When my nephew Travis was a toddler, I didn't know how to deal with him. The poor little guy was burdened with problems. His lenses were removed because of a congenital eye condition when he was only three months old, and had to endure eye drops and contact lenses. Try putting contact lenses in a screaming baby's eyes. Gosh, I felt sorry for his mother. Later, he developed peanut allergies and then his parents discovered that he was autistic.
Family visits involved scrubbing down the house, being careful about what foods to serve, and fielding complaints from my young children and the other nieces and nephews. They had no patience for the giggling, wiggling child who just wouldn't stop.
A couple of weeks ago, we hit the road for a long overdue visit to Travis and his family in North Bay. Travis is now almost ten years old, and his brother Jay is a precocious, bright and articulate eight year old. I must admit I felt a little trepidation. I didn't know how I should behave around a child with autism. Even we non-autistics and non-aspergians fear the unknown.
The boys waited on the front porch of the house in the woods. They looked so excited to see Aunty Sandy and Uncle Mark, but were disappointed that their cousins chose to stay home. I impulsively hugged Travis, and felt him stiffen in my arms. Oops, bad idea. He quickly regained his composure and showed us inside, chattering all the way.
Travis is very interested in photography and I think he took a zillion pictures of me. I showed him how to use the self timer and he ran to his brother to try it out. He also peppered me with hyothetical questions that made my head spin.
John Elder Robison first made me curious about the little nuances of communication with an autistic person. I kept John's blog posts in mind as I listened to Travis. My nephew's questions mostly involved situations that would probably never happen, but he really wanted to know what I would do if my car caught fire. I'd get out of the car as fast as I could and call the fire department. What would I do if my camera got hot and smoky? I said I'd take the batteries out. What would I do if... if... if? Every answer prompted another question. It felt a lot like those endless 'Why' questions a young child asks, but these were specific questions and I tried to answer them as accurately as possible. I knew he would take me very seriously, and flippant remarks were not a good idea. I figured he would retain this information for a long time, processing every detail.
I also noticed his eyes while we conversed. He placed himself in my line of sight and spoke earnestly, listening to my answers with rapt attention, but his eyes would not meet mine. They rolled around in his head like little lottery balls. Now I understand the title of John's book, Look Me In The Eye.
Little brother Jay welcomed the respite from being Travis's 'babysitter', and spent most of the weekend on the computer. He took a break to help me pick raspberries and climb hay bales. I was amazed by his mature attitude and his patience with his big brother. He obviously benefited from Travis' special education program. He is also a gifted artist.
I'm glad we went. I don't claim to be a new expert or anything, but I now understand autism a little bit more.
Photos: Jay on the hay bale, and me and Travis.