C is a boy who, at four, can read full sentences, complex words, and short books; if it’s 6:51, he can tell you how many minutes until it’s 6:58; he’s memorized nearly every street in our neighborhood and can represent them with toy train tracks; he knows all the stops on the Q train from here to Brighton Beach; he knows the color of every single NYC subway line; if you ask him what number J is, he’ll say “ten” without hesitation, because that’s where J falls in the sequence of letters in the alphabet.
But C is also a boy who cannot take a basic hearing test: the doctor prompts and prods, trying to get him to answer the simplest question (“Do you hear a beep now, C?”) but C just giggles and wriggles, or spaces out entirely.* And this is just one example of the myriad tasks that fall into the category of Basic Life Skills that completely elude our boy.
It’s this duality, more than anything else, that epitomizes the challenge C faces in life. How can someone so bright in so many ways get by if he cannot learn to master the simplest social interactions and situations? Life independence isn’t a matter of having a photographic memory or advanced math, spelling, and geography skills, but of navigating a complex web of human relationships.
For my part, I’ve mostly given up on trying to describe C’s autism using signs and symptoms because, taken out of context, they don’t really provide an accurate picture. No, I think the example above does it best: C is a boy who can do some simply amazing things, but utterly struggle with things a child half his age can do without the slightest thought.
Can a child learn to master the basic life skills that seem to be in the realm of instinct alone? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so.
* After the test, my wife asked C how many beeps he heard during the hearing test. “Fifteen,” he replied without the slightest hesitation. “Wow,” said the doctor, “that’s exactly how many there were!” As usual, C can do it, but he has to do it his own way.