Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ritualistic Behaviors and Genetics

Asperger's, autism, difference, family, obsessions, quirks, sleep, stimming, ritualistic behaviors, geneticsimage from Wikimedia Commons

God (or Goddess or who or whatever you believe is calling the shots) has a sense of humor. I am convinced of this for many reasons, but today I think it is because when Gus was being formed in my tummy, God decided to take every quirk - from me, my husband, my parents, his parents, even our cats - and pile them into the boy who became known as Gus. No wonder the kid wakes up so often in a giggling fit - it's pretty amusing. We've got to be the poster people for why autism is a mainly genetic condition. I think we could also make a pretty good case for how some of the behaviors that are considered to be 'odd' in people with autism, may be more normal than the typically developed world wants to admit. If I had a dollar for each of the stimming behaviors I've seen in 'typically developed' people...well, I've never actually had such a large sum of money to handle, but I'll bet I could do a lot. Maybe pay off the national debt.

One of the things I seem to have in common with Gus is a reliance on rituals. Ritualistic behaviors - following the same patterns without deviation - are common to people with autism. But I think to a certain degree, they may not be all that uncommon to people without the autism diagnosis. I suppose it's all a matter of relativity and degree, like everything else.

When Gus was a baby we lived in a 2 story building at the back of a U-shaped courtyard. It was a pain when we had to lug groceries or laundry down the long walkway, but it turned out to be a huge boon once Gus was mobile since he had a long way to run before he could reach the road. Every time we went out, he'd take off down the path. But he didn't go straight into the road; there was a mammoth tree if he veered to the left a little, which he almost always did. Down the path, around the tree...One day, after MM was born (so I was significantly slowed with an infant) Gus snuck out of the apartment, out of the building and down the path wearing nothing but a diaper. By the time I caught up, I was frantic (he is frighteningly fast when he wants to be). But my neighbor had snagged him. He was sitting very calmly under his tree. If he ever varied his pattern, I can count the number of times on one hand. We lived there until he was 5 - that's a long time to repeat a ritual.

I also have some rituals that some people might consider strange. The one that got me on this train of thought was the way I prepare my tea. I drink a lot of tea and I am very particular with the way it's made. I tend to use the same mug because the size of the mug is important - it affects the amount of tea, sugar, lemon and water needed. I must have the precise amount of sugar - 1 teaspoon plus one packet of Stevia - and a sliver of lemon (about half an inch thick). I use loose tea, so since my mug is 16 oz. I use 2 teaspoons, and yes, I measure with an actual measuring spoon that I have only for measuring my tea. The sugar, Stevia and lemon (in that order almost always) go in the mug first. The only time I add these things after the water is when I go to a diner because they are deviant and always insist on bringing me a mug of water instead of just a pot of water and an empty mug so I can make my tea properly! I try not to be bitter about it. Back when I used tea bags, I used to let my tea sit for a long time before drinking it because I don't like it too hot. Now I set a timer because I learned I was over-steeping my tea. See? I can be flexible about this. But not much.

The point is that if my tea is not made just so, I may not be thrilled with it, it may dampen the experience for me, but I can drink it without getting too upset. When Gus's current routine of watching Arthur the minute he walks through the door is changed (like it was during pledge time for PBS) he gets very upset. And therein lies the distinction. It's all a matter of degrees.

Sometimes these rituals are useful. Our bedtime ritual makes it possible for Gus to go to sleep very easily. But if we deviate from the ritual, it can be a problem. I used to teach an evening yoga class on Monday nights. Every Monday night, DH would have a hard time getting Gus to go to bed because he spent a long time getting up to look for me. Double edged blades those rituals. They help me to remember things that my overextended brain would otherwise forget, Unfortunately, if I alter the routine at all I can really screw myself up.

Last week it was a nice day and I changed my normal pattern by going for a bike ride in the middle of the afternoon before I had to pick up my neighbor's daughter and then Gus. Usually I don't leave the house at that time because I generally chain myself to my computer screen. Everything was fine - I got back from my ride in plenty of time to put my bike away, grab a quick drink of water, put my keys and ID away, lock up and head out to the bus stop. Did you catch that? Good for you because I didn't until I reached in my pocket and realized that the keys were still hanging on the hook and I was locked out. Yeah, changing the pattern is not usually a good thing for me.

Some people think that the ritualistic behaviors should be stopped. While there is certainly something to be said for helping your autistic child gain some flexibility, I think that as long as they are not infringing on anyone else, they're probably okay. Many people have their little rituals. So the autistic person may just have more of them or be more intensely attached to them.

So why did tea lead me to a discussion of ritualistic behavior? Well, my routine is totally off right now because the kids are home on break. And Gus had a nightmare and woke me up last night, so I'm also a little more tired than usual (and clearly into making lots of excuses for myself). So I began my tea ritual and then got distracted by getting the kids orange juice. The water boiled, I grabbed my teaspoon and dumped the first scoop of loose tea...right into the cup. I forgot the strainer. It wouldn't have been a problem if there wasn't all that sugar, Stevia and lemon juice at the bottom of the cup. Okay, sometimes the rituals don't really work out.

Do you see any of your autistic child's behaviors in yourself? Do either of you have any amusing rituals you follow?

P.S. This post may be a little rambling and distracted, but I'm posting it anyway. Why? Because posting to this blog is another one of my rituals! Have a great day!

1 comment:

  1. I think itual is not only normal and comforting for most people, it is essential for any functioning civilization. What is an election if not a ritual? What is a trial in a court of law, if not a ritual? How would we ever get any kid to sit in a chair in school if there was not a ritual of "you come in, you sit down?"

    I think the problem with rituals is when they get too big for their britches. When a ritual keeps you from living - if, for example, you go to the diner and not only can't drink the tea because they make it a different way,but can't drink anything else because you always drink tea -then it's a problem.

    If you can't ever go to a little league game because you have a ritual of washing the dishes before you leave the house, that is a problem. If it gets all the way to OCD, that's a problem. Right up until those points, it is actually an asset in many situations. Where, after all, does one draw the line between "ritual" and "good work (or life) habits?" So I think it is a matter of teaching children, if possible, how to deal with a necessary disruption in their ritual, rather than trying to strip them of ritual entirely, which should be the goal.


Welcome - thanks for sharing your insights!