many of his vehicle books – which leads to lots of questions about what the logo is and why it’s been removed. He also wants to know if Hino makes cars as well as trucks, does Mazda make cement mixers, etc. He wants to know how many licenses (learners, restricted, full, truck, heavy truck, passenger carrier etc) are required for each kind of vehicle; how long it takes to get each type of license; how old he has to be to get each stage of license.
If it was just the unusual questioning, I could handle it (Google gets a good work out in this house). But it’s not that simple. Hardly any question gets asked once. He’ll ask the exact same question time after time, even when he’s been given a full and clear answer; like he’s forgotten that he asked or what the answer was, moments after he’s been given it. And woe if we don’t know the answer: “I don’t know” is not an acceptable reply; not only will he keep asking but he will get progressively more upset each time he asks and doesn’t get a full reply. He often counters with a pleading and anxious “you can know, you can know!”
There are still times we can’t quite decipher what he is actually asking because of his odd sentence structure and choice of words. Sometimes he can’t form the sentence he wants or remember the question he was going to ask, which makes him considerably upset as he tries to convey both the question itself and the fact that he can’t get it out. He’ll even ask us to ask his question for him – “What’s my question?” – and get upset that we don’t know his question before he’s even said it aloud.
We do our best to answer the endless, repetitive questions and to deal kindly and patiently with the consequences of not being able to quite understand or reply to his queries. Both my husband and I have learnt a large amount now about the New Zealand licensing scheme for vehicles we’d never contemplated before, we know most vehicle logos and can even spot some of the differences in earlier versus later model logos, we’ve learnt some of the history of vehicle companies so we are better equipped to answer questions about who makes what, and so on.
I’ve had plenty of experience dealing with the “normal” questions from his same-age peers; the endless questions that I often hear normal parents complain about. Those questions I can understand and answer; questions that would leave me feeling like the knowledgeable and helpful parent I thought I would be when it came to this stage of his childhood. And if the child doesn’t get an answer, they don’t cry and have an anxiety response. And when they get an answer, they don’t ask the exact same question straight away, or next time I see them. Instead of passing on what I know to my son, I’ve had to change and grow my knowledge in order to pass along completely new information about things I never had to know and got by just fine without knowing all my life. I’m up to that challenge; in some ways it’s a wonderful challenge.
So this isn’t “normal” childhood questioning per se, but it is normal in the autism-parenting world, where we strategize to lower anxiety responses and address verbal language deficits, and become experts alongside our children in such un-noticed world-details as logos and licenses. A world where the very act of forming sentences and actively seeking knowledge about the world, is not the stuff of parental complaints, but the stuff of long-fought and hard-won celebration.