My six year-old son has figured out a way to understand what is good and what is appropriate in this world: does it affect your ability to drive. Knowing how important driving is to him, can make it easy to motivate him (“you must practice reading lots because people who drive need to learn how to read, so they can pass driving tests and read road signs…”). But much more than this, he uses driving to structure his own knowledge about other people, their appearance, choices and their actions.
For example, we recently walked past a very small man at the supermarket. Which lead to many questions about whether that man would still be able to drive (yes we said, though his vehicle may require modifications). Similarly, he’s asked in the past whether blind people can drive, and has decided that since they can’t, he’d rather not be blind (though I explained that there are alternatives forms of transport of course). So to him, the pertinent aspect of the difference, is in reference to how it affects your ability to drive. He also asks a lot of questions about why animals and children can’t drive, which can be a useful tool for explaining the difference in minds and bodies not just between people, but between adult people and other “ways of being.”
My son doesn’t want to be a criminal when he grows up, because criminals aren’t allowed to drive. But understanding what is “criminal,” and what is just ill-advised or inappropriate, is a fine distinction for a six year-old (and for a lot of adults too, it must be said). Last night we were watching a baking competition on TV (a “reality show”), which happened to feature some people with tattoos, and some people with various piercings. My son wanted to know whether having tattoos or piercings meant you weren’t allowed to drive. I told him no, that it was a decision adults can make about their own bodies. He followed this up by asking whether being a smoker meant you’re not allowed to drive.
The smoking question is an interesting one for him, since he knows smoking is a “bad decision,” but clearly wanted to find out whether it was bad enough (ie, criminal) that it could impact on one’s ability (or rather, freedom) to drive. His question gave me the opportunity to explain that smoking was a bad decision, but not one which meant you were not allowed to drive; that adults are free to make bad decisions. I followed this up by giving examples about how I make bad decisions sometimes – about the food I eat or what I buy – to help him understand that not every bad decision is life-threatening (as he understands smoking can be).
It’s incredibly useful to have this reference point of driving, even though obviously it’s somewhat limited in its wider application (certain crimes fall short of imprisoning you so that you can’t drive, or fall short of having one’s license taken away). It provides something he is interested in and motivated by, around which he can discuss and group together other (more confusing) aspects of people and their differences, actions, and choices in life. I think it’s a nice example too of how you can take an autistic child’s obsession, and accept and use it to teach a much wider range of information about the world. Trying to abstractly teach him concepts of criminality, legal consequences, adult decisions, and adult freedoms, would otherwise have been an up-hill battle. In fact, without his interest in how it all impacts on driving, I don’t know that he would have attempted to understand their importance and relevance to life (at this age anyway), or rather, that he would have really struggled to ask questions and get meaningful answers to those questions.
I worry about whether he will ever have the skills to drive a vehicle himself; there are a lot of aspects to driving which will foreseeably challenge him much more than someone who is neurotypical. I’d hate to see something so centrally important to him and his value system, shaken by that potential inability. But I’m hopeful that his own intense ambition and passion for driving, will in turn help him achieve that highest of values: The ability and freedom to drive.