Like the mythical character Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, Alex enjoys looking at his reflected image—in mirrors, photographs, and videos. Unlike Narcissus, however, Alex doesn’t really care about his appearance. I’m convinced that his interest in seeing his image lies in his search for himself. Several months ago, he found a hand mirror and amused himself by looking at the reflection of his face from different angles and with various facial expressions. Unfortunately, he accidentally dropped that mirror on the bathroom tile floor, where it shattered into little pieces. While I’m not superstitious about the seven years of bad luck associated with a broken mirror, I was concerned that the next time a mirror dropped, he could get cut by the broken shards. Therefore, I went in search of a baby mirror that he could carry around safely to satisfy his need to look at himself, and I found one made by Sassy that was not only safe but also reflected a more distinct image than most toy mirrors do. Alex was delighted with this purchase, carrying it around the house and even sleeping with his new mirror.
Besides looking at his reflection in mirrors, Alex also enjoys watching himself in old videotapes and looking at pictures of himself. Perhaps because we have told him that he is the one depicted in photos and videos, Alex always recognizes himself at any age and seems to find the younger version of himself amusing, laughing and smiling all the while he sees himself in the photos and videotapes. Other people are a bit problematic for him, however, since he doesn’t always recognize people’s faces. For example, he has trouble distinguishing my sister from me in photos, despite some obvious differences in our appearance. Also, whenever he sees an older man wearing glasses and a plaid shirt, he’ll often ask us, “Is that Grandpa?” He tends to make generalizations about others’ appearance and not see the small details. This past summer when we were out in public, Alex would watch small children, and if he saw little boys who resembled him when he was little, he would ask, “Is that Alex?” Through various explanations, we were able to convince him that he was the only one like him, and he seemed to grasp that other boys were not Alex. Also, by watching the videotapes of his childhood and noticing the dates displayed on the bottom of the screen, he was able to reconcile the idea of his maturation over time. He was the same boy, just older and bigger now.
Like many children with autism, Alex has had a great deal of trouble with the pronouns you and I or me. I’ve never been certain as to whether this difficulty is a language issue or a perception issue about who he is and his point of view. For example, if I asked him if he wanted juice, he would reply, “You want juice.” Even more confusing would be situations where he would approach us and say something like, “You made a mistake.” Then our conversation would be reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s comedy routine “Who’s on First?” that Raymond Babbitt repeated throughout the movie Rain Man. We’d ask Alex for clarification by saying, “Who? Alex or Mommy or Daddy?” The majority of the time “you” meant Alex, but we had to be sure. This led him to another stage we called the “Bob Dole Syndrome” after the U.S. senator who frequently referred to himself in third person as “Bob Dole” when he was running for President. To make certain he was understood, for instance, Alex would tell us, “Alex wants cookies.” While this method was more efficient for making himself clear, his speech sounded rather stilted by using his name instead of “I” or “me.” Interestingly, he could easily use “I” in situations where he felt strong emotions, such as, “I hate popcorn!” or “I like shrimp!” Perhaps when he expresses his feelings, Alex comes closest to knowing who he is, and his language reflects this clarity. As he does with most things in life, Alex needs time to observe, listen, and study so that he can understand the world and his place in it. By figuring out who he is through his reflected images and his language, Alex gains confidence in himself, allowing him to interact more easily with others and to overcome the social skill issues autism presents.
“Praise the Lord, I tell myself, and never forget the good things He does for me.” Psalm 103:2