How my son’s autism brought me to science, and how I brought science to him (Part 2)

My son started asking questions at least two years after his same-age peers, and the “why” questions would come in very much later (he is now seven years-old). At first he most needed to know about routine, expectations, and rules; without this knowledge he was prone to anxiety and meltdowns. Those were questions I could answer, they were relationship and authority questions, where I was the relevant authority. Over time his questions expanded beyond this most basic need for certainty about day-to-day routine, and became more about the world he could see around him. Again, most of those questions I could answer from memory and personal experience, and only occasionally would I have to turn to trusty Google (or similar) for help. This wouldn’t last.

By Sweetie187, via Flickr

He had a passion for things that measured time and space, with a long-lasting obsession for looking at and collecting all types of clocks. He moved on to an all-consuming love of calendars, to the point his room walls were covered in them and his first question when visiting relatives was whether they had a calendar he could take home. Perhaps predictably (and rather delightfully), his interest shifted to the planet Earth, the place where all distance and time that he was familiar with, was measured and most meaningful. The calendars in his room were slowly replaced by world maps (he currently has four world maps on his room walls, and three globes at last count). And so you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that now he is utterly consumed by the Universe. His favourite apps, his posters, his books, and of course his endless questions, are now about space, the solar system, the exoplanets, and so many things I know so little about.

I could no longer rely on my own memories and experience to answer his questions, and even Google couldn’t keep up, because now his questions were about the size of the Universe, if the Universe would ever end, whether and when our sun will die, and the number of galaxies and stars and names of the biggest this or that celestial body. Sometimes there were answers, increasingly there are not, but he still craves the knowledge and has a need to understand why there are no answers when I could always give him them before. And this is where science and the scientific method, observations and discoveries of knowledge, became crucial to how I was to help my son.

He had already encountered a book sent home through school as part of his reading class, that explained how our knowledge has changed, refined and advanced over time in regards to the dinosaurs; looking at how we do know certain things about these ancient creatures, that the way we come to know these things and the way we make sense of our observations, can change over time. I thought the idea might scare or confuse him, with his intense need for clear guidelines and knowledge, but we discussed the idea introduced in the book between us, and he appeared to follow the general idea and even found it quite interesting.

I was able to expand on what we encountered in that book, by confronting the problem of Pluto: Old books and old posters told my son that Pluto was a planet, books and posters are meant to be reliable sources of truth and facts. How is it Pluto lost its designation, when, and why? It was a great chance to explain to him how seemingly fixed knowledge can change, as we look out for new information and refined understanding, as new observations and new knowledge helps us to be more accurate. He could now recite when Pluto lost its designation as a planet, and places that knowledge in reference to his own life span; it doesn’t bother him, in fact it appears to make him quite happy.

(He loves quizzing me on the Universe, to see what I understand too. One of his favourite lines is “did you know that…” followed by his latest space fact. He talks to himself everyday, as if he’s absorbing new ideas out loud, a form of learning for him, and I recently overheard him say “”Did you know” means “let me tell you.”” My boy is more insightful than some adults I know!)

His love of the universe, and his growing understanding about how new knowledge is found and incorporated into existing knowledge, has been a great foundation for me to encourage him to see a future occupation in the field (should he so choose). I’ve told him that if he wants to know even more about the Universe than we do today, then he should become a scientist who studies space. I’ve spoken to him about how studying science at school now is the first step on that journey, and that maybe he’ll want to choose physics at highschool level too.

We’ve spoken about how he could pursue a job at the local planetarium (his favourite location in school holidays), and how one day he’d like to be an astronaut (an unlikely occupation for a New Zealand boy with his challenges, but I see absolutely no reason to stamp out his passion and desire, so far it is only achieving good things for him. In the past he has wanted to be a policeman, a teacher, and a few other things; his interests and passions shift over time, and that’s fine. I see it as my job to help him to understand how to reach his chosen goals, and to help him along that path. Who knows; maybe he will be an astronaut, that’s decades away and things change so much over time.)

Science is a perfect field for my son. Not only is it the study of reality (which he finds far more interesting than fiction), it is also a great way for him to come to terms with uncertainty. His intense desire for certainty has driven him down this path towards wanting and needing to understand the Universe, and straight into the arms of the realisation that there is still so much unknown and uncertain about some of the most important things in life. And that’s OK. Each day still begins, still ends, mum still loves him, the season still change; there is enough certainty to allow him to function, but enough uncertainty to drive him to become the one who will help fill those gaps in our human knowledge and understanding.

Science, autism, life. So much uncertainty, so much yet to find out, but we know how to best pursue that knowledge, and in the meantime we live the best lives we can. For me, the best life I can lead right now includes learning about the Universe alongside my son every single day; so much beauty and magic already right there in the world, and right there between us.

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9 Responses to How my son’s autism brought me to science, and how I brought science to him (Part 2)

  1. alzgal says:

    Hi… lovely thoughts and really nice writing. I’m exploring some similar issues in a blog I started about studies in neuropsychiatry. I just posted one about the 30-year Seychelles study that found no link between autism and prenatal mercury exposure form fish, if you’re interested.

    http://alzgal.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-mercurial-debate-over-autism/

  2. Kathy R. says:

    Thank you for your beautiful essay. Your son is lucky to have you as his guide to learning about knowledge!

  3. Pingback: Morsels for the mind – 2/8/2013 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  4. mattyangel says:

    THANK YOU FOR SHARING :)!

  5. Naomi says:

    I’m sure you already know “a short history of nearly everything” by Bill Bryson, but it’s a very enjoyable book for grown ups and addresses some of those questions in a striking way and which can then perhaps be relayed to a younger listener 🙂

  6. JF says:

    Superb text and very inspiring. Going through a similar journey with my 5 year old son. #autismdad

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