I use the term ‘weird’ here without provocation, and without intent to insult. This is Boo’s word, to describe his ‘quirks’. You see, despite being autistic, and therefore contrary to popular opinion, he does care what other people think, because people have taken it upon themselves to comment or reprimand. He’s hugely self-conscious of his brand of Autistic Quirks.
From repetitive sniffing (without a runny nose) to finger tapping. From leg jiggling to full blown rocking. To opening a zip, closing it, and opening it again. To the need for the same black-handled spoon and to lay the table in one direction. These are the repeated, daily quirks that are seamlessly woven in to our lives. Most of the time we don’t even notice them, but yes, I am human and the repetitive sniffing does get under my skin.
You see, even without the repeated sniffing causing ear problems, the sniffing is incessant, and infuriating, and has the potential to tip me from coping to not. ‘He can’t help it’ I remind myself, only to find my reserves of patience wearing thin. And he’s so self-conscious I don’t want to make it worse. Fortunately we’re undergoing our latest shift here, and I think the sniffing is being replaced by Pursed Lip Sucking… that’s near-silent, I can handle silent!
Some Autistic children I know have developed tics. A ‘habitual spasmodic contraction’ of muscles, often in the face. See here for a little more info. I feel for these kids even more. The ‘quirks’ and social communication difficulties are enough to make life on the school social scene tough for them, without the added complication of something visible that’s definitely outside their control. Not fun.
But the thing is, everyone has their ‘thing’, it’s just about social convention as to whether yours is perceived ‘weird’ or harmless, or annoying or not noticeable. I have a friend who strokes her own eyebrow repeatedly when thoughtful or stressed, I repeatedly flick my thumb between my fingers, another friend fiddles with her ear lobe, my husband bites his nails. But none of these make noise or a visual disturbance, they don’t impact on others. And maybe that’s where the problem lies.
A parent of a child in Boo’s class, several years ago, once complained to the teacher about his repetitive tapping in a IT lesson when he was getting anxious, and how it was disrupting her child’s learning. Fortunately the teacher had more to say about what the other child was doing to necessitate Boo to resort to self-calming quirks and wanted to understand it from Boo’s perspective, but it was upsetting, feeling that he had been seen as ‘annoying’ or ‘that child’ because his quirk was ‘weird’ and not socially acceptable. And I can vouch for how infuriating these quirks can be – and that’s as his mother with calm loving understanding of why and when he does it, not a classmate looking to get out of trouble. So I understand.
But when he’s not even aware he’s doing it, and it is driven by such a need to calm and regulate, what can we do but allow these behaviours to continue? Believe me, the meltdown he’d have, or the noise that would ensue, if he didn’t utilise his little quirks along the way, would have more impact on those around him than a few minutes of sniffing, or lip sucking or tapping.
I console myself with the fact that the vast majority of people who know and love Boo don’t even see these behaviours, let alone pass comment or judgement. It’s just the judgemental ones, the ones who think their child is perfect, and are clueless about Autism, or who are too closed minded to think outside their own understanding and experience, who judge and comment. And at the end of the day, they can stick it.
What are your experiences of other people noticing or commenting on your child’s quirks? How do you handle it?